What I mean by "Storytelling"

I've noticed that there are two common definitions of "storytelling" floating around. The most common one is "the way you tell a story." In other words, it's all about the teller and the tale. There are scads of books about plot construction, screenplay writing, and other ways of telling stories. They cover every possible medium. So when people come to my storytelling workshops, they often expect to learn about story and how to perform. And I do indeed teach some of that. But it's incidental to my main point, which is the second definition of storytelling.

As I use it, storytelling means a complex interplay and dynamic exchange between three elements, each of them vibrant and changing moment by moment.


  • the tale
  • the teller
  • the audience

You can this of this as a triangle:


The best way to visualize this is as a dynamic triangle(1). There are three interrelationships happening in any dynamic storytelling exchange: the teller and the audience, the tale and the audience, and the teller and the tale. Each of these connections is in motion.

For example, a great storyteller brings a story to life anew with each telling. This means the tale is similar each time but never precisely the same. A great audience laughs, gasps, applauds, boos, hisses, or simply radiates attitude in ways that impact the live teller in the moment, which in turn instigates a minor change or adjustment to the tale. A great story is adaptable enough that it can be deeply meaningful to many tellers and audiences, and survives the test of time through retelling.

A great storytelling experience is one that brings these three elements into contact such that the moment is profound and irreproducible. A recorded or written story can have this effect too, but that means the audience is probably bringing a strong interest in the story (or genre, or topic) already, and has some way of responding (comments, likes, etc.).

Storytelling also involves earning (and keeping) the trust of the audience. At some point I'll make a full post on what storytelling is not, but in short: storytelling is not comedy (who trusts comedians??) and storytelling is not acting because we trust that the words spoken are the teller's own. Even if some of them are memorized, the teller knows the story by heart and can bring it to life with the kind of passion, urgency, and intensity that lets the audience know this story is for them.

Great tellers show the audience that the story is being told just for them. They demonstrate that they want this audience to know this story. In a world of digitally available stories, maybe it's so easy to forget about the audience because so often we are the audience and we are losing ourselves in a world of story. A good teller never forgets the audience. An exceptional teller knows that the story is only meaningful if both teller and story connect with the audience.

(1) Hat tip to Betsy Hearne, who taught this to me first, and to Doug Lipman here, who shares similar ideas in his book Improving Your Storytelling.

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