Professional Storyteller

Share a Story - Change the World

One perennial decision a coach must make is how much to serve as a midwife for the storyteller's creativity, on the one hand, and how much to serve as a supplement to the storyteller's creativity, on the other.

Traditionally, coaching and critiqueing in the arts emphasize the "supplement" approach, focussing on adding ideas, observations, and evaluation to what the storyteller offers. In reaction, many of us emphasize the root of "educate," which means to "draw out."

Either extreme, taken to excess, can be less than optimal. What experiences have you had, either as a coach or as one coached, of being aided by either approach? Of being hindered by it?

Tags: coaching, storytelling, support

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You are right, Doug; there must be a fine balance between "drawing out" and "adding in". In the storytelling world I work in (mostly overseas with highly oral peoples in Third or Emerging World countries), both accuracy and creativity must-go-hand in hand. A little encouragement goes a long long way, while gentle guidance and correction is deeply appreciated, especially if it is obvious the the counsel will contibute to imporvement and being a better storyteller.

Thanks for opening this wonderful group. I look forward to learning a lot from it!

Best wishes. STEVE
Steve, thanks! Would you consider telling us more about your work coaching the people overseas you mentioned? I bet you have rich experiences that would broaden our perspectives!

The best coaching I've had is when the coach was focused on understanding my artistic style, and worked to bring that out in ways that supported my creativity and personal power.

The worst coaching experience I've had was when I was working on a new and as yet unformed story. The coach immediately went into critical feedback mode (read criticism) and focused on trying to work my story into his delivery style. Even worse, the coach let the others in the class (novice storytellers who were unqualified to give story development feedback) add their two cents in. Everyone's conclusion: "This is an unformed story." Duh! The whole disempowering experience was a disaster because I didn't get the kind of help I needed.

As a coach, my best experiences are when I support my client's personal power, and find ways to support their natural talents. I feel my goal is to teach people how to fix their stories on the spot through deep listening, and educating them about a variety of techniques they can use. After all, I won't be on the stage with them and my goal is to make them independent instead of dependent on me.

As a coach, it takes a lot of work and training to know how to give suggestions in ways that allow people to improve their craft while not robbing them of their power. Tricky tricky work, and a phenomenal experience for both the person being coached and the coach when it happens.
Thanks, Karen! Well said!

As a teller, I have noticed myself sometimes accepting critical feedback on "baby stories" when I knew all along I only wanted appreciative feedback. What's your take on the responsibility of the one being coached in such situations, as compared and contrasted with the responsibility of the coach?

Years ago, a friend showed me a page of "jokelore," purporting to be a serious discussion of a newly categorized psychological diagnosis, MAS ("Male Answer Syndrome"). The idea was that men often feel we have to have an answer to every question and are therefore tempted to offer one no matter how little real information we may have.

As someone afflicted with MAS (a "recovering" sufferer?) I find that I need to remind myself again and again of what you said so well: my job can be to help the teller realize that they don't need a new key from me.

By the way, MAS is not limited to males. And the population of certain professions, including teaching and coaching, seem to have a higher-than-average incidence of the syndrome.

Maybe we need a gentle way to remind each other of the "guide" role that you evoke so clearly?
As wonderful a teller and coach as you are, Doug, your job is NOT to create more "little Doug Lipmans," but to help create/enable/facilitate more new, growing, sensitive, discerning, confident, independent, powerful and masterful storytellers, who will joyfully tell anyone who will listen, "Doug led me - enabled me - to discover who 'I am' as a teller, and to begin to understand all that I have to offer."

I know you know that.

And I think that's what all the best coaches strive for. Period. End of Story (as it were)....


Well said!

That "create little people just like me" thing never seems to work out in any field!

But I can tell you that it's not easy to help people both 1) learn from what I know and 2) think clearly for themselves.

Achieving that ideal is like walking on a fence. Some people stay balanced, but almost everyone, at some time or another, falls off to one side or the other!
I'm really interested in this thread, as a novice storyteller.

From a beginners point of view, what I need in my journey, is someone who is willing to listen - to my young unfolding story, to encourage - my creativity, to water the flower of excitement that sits within me, to guide me in ways which are actively helpful to my storytelling experience and that of my listeners.

As a novice, self expression is a new experience, being "out there" in front of an audience is exposing, I feel naked in my newness and look for positive and creative feedback - and if sometimes that is a little challenging, then so be it. We are all human after all!


Many years ago a friend of mine took a week long writing seminar. He was (and still is) a brillant man and a good writer. He had written several short pieces and had just finished the rough draft of his first novel. He was ready to take the next step. So he applied himself, worked hard, and got lots of "coaching".

The end result?

He didn't pick up his pen again for 10 years. ...... That was bad coaching.

As I read this thread the images of a "journey", "walking", going through "a door" moved me to the conclusion that good coaching moves both the teller and the coach forward. If after the session, the teller leaves with a desire to tell more, try more, and share more, then I'd call that good coaching. And that excitement comes when we expand within ourselves.

One more thought. The way a coach feels at the end of a session (depleted, numb, exhilerated) may often indicate the sucess of the session. (I learned much from my teacher, but much more from my students.) RW
Thanks, Rivka. I agree that the coachee's excitement and readiness to continue is the best immediate indicator of the usefulness of the coaching session. The best long-term indicator, of course, is that the coachee goes on to use and improve the story.

As you note, the worst long-term effect is that the coachee quits telling the story or - worst of all - quits telling (or writing, etc.) at all.

As Thomas Hart Benson (among other artists) has said, "The only way an artist can fail is to quit." The correllary of that is that the only non-recoverable error of a coach is to discourage a coachee to the point where the coachee quits!
In knowledge management theory a distinction is made between 'explicit' and 'tacit' knowledge. Explicit knowledge is 'in the head': it is cognitive, systematized, and capable of being transferred through writing and speech. Tacit knowledge is 'in the body', it develops at a pre-cognitive level through sensing and practice, and cannot be conveyed solely by means of verbal explanations. Tacit knowledge is related to the phenomenon of 'muscle memory'. You can't learn to successfully ride a bicycle by reading a book on the subject. A coach/mentor can help you learn to pay attention to the signals that help you stay upright and moving in the desired direction, but until your body absorbs the proper coordinating rhythm and learns to make the necessary moment-by-moment adjustments, you've going to fall down a lot.

I had a frustrating experience in my development as a storyteller while working with a coach who was exquisitely attuned to her own set of internal signals, but unable to clearly articulate her tacit knowledge. She tried to help me learn the storytelling craft that informs her own undeniable power as a master storyteller. Although I learned a great many valuable things from her, eventually I stopped seeking her coaching. She would get really angry whenever I interjected ironic comments or anachronistic references into my practice stories. Evidently she thought I was undermining the story or violating a compact with the audience by introducing these meta-observations in my telling. But she was unable to fully articulate the basis for her objection - it was just presented as an impatient insistence that I was telling all wrong whenever I did that. Yet in performance with live audiences I use that approach whenever it seems creatively appropriate -- and people eat it up. In fact I've twice had audience members come up after a show for the express purpose of telling me how much the little humorous asides and off-beat references enhanced their enjoyment of my stories. That's just the way I think and speak -- it doesn't make any sense to me to withhold that part of myself when I'm trying to establish contact with an audience. Whatever tacit rule my coach felt I was breaking, she couldn't state it explicitly enough for me to learn or use successfully in creating my own storytelling style. I dunno, maybe she simply doesn't enjoy that style of storytelling. But I can only learn to become me, not her.

Adding in and drawing out both work as coaching methods. An effective coach develops the capacity to analyze and convey one's own tacit knowledge to assist the learner. Coaching can 'show' as readily as 'tell': a nice Zen whack upside the head at the critical moment concentrates the attention wonderfully. The key is to enable the learner to recognize and respond to the myriad subtle cues that tell you in the moment what is working and what isn't. All the rest is practice.
I love the idea about the coach needing to articulate what may be tacit knowledge!

As a coach, I think of it this way:

1. I have a reaction to something the teller did.
2. I need to turn that reaction into something useful for the teller.
3. I have multiple options for how to transform that reaction to make it useful.

Sometimes, I can jump immediately from noticing my reaction to saying something helpful (in the form of a positive suggestion, a question, or a statement of my own experience as a listener). If not, then I need to work further before saying anything.

How to I "work further"? Sometimes, it helps for me to say to myself, "What is my reaction exactly?" Or "How could I imagine making this better?" It's not that I would usually share my internal answers with the person I'm coaching. Rather, my answers sometimes give me more insight into what I think you'd call my tacit knowledge - and how it relates to the needs of the teller.

For example, suppose I my general reaction was, "Boy, that ending leaves me unsatisfied." Then I might answer my question about the specifics of my reaction by thinking, "Well, I was expecting a resolution of the narrator's dilemma about completing her college education."

In that case, I'd be able to ask the teller some questions about the teller's goals for the story and the role of the college education dilemma - and then learn, in the process, what the teller really intended. Maybe the college education dilemma WAS, in fact, the key issue and needed to come to the fore at the end. Or maybe it was just a sidetrack and needed to be made smaller or eliminated, as part of putting the emphasis where the teller intended.

Or suppose I couldn't answer "What was my reaction exactly," but could answer "How could I imagine making this better?" with "I'd bring back the image from earlier in the story about the fantasy of being a college graduate - but with a twist to show that the goal was met." Then I'd ask myself, "What assumption have I made that would make my idea be an appropriate ending?" If my answer to was "I'm assuming that the college education is the key issue of the story," then I'd proceed to ask questions about the key issue of the story and the role of the college education issue in it. This leads to a result similar to that of the first question, but gets there through a different route. In other words, this is a slightly different way to notice my "tacit knowledge" and then compare it with the intentions of the teller.

Why be so thorough in tracking down my reactions and their relationship to the teller's intentions? Because my job is to help the teller achieve her or his intentions. My "tacit" reactions are more about me than about the teller. But they may be helpful clues to what is off or needs to be improved - if I can follow them back to the teller's intentions and then use them as rough guides for questioning and possibly for suggestions based on the results of my questions.

Maybe we need to add a second dimension to your idea of "tacit" vs. "explicit" knowledge? I need to make my tacit knowlege explicit enough to communicate it to the teller, or at least to know what questions to ask to move things forward. But equally, perhaps I need to distinguish whether my tacit knowledge is about what I would do with a story or whether it's what actually makes sense for the teller to do?

Back to the example of your frustrating experience being coached: If your coach could have distinguished between her goals and your goals, she might have been able to notice that your asides were helping you achieve your goals - even though they would be destructive to her goals as a teller.

To me, this seems similar to problems that arise commonly in cross-cultural interactions. In the absence of understanding that we have different assumptions and tacit rules, we tend to interpret a behavior in the light of our own assumptions and rules. Thus, the Anglo-American takes the African-American's averted eyes as a sign of fear or lack of confidence (rather than respect). Or the African-American takes the Anglo-American's prolonged eye contact as a challenge (rather than an attempt to connect).

If I had to guess, in fact, I'd say that most unhelpful coaching comes from this issue of "point of view" - of the nearly universal human tendency to assume that other people operate from the same assumptions that I do.

Maybe what the coach needs to make explicit is not knowledge, but assumptions, goals and point of view? And maybe it isn't always important to make those assumptions explicit to the teller, but only to help the teller make her assumptions and goals explicit? Perhaps, once they are explicit, the coach can profitably use tacit as well as explicit knowledge in their pursuit.




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