Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Getting the audience's attention

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. 


Alli Sinclair said...

This is so interesting! Especially about the backstory. As a writer, I find I need to have a thorough understanding of my character's backgrounds and experiences in order to write the actual story. LIke you, I don't use that information, but it's very helpful to have in your head. BTW, I LOVE the colour of your house. Lovely!

Marni Gillard said...

I just like hearing your voice Priscilla, as you share these tidbits of pre-perf-prep. I can see you Pied-harmonicing or just being your kid-like self as listeners wander in and check you out. Thanks for the smile in this new year - and that HOUSE! Wow. That would make me smile each time I walked/drove by too.

PriscillaHowe said...

The backstory is what transforms a cardboard character into a real person, I think.

Glad everybody seems to like the house so far. My friend Sarah just gave me the orange and yellow chair on the front porch--perfect with the yellow house.

And Marni, I'm going to see you at Sharing the Fire in March! Yay!

Sheila said...

Really good post, Priscilla. I do some of the same things in getting the attention, although I tend to be more "out there." I am enjoying doing hand clapping games with children before programming - so much fun.

Thanks for also sharing about the "story voice." I constantly have to remind myself to stop it. Glad someone else can relate. Peace and keep telling.

Deb said...

What an excellent post -- your work really is about dealing with the flow of energy in the room. Interesting, too, to read that some storytellers recognize 'story voice', and work to make a telling more natural than that. (I have noticed that poets often read with 'poetry voice', which sounds so mannered to my untutored ear).

Deb said...

Oh -- and the color of your house is wild! And excellent. No way to miss it if your directions include that it's the yellow house on the street....It looks great.

Mary Grace Ketner said...

So true for me, about the "story voice," too, Priscilla. It sneaks up on me; suddenly, startlingly, there it is! Where did THAT come from??

I love the yellow house! I recently painted my kitchen yellow, and it makes me smile every time I go in there! (I need to smile when I go into the kitchen!)

ssstoryteller said...

so beautifully expressed
but I am an antithesis of yr telling...i do like to grab that metaphorical collar...yet am practicing the more meditative one as well..thank yu for the insight

Robin Bady said...

I too love the bright yellow house! It says "A joyous person lives here."

Wonderful post. I am an extrovert as a storyteller, and still everything you suggest is what I also do.

Except I often arrive 45 minutes to an hour early for any set up or to just be in the space or to check the room, or to make my introductions to the hosts.

I love the "backstory". My approach is usually kinesthetic. I discover the backstory as I tell, and find the relationships between the characters as the story unfolds.


Norbert Floth said...

Wow, you're house is very vibrant! It's definitely attention-grabbing. Anyway, when I'm talking, I make sure that their attention is focused on what I'm talking about and not on something else. :)