This morning I went out to take pictures of my freshly painted house. It's YELLOW. Definitely a house to get your attention. That led me to thinking about how I get the attention of listeners.
I know storytellers who are in-your-face performers. They reach out to grab the listeners by the metaphorical collar, hauling them in to the story. As an introvert, I prefer a more subtle approach, inviting the audience gently into the world in my head. In the best instances, I'm physically and emotionally centered before I begin. I arrive at the venue early enough so nobody feels rushed or anxious. For libraries, this is about half an hour, for schools about twenty minutes. I set myself up in the physical space, with my water. I have a lozenge handy in case I get a tickle in my throat. I'm ready and anticipating a good show by the time the audience arrives.
How I get the attention depends on the group. With preschoolers and younger kids, I start by being Pied Piper, playing familiar tunes on my harmonica. With older kids and adults, I chat with those who come in first, as I gauge the energy in the room. No matter what I do, the goal is the same: I want the listeners on my side before I even begin a story.
Often (but not always) I get introduced by a librarian, a teacher, an emcee. Then I begin. Of course I'm telling a story I love, one I expect the audience will also love. I take a breath and look at the audience. It's nice to give a silent blessing to the listeners at this moment. No need to rush. We all want to have a good time. Usually I begin with a word, one that promises so very much: "Once..."
And I'm off. The story rolls out in its own time. I watch the audience as I tell, checking to see that they're with me, shifting cadence or emphasis as necessary. If they look puzzled or lost, I make split-second decisions on how to shift the story. One of the keys to keeping the audience attention is knowing the backstory, all the stuff I don't say about the characters and setting and action. Appropriate pauses build anticipation. This is where practice beforehand helps--recording a story will tell me if I've developed an unnatural rhythm or one that is too predictable or too much "story voice," an artificial tone that detracts from the telling (yup, I still fall into that, even after years of performing).
When I'm telling stories, I'm like a conductor. I bring the energy up and down as needed. I want to leave the audience calm and satisfied with the experience of having been in my world of story.