In the first part of this interview, two master storytellers, Barbara Ganley and Alan Levine, invite you into their world to share what inspires them, as introverts, to tell stories. Both say that they actually lose themselves in the moment in front of audiences. In this second part, Ganley, director of Community Expressions, LLC, a storytelling-for-change consultancy, and Alan Levine, “top dog” at CogDog It, an educational technology consultancy, share their love of radio, and offer a treasure trove of resources, many of which are free and online, for you to learn more about making stories—in spoken or written form.
NA: How do stories on the written page translate into the spoken word? What should you keep in mind when you’re drafting stories you want to tell?
BG: Radio storytellers like Ira Glass and online resources like transom.org give great advice about the spoken story. As they explain, oral storytelling is about speech, not writing, and rides on its own language. Sure, you have to pay close attention to the characters, the conflict and tension, the so-what and the arc of the story, no matter the medium. But if you were to transcribe a story you told orally, spontaneously, you’d notice shorter clauses and fragments, an active use of strong verbs, sound, and rhythm. You use your voice, not punctuation, to insert pauses and space, energy and emphasis. Listen to yourself tell a story. Listen to yourself read a story aloud. Really listen. Practice with a partner who will give you honest feedback. Learn from the greats. Play. Practice. Play some more. And then let your oral storyteller self-teach your writing storyteller a thing or two.
AL: I’m glad you mentioned Ira Glass. His teachings on storytelling through the radio are key resources in the ds106 Daily Create, the open digital storytelling class I have participated in and taught since 2011. They broaden what we think of storytelling from a single voice on stage. Radio shows such as This American Life, RadioLab, and The Truth demonstrate the power of audio storytelling in multiple voices and the use of music plus ambient sound to create a sense of place and/or time.
NA: Who is one of your favorite storytellers, and why?
AL: I am a huge fan of NPR radio shows such as This American Life and Prairie Home Companion, both having solid foundations in good writing and a powerful use of audio. And I have much respect for my former colleagues at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix who developed the Storytelling Institute to help faculty weave techniques of storytelling across the curriculum. Each October, institute co-founder, Liz Warren, and other Arizona storytellers visit the small nearby town of Pine, Arizona, for an annual storytelling festival.
BG: I have lived most of my life in rural New England, a place where stories weave themselves into every stone wall, every crumbling barn, every arrowhead-studded riverbank. When I was a kid, my dad and I haunted the flea markets of coastal Maine ostensibly to sift through the flotsam of local history, but really, to listen to the language, the lives, the lessons shared through stories swapped during those marvelous mornings. The stories were shaped and framed, held suspense and conflict; the tellers used their voices and faces and arms to bring us in and hold us there. I learned that great storytellers are everywhere: at every gas station, fishing pier, farmers’ market, grocery store, post office, and barber shop, practicing their art and sharing their wisdom.
NA: What got you interested in storytelling?
BG: Being an introvert had a lot to do with it. As a very young child I had an imaginary friend to whom I told fantastical stories, and sometimes I tried those stories out on not-so-imaginary people to interesting effect. I began writing little plays with a friend to perform for our families, and then later, in a high-school creative writing class, I wrote a fictional short story that got me in trouble with my parents. My teacher, thinking it was a true story, told my father how sad she was that my grandmother had drowned—which, of course, she hadn’t. From that moment I felt, I knew what stories could do, both for the good and the bad. I was hooked.
AL: I give credit to a person ironically named Naomi Story, who was my director when I started working in educational technology at the Maricopa Community Colleges in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1996, she suggested I go to a digital storytelling conference in Kauai—that was hard to refuse—which was an effort to bring together practitioners from the movie industry and education to explore what was a new concept. I had the fortune to meet and see a performance by Dana Atchley, who to me was one of the true pioneers in the digital storytelling movement. This framed much of my thinking about how we can express stories through media.
NA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
BG: Storytelling is made for introverts—we can join the conversation, slip into the circle, present our work with very little pain when we use stories. The hardest thing about telling a story is obsessing over how scary it is to tell a story. Start small. Tell a story about something on your keychain, say. Tell it to your dog. Your cat. Your kid. Someone at work. Try it out. Fail. Try it out again. Record yourself, cringe at the sound of your voice, and get over it. Feel the magic as you hit your stride. Take a workshop. Take to the stage. Great storytelling is hard work, but hard work with huge rewards. So roll up your sleeves and get story-ing.
AL: I invite readers to participate in the open course on digital storytelling called ds106 that I mentioned earlier. Since 2011 this has been taught as an open, online course originating at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. As an experiment, in September we’ll be offering it as a “headless” course—without any designated instructors.
Here are some digital storytelling resources I’ve created:
- Five Card Flickr Stories – Create stories from photos.
- Pechaflickr – Practice improv with random photos.
NA: Excellent, Alan. Thank you both for all this great food for thought about storytelling.
- Randy Olson, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style
- Bryan Alexander, The New Digital Storytelling
- “Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories”
- “Future of StoryTelling: Paul Zak”
- Scott Russell Sanders, “The Most Human Art: Ten Reasons Why We’ll Always Need a Good Story”
NA: Thanks to both of you! That prompts a tip that some introverts will find useful: Balance the time you spend researching how to become a great storyteller with actually getting out there and telling stories.