CuentaCuentos: Explaining Adventures and My Top Ten Tips for Storytelling

Last week, I was thrilled to be a part of Panama City’s first bilingual storytelling event, CuentaCuentos. Modelled on live storytelling nights like the Moth, this event featured true stories told live by writers, performers, and in fact anyone who wanted to stand behind a mic in front of a room full of strangers and open up to them. Who would do such a thing? Well, me.

I jumped at the chance to be involved in this project when its organizer, the wonderful Eva Schoof, first proposed it to me. There’s currently a huge cultural surge happening in Panama City; grassroots festivals, art events, fitness days and food and drink expos are marking their places on the calendar next to Panama’s more traditional celebrations such as Carnavales and the dozens of public holidays that are enjoyed throughout the country, and I was puppy-like with excitement to hear that a storytelling event might be next, having thoroughly enjoyed such nights in Toronto and the UK. I was even happier to hear that both English and Spanish-language tales would be told, as there can sometimes be a cavernous divide between the English-speaking expat community and the Spanish-speaking rest of Panama City. Not only would this event be open to speakers of both languages, the coming together of a diverse range of people to share their experiences would facilitate the assimilation of all Panama City’s cultures and people­–something that’s always welcomed, in my mind. The fact that the event featured Panamanians, Zonians (Americans born in the Canal Zone during its American rule) and Brits and was hosted by a German, shows all the glorious colours of this melting pot of a city.

However, I had another, more personal reason for wanting to be involved–or rather, for not wanting to be involved. Despite having a mouth the size of the San Andreas Fault and being difficult to shut up at the best of times, I’ve always counted public speaking among the things that I’m just not good at. I mumbled my way through a Louis de Bernières passage at my brother’s wedding a few years ago, but that’s about the only time I’ve voluntarily stood in front of a group of people to read anything since I did so in my school assembly in my teens and promptly passed out in front of hundreds of other kids. This event scarred me a little, and has meant that the idea of having people’s formal attention on me in any real way has brought me out in a cold sweat since then.

As I get older, though, more and more opportunities are marred by my unwillingness for public speaking. I knew that my days of being able to hide away from it were numbered; the further you get into your writing career, the more necessary it is. And so, when Eva suggested it, I jumped at the idea before my brain could stop me, and then spent the next few weeks sweating my way through improv workshops and story discussions, knowing that the big day was on the horizon.

Finally, the day arrived. As Pedro’s story came to a close, I knew I was next. I was nervous (a single swig of rum helped a little), but I got up, took a deep breath, and I did it. And that was it. As is so often the case with fears that have grown over time, conquering them is actually a lot easier than you imagine. Jumping into cold water is the hardest part; once you’re in there, you find that it’s not so cold after all.

People laughed in all the right places, I remembered all my mental cues, and–most thrillingly of all for a writer–people came up to me after the event repeating lines that I’d written, meaning that I was floating around on cloud nine for the rest of the night and much of the next day. It was a joy, and I’ll be signing up for another round in the future as soon as they’ll have me back!

A huge part of the success of this night was thanks to Eva, who took the time to send great resources to all the storytellers as well as hosting several workshops / practice days where she taught us basic improv techniques and encouraged us to share our stories and get feedback on them. These helped me immensely, and I was able to also reflect on my writing techniques and how these would transfer over to live storytelling. I wrote the story out and found that it was about 1000 words over time, and though it wasn’t easy, cutting 1000 words out of the final idea allowed my story to be tight and not over-long. It was a steep learning curve, but I just about made it to the top.

Preparing for this event really brought some things home to me about storytelling in general. Though we were encouraged to write our stories out beforehand, no notes were allowed during the event, and instead we had to employ writing techniques to ensure that our stories flowed well. All the workshops, feedback sessions and research meant that a few top ideas for storytelling became very clear to me–so here they are.

Top Ten Storytelling Tips

  1. Make your story circular. Posit something at the beginning that you can revisit at the end, to bring your story to a satisfying conclusion and make the listener feel like they’ve learned something about you.
  2. Set yourself landmarks; sentences of your story that you will memorize, regardless of everything else. Memorize what order these come in. This will come in handy if you panic and forget a section, as you can just skip onto the next marker and go from there.
  3. Don’t be afraid of punchlines. Even the most emotional story will benefit from a strategically-placed chuckle, even if it is to cut through the tension that you’ve created. These will also help to frame your story.
  4. Don’t be afraid of being honest. If you were afraid, say that you were afraid. If you did something stupid, say that you did something stupid. Being open and honest will allow your listeners to relate to you; we’re all human!
  5. Pause. When we’re panicked, or even when we’re chilled, we tend to talk a little too quickly. Pauses help punctuate your story; they allow your audience to react, and to reflect on what you’ve just said. A pause will make your audience laugh longer after a joke, and gasp more after a shocking fact.
  6. Use your body language. We’ve all heard that only .0004% (or whatever it is) of communication is verbal. Use this fact to your advantage. Use your facial expressions, your body, and even small, subtle movements to get across what you’re saying.
  7. Read the crowd. Make alterations to your delivery and the things that you focus on throughout the story to mirror your audience. There will be an energy in the room. Read that energy.
  8. Don’t be afraid to take one or two steps away from the story. A little tangental narrative or an aside can be a great addition if you think your audience is reacting particularly well to one part of your story. Don’t go further than one or two steps from your main narrative, though. This can send you off course, and it can be difficult to get back.
  9. Always keep your central message in the back of your mind, no matter where your story goes. Getting way too into your story and forgetting how to wrap it up can be a terrible misstep, so always have your parting message ready to pounce.
  10. Practice beforehand. I found that the single most helpful thing I did was to practice with my roommates the night before the event. My fellow storyteller James and I both told our stories to our roommates three times. Each one was wildly better than the last, and it not only helped our confidence, but it also helped us to make necessary changes according to the feedback we received. Don’t kill yourself by going over your story too much, but practice 5 times. You’ll be thankful you did.

Honorary number 11 is this: Enjoy yourself! It’s most likely that a couple of friends or family will be in the audience, so if you’re incredibly nervous, focus on them. You’ll no doubt feel yourself settle into your story, and then make eye contact with others too. By the end of your story, you’ll be walking on air. And treat yourself to a cocktail or a beer. You deserve it!

If you want to keep informed of the next CuentaCuentos event in Panama City, you can find the Facebook page right here!

CuentaCuentos logo design by Danielle Fabrega. Thanks, Danielle and Eva!