October 24, 2009

Guest Opinion: Gregory Leifel on the Storytelling Trance

Storyteller Gregory Leifel of Illinois, has graciously granted permission to post his musings on the "storytelling trance" (Stallings, 1988), a recurring topic of discussion among storytellers. This post first appeared on the Storytell email list, on October 1, 2009.

Let's say you're telling to an audience of 10 people (for simplicity-- you can extrapolate from there). They've come for a relaxing evening of story-listening.

In speculative estimates, say 6 of those people worked during the day out of the home and 3 worked within the home, and 1 was unemployed with no children to care for. Out of those six who worked, 5 had an extremely hard day due to more responsibility on the job due to recent company layoffs. The other 1 owns his business, and has also had to lay folks off, for which he feels terrible, but knows it's healthy for the company and allows the other employees to keep their jobs. Of the 3 that worked at home, 2 stay at home moms and 1 stay at home dad, it was laundry day on top of everything else going on with the kids, and they all arrived at the storytelling event after dropping off the kids at the soccer or dance or music class, and have 60 minutes for themselves before going to pick up the kids. The 1 unemployed person has sent out 200 resumes and has gotten one phone call, but was highly overqualified for the pathetic offer, though it's been months since he's worked so he actually thought about accepting the job--the paper hat he'd have to wear was the only thing preventing him from taking it. Out of the 10, only 5 have health insurance and hope to hold onto it, and the other 5 simply pray a lot, while Congress continues to argue and grandstand. Needless to say, it's been a rough day for all 10 people.

As the Storyteller for the evening, you know none of the above. You just see 10 people in your audience who will (hopefully) be with you for the next 60 minutes while you tell stories.

Each of those 10 people have either a voice or picture in their head (or both) reminding them of not only the things that happened to them today, but what they have to do right after the show and then tomorrow and then in the next few days. 2 have relatives who have medical conditions, and 4 aren't feeling so well about themselves due to recent tragedies within their close circle of friends.

You step out onto the stage, alone. 10 people are looking at you. Perhaps 3 have been to a storytelling event before and are actually ready to have you shut off a portion of their brain because the next 60 minutes are their escape from the laundry-list of worries and responsibilities. The other 7 people thought the evening might help them relax a bit, so they came to this event, with only a slight hope of relaxation, up against their own laundry list of responsibilities and what they will have to do 60 minutes from now.

Your job, as storyteller, for the next 60 minutes is to capture and hold their attention. To find a way FOR THEM to shut off their voices and pictures of responsibility in their heads and allow them to be REPLACED with suggested images from your stories.

Now that you've been privy to what was actually going on with these 10 people as they entered the room, does not the ability to hypnotize or enchant them seem like a tool you need in your storytelling pocket? Especially if we extrapolate and there are 100 people in your audience? 300 people? 500?

Their eager faces look up at you and you say, "Good evening ladies and gentleman."

Perhaps the 3 who've heard storytelling before will allow your prediction that the evening will be good, to stand for the moment. The other 7 may be saying to themselves, "We'll judge for ourselves just how good this evening will be, thank you very much." They all stare at you.

Tough crowd, you think. (And perhaps you, yourself, had a rough day, too--perhaps your own voice and pictures in your head are still voicing and showing what else you have to do before the day is done--or the room is too hot or cold, or the pay was based on attendance.) And you get yourself into storytelling mode by bringing up the first picture in your head of the first story you're going to tell. In order for that picture to take you into the story, you most likely make the picture bigger in your head/mind (you don't consciously do this, it's just what now happens having practiced your story enough). You do so because the bigger and more detailed the picture you have in your head, the easier it is for you to tell the story. You make that picture so big and detailed, the previously bigger laundry list picture that was in your head shrinks and then gets crowded out completely. And when it does, you're ready to tell these 10 people your first story.

In essence, what you've just done in your own head, is hallucinate an illustrated version of your story and made it so real that it dominates your attention, blocking out everything else. After all, this audience deserves your full attention. You know the laundry list picture is still behind the current story picture, but that's perfectly fine because for the next 60 minutes these other pictures are more important. They are highly detailed, with color, dimension, and even sound enhanced, and you feel them affect you. They enable you to concentrate on the story and on the audience, and block out anything else. It is the only way you're going to strongly communicate with these 10 people who've all had one hell of a day.

The process that took place in your head in order for you to get into the story, is what HAS TO TAKE PLACE in the listener. The images and words you're suggesting to them, have to take that tiny space they've allowed in their minds for the next 60 minutes, and quickly allow that space to grow, same as it did in your storytelling mind, where it blocks out the other 95% of space which is filled with their day so far, and with what responsibilities comes after this show. You literally have to help them grow their picture in their mind so that dominates their thoughts.

So the question becomes, HOW do you make that happen? HOW do you get them to do a similar process in their mind that you did in yours so you could concentrate on the story at hand, and not on your hell of a day?

You pace them to it. You suggest things for them to accept. You make your suggestions seductive and interesting, and acceptable. You lead them gently but firmly, and show them a better picture with your words.

When you said, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," you've began pacing them. You suggested it would be a good evening. They may have fought you on that a bit, "We'll see," they may have said in their heads, but you planted the seed of possibility. Now you begin to water it and tend it, and they begin to see it grow and are amazed it sprouts so quickly. They feel the warmth of sunshine in your story on the side of their face and turn in the direction of full warmth because it's comforting. They hear and feel the water absorbing into the roots of the story, and even smell the damp earth of growth. Their previous pictures and nagging responsibility voices fade, move over, become smaller and smaller, fainter, as your suggested images grow in their minds. They perhaps nod in sync to a timed gesture of yours, as you engage them further.

All the while you, as storyteller, know the outcome, the moral, punchline, lesson, or even overall philosophy the story allows them to explore for themselves. They've eliminated the laundry list and are absorbed by your material and voice and movement and silences between these. You've hypnotized or enchanted them into a hallucinatory world where two pictures in their head/mind swapped places and sizes and details, one fading and getting smaller, the other growing with detail, color, size, dimension, depth, and relevancy. Yes, your aim was relevancy, and you got them to accept the suggestion with your words, actions, voice, gestures, eyes, pauses, and a host of natural communication skills, some you've worked on, others which are a part of you.

And then, like all good storytellers, you plant that seed of future suggestion. You give them something to take with them, so they aren't jarred into the laundry-list of responsibility when the 60 mintues are up. You give them hope there's more than the laundry-list. There's time for themselves. There's an ability to make the story picture bigger any time they want. To shrink the laundry list's importance so that there's room for what's more important, life. Life in all its possible suggestions which they can and will accept, for the betterment of themselves. Yes, you tell them, you can be responsible and have fun at the same time. That's a good evening, that's a good life.

That's the power of story. That's your responsibility as storyteller: to give them future suggestions with story, through story, and because of story, that will improve their lives through the further use of their imaginations.

Call it hypnosis. Call it trance. Call it positive hallucination. Call it imagination. Just call their attention to its possibilities.


Gregory Leifel
www.AhhhFinally.com (where Aha Moments in kids find fullfillment)

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