Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Effective Audience Husbandry in Storytelling.

One of the best literary examples I have ever seen about how a speaker effects an audience was written by Isaac Asimov in Robots and Empire.  The scene involves a gorgeous, reclusive one hundred and fifty year old woman from space, a mind reading robot, and settlers on one of the earliest human colonized planets in the universe.  It's a good read.  Now, on to the subject at hand!

  The Audience is yours to command as a storyteller.  Storytelling gives us the power to mold it, shape it, play with it, use it, or consider it part of the furniture, however, if you think of the audience as part of the are neglecting one of the most important parts of your work.  Storytelling, as I like to tell adults in intergenerational audiences, is not a spectator sport.

Many of us deal with young audiences and their antics.  They talk to you, yell at the characters, tell you that you are doing things wrong, demand answers to their questions, and inevitably, if you are at this long enough, some kid will want to know if your stories are 'real' or 'true'.

We also deal with intergenerational audiences.  Grandparents, parents, progeny and random folks from every age and any walk of life can all be in the same audience getting the same stories.  We have to figure out how to talk to all of them.  Mary Morgan Smith has a wonderful rundown on building an intergenerational audience.

There are many ways to approach an audience, and if you jump around on the web, you discover that there are lots and lots of people using storytelling to 'win' an audience.  I tend to believe that you can lose an audience, and you can gain it back, but I'm not certain that as a storyteller you win an audience.  I feel like most of them were won when they showed up, because, let's be honest, folks who come to storytelling typically want to hear stories.  They are already yours.  The few folks who have been dragged there have no idea what they are about to see, and tend to be pleasantly surprised as their expectations were extremely low or nonexistent!  So, I don't think about 'winning' an audience so much as keeping one.  I seem to be in the minority about this, but who knows, maybe us 'keepers' are just not as vocal as the 'winners'.  That doesn't mean you never have to win an audience, its just that for the most part I don't think about it that way.

Winning the war of the audience is something that lots and lots of folks talk about when discussing an audience.  There are methods chronicled all over the web on the best way to win them.  There are also lots of articles about the power of an audience which is, presumably, why it is important to win them.  I've also seen great pieces on how we, as the center of an audience's power can be changed.

Then, we come to the places in our society where people use the word 'storyteller' to mean all sorts of things except person or persons in front of a live audience.  In these scenarios, folks who don't do live performance, but use other mediums besides themselves to tell stories, share the secrets of using social media, print, and video to expand the way people consume their products.  This sort of 'winning the audience' is completely monetary...and there isn't a thing wrong with that!  People who do this kind of 'storytelling' are much more likely to connect with Orson Welles in the below clip.


In the world of marketing and media, storytelling is used as a strategy for holding an audience long enough so that you can sell them something.  Lots and lots of corporate entities employ storytelling as a practice, and they want their sales force, managers, and employees to learn how to tell a good tale.

What makes the live performing storyteller different?

What is it we do with an audience that is different from a comedian, theatre troupe, author, television personality, marketing analyst, or public speaker?  The answer is simple.  The stories we tell are not about distracting an audience.  We are not trying to get them to do anything except sit and listen to the tale.  We are trying to engage and live in whatever truth the audience is living in at that moment.  We meet the audience where they are, and between us, we decide where we are going.

One of my favorite tales to tell to K - 2 and intergenerational audiences is Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears.  My lion has two problems.  He has a bad memory, and he is rude.  I warn the audience about the lion's rudeness because they need to help the lion, but he is going to be less than gracious about the whole thing.  As the lion attempts to sort out the mess that has caused Mother Owl to refuse to call the sun, he gets the order of the problem and the animals who were responsible completely confused.  At some point in the tale, he asks the audience to clarify the order.  He demands to know if the 'crocodile frightened the antelope'.  The audience yells no.  He continues, asking if several other types of animals frightened the antelope.  The audience continues to yell no.  He demands to know who frightened the antelope.  The audience informs him that the antelope isn't even in the story, nobody frightened it, and he is completely wrong.  At which point, the lion demands to know why the audience keeps bringing up the antelope if there isn't one in the story.

The reactions I get as the lion are handled by the lion, and I, the storyteller, don't show up again except to segue between the lion's bouts of ill temper and the narration that sets up the other bits of audience participation.  Like a comedian, I have to be prepared to deal with whatever the audience throws at me. Like an improv group, I need to be able to go with the audience's ideas and incorporate them into the tale.  Like a theatre group, I have to be able to keep track of the tale and produce the prearranged verbiage to move the story forward.  Like a sales person, I have to gauge what is going on with the audience and see if they are 'buying' into the tale, and if they are not, I have to employ the storyteller's toolkit to get them to come along with me.  What is the storyteller's toolkit?  Well, I just jumped around on the web and couldn't find what I am talking about, so apparently that's what I'll be blogging about next week.  (sigh).

As a live performer, the audience juices you.  They make you feel powerful, important, strong, and in control.  Because they give you so much, you, as the storyteller, have responsibilities to the audience.  You have to take them on a journey, and you have to deposit them in a place that allows them to leave you having been on that journey.  You owe them the satisfaction of that trip.

I have written a number of entries about The sorts of material that tends to be successful for me for various audiences.  I've dealt with the K - 2 pre reading skills of visualization, prediction, and scope and sequence.  I've discussed telling to 3 - 5 graders and sixth gradeand the three levels of language employed during storytelling.  All of this information is the place I begin when preparing for a show. Once I stand in front of an audience it is my job to find them wherever they are, and take them wherever they will let me.

Storytellers lead an audience and are led by them.  Whether they buy something from me or not when they leave the show, I hope they are satisfied, and their brains are full to bursting!

Happy Telling!

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