Storytelling – is it a professional tool, art, lifestyle or madness?

Spontaneous invitation, heavy rain, and here I am in a Spider House bar all soaked and shivering from the freezing AC. I doubt I will ever get used to this drop of the temperature from 40°C outdoors to 19°C inside.

Luckily my attention switched from the fans to the stage as something very unusual started happening there. I saw the people coming up and telling their personal life stories. They were speaking in front of the audience about their travels, adventures or were reading diaries from their youth which were a way too intimate.

I felt embarrassed… as if I overheard somebody’s conversation by chance!

“Why do they do it? – I wandered. I looked around and the audience seemed to be very engaged. Apparently I was the only one who felt uncomfortable as if I was taking part in a sort of group therapy.

But the more I listened, the more engaged I became. Some of the performers had obvious talent in writing and speaking.

This is how I found out that storytelling show is a very popular entertainment in the United States. This was a totally new discovery for me. I have never heard of it in Russia, or England; neither in France or Hungary.

Looking to learn more about this activity I was lucky to reach out and meet Carol Ramsey, experienced storyteller and founder of Austin Storytelling Group who answered all my questions.



What is the history of storytelling?

Storytelling has been around forever, everywhere. Any culture and society is based on stories which is especially reflected in folklore. However, this particular format of storytelling when people tell true stories from the stage, was not very common until maybe 15 years ago or so, when the group in Georgia decided to tell stories from the stage and started performances in different cities. Nowadays there is a lot of storytelling shows happening in larger cities, like New York. Austin also offers a lot of new groups, shows, workshops and classes.

How did you become a storyteller?

I was a writer first. To me the writing was more like a personal practice. I wrote for a long time just for myself. Then I wanted to be a better writer and I went to a Toastmasters group where I could speak my writing in front of the group. Having life audience I learned so much!

What were the key learnings?

I learned about how I could be more effective in communicating ideas. I learned how details are not important, how to change the timing so there is more suspense and how to bind emotions throughout the story. Instead of listing the sequence of events I was trying to find why this story is interesting to me and maybe leave out some details, cause this is how we get people to respond. What I learned too is that I really enjoyed to connect to people in person. Even if one person would come after and told me how he liked the story, it was so exciting!

Does it have to be a true story?

There are different performances and people do it differently. For example, in Moth group they write only about true personal stories. Personally I enjoy the true personal writing.

What attracts people in telling personal stories from the stage?

There is some power about sharing a story which is important to you. You learned that other people could learn from you too.

Can everybody do it?

You don’t have to have a degree or experience, it is about the connection and particular performance skills. This does not require to be a professional.

However, some organizations do a selection. There are places where anybody can come up on the stage, while in others you need to do submissions and producers choose the stories.

Can storytellers read or do they have to improvise?

In storytelling there are people who do both. It depends which way they like to do it. I don’t read my stories, I tell them. I used to memorize my stories and that did not do very well. So now I do combination of both: I write out the key emotional centers and then describe it.

How difficult is it to make a first step on the stage?

I used to be very nervous. And few days before the performance I would ask myself “Why do I do this? Why did I sign up? It makes me feel so nervous!”

But then as soon as I get off the stage I think what I could do as a next story. It is addictive. When I tell story and people say “oh I felt it too, I know what you are saying”, this inspires me.

What kind of storytelling organizations exist in Austin?

Organizations have different style. For example, Testify sometimes tend to have more theater people. Austin Writers Roulette has more of a poetry focus and they meet in a smaller circle. Modifier is a big organization which sometimes makes shows in Austin and it is about reading the diary from the childhood/ teenage time. And many others.

Is storytelling your job or hobby?

It’s been my hobby for a long time.  I am a computer scientist and it pays really great compared to storytelling where you make no money at all. I was thinking how to do something in between so that to stay in tech which pays well and keep doing storytelling. So I went back to school. I am now at University of Texas studying computer science education where I get to write a lot and read a lot.

One of the things I’m studying is how storytelling can be used in teaching. I’m collecting true personal narratives in technical context and see if they can help students learn. So this is how I put it together.

How can storytelling be applied in education?

When you are trying to encourage interest in science, whether it is computer science, physics or maths, then true personal stories make students less intimidated.  True stories make it more personal and more understandable. Stories have power to impact more.  For example, when you approach teaching physics and you say how brilliant Einstein was all the time, students would be afraid that it is too hard. But when you share true stories about how he lost his job, and how he was unsuccessful for long period of time or how he was not a very good student, they will be more likely to believe that they could do it.

Or another my favorite is maths story about basketball. It used to be many years ago that basketball did not have 24 seconds kick. And once the team just held the ball for five min, cause they did not want other team to score. So they reviewed the rules, did maths calculation using algebra formulas and arrived to 24 seconds for shooting, otherwise another teams gets the ball. So if you tell this story to young kids who think that algebra is silly and is not useful, you connect it with a true world and that works.

Is storytelling widely used by teachers and professors in the U.S.?

It is not very common but individual teachers implement it now. It doesn’t have really an established place; it is a new area of study. The research which is coming out is based on just last few years.

Can storytelling be used in professional world?

Yes, particularly in marketing world. If you tell personal stories they would be more effective and influential.

It could also be used in programming. The hardest part of the project is not writing individual parts of the code, but it is about figuring out which lines of code you are actually supposed to write because it depends on the client, business context, industry and many other things. It has been a problem for a long time that the code gets thrown away because by the time you get further along in a product cycle and by the time the release happens it can be not really the right thing anymore.  And I think you could learn more about that product context in computer science outside of the code from the stories people tell, i.e. how they ended up being great, what they learned or how do they recognize that software is not going to be a fit.

This conversation made me realize that storytelling is indeed all around! I used it in my marketing job, I do it everyday when talking to my friends, even this blog is a sort of storytelling. What I saw in Spider House was just another form of it. And a good storytelling is a true art as it requires excellent acting and writing skills. 

I wander if I can ever find a courage to come up on the stage and tell my life stories in front of the unknown audience? If ever do I promise to share this experience with you!

And would YOU be interested to try it?

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