A Great Storytelling Show….How Does That Happen?

We all want to attend and be a part of great storytelling shows.  No, I’m not talking festivals, but shows that are a part of the community, either on a regular basis (monthly, quarterly) or as a special event or fundraiser.  Creating this type of show is more than just marketing and advertising, it’s

  1.    a) teaching your community about what a storyteller is (not storyreading), and,
  2.    b) having such an excellent program – one that leaves people saying “I Gotta See That Again” – that it opens the doors and minds of your community to see storytelling as a viable art, and, storytellers as artists worth their charge.

Here are some of the things I have learned about creating such a storytelling show.

african garb_Story program

Set up your strongest storytellers in strategic positions.  I always recommend putting your strongest storytellers (most engaging, best story, most experience) as your first story, the person right before an intermission and as the final teller.  Now, almost every storytelling show I have attended puts its strongest person last, but often little thought is given to other positions.  I remember attending an event where the first two storytellers were weak in their storytelling skill and unable to really engage the audience.  Then a more engaging person came on with a short story, followed by a very weak storyteller right before the intermission.  At intermission, 2/3 of the audience left, and never did see the absolutely best storyteller who was slated for last.  There may have been a thought that people would know to wait for this storyteller, but the audience didn’t know the storytellers, and so they left with a bad taste in their mouths.


You want people to immediately be drawn into the program.  Then you want people to come back after the intermission because what they heard last, they can’t get out of their heads.  Of course, you want that final storyteller to be great as well, so folks leave with that last story in their minds and are definitely going to come back.  This may mean hearing the stories ahead of time or knowing your storytellers really, really well.

Keep announcements and introductions brief.  The most important part of a storytelling program to the audience is the storytelling.  With that knowledge, keep everything before the storytelling brief 5 – 6 minutes maximum.  Sometimes you have to tell who all of your sponsors are, but it’s even better when you can point people to a program that has their names.  Yes, people need to know where exits and bathrooms are, but good signage helps.  I do hope you remind people about turning down, and/or off, cell phones, but don’t belabor the point.  Also, reading proclamations and presenting awards before a storytelling program is not the reason most audience members came to the program – save that for after the program or another time and place.

Facts,truth, story

On the same note, keep introductions short.  I have always appreciated the way Katherine Wyndham Tucker liked to be introduced: “Welcome Katherine Wyndham Tucker from Selma, Alabama.”  She even would shoo you off the stage if you went longer than that.  Storytellers want to tell stories; they don’t need a set up from an emcee (unless they request one) and most don’t want a lot of accolades beforehand (let those accolades be made by the audience after they see the performance).

Intermission is not a requirement.  If you have a program that will be about 1.5 – 2 hours, no intermission is needed.  I organized a storytelling program where I had put what I thought was a strong teller at the beginning.  Well, the strong teller changed the type of story I was used to hearing from them, and they were still exploring this new telling format. It was not a strong opening.  The next storyteller I knew was good but not as strong.  They were the first 40 minutes, then an intermission.  Half of our audience left.  Ugh!!!  Later, through surveys, I learned that others thought about leaving, but decided to pain it through, and were absolutely delighted they had waited for the final storyteller who was fantastic.  I know now that had I not had that intermission folks would have stayed and their view of storytelling would have remained strong.  They would be returning audience members.


Videotaping and audio taping will increase your audience numbers.  If you are hosting a storytelling series or want to create an annual or regularly spaced storytelling event, I strongly suggest encouraging people to video and/or audiotape storytelling programs, with storyteller permission, of course.

Marketing should be diverse and early.  Market everywhere in every format: fliers mailed to people, fliers in stores and restaurants, social media (Instagram is the current favorite, but also Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn), postcards to pass out or to mail or post.

2019 Flyer

Finally, pay your storytellers.  Yes, you are giving them an “opportunity” and “exposure”, but really the storytellers paid for gas to get to the venue and even more, they paid in time to be able to present a polished well-crafted story.  Now, I’m not saying that you need to pay them at the rate of a large festival, or even at their usual rate for smaller shows, but payment means you really appreciated what they sacrificed to make your program possible.  I have charged $15 – $20 at the door as a “donation”, or simply as a fee.  Then pay your venue and split the rest between the storytellers.  Remember if you are in the show as well, pay yourself as a storyteller.  As a side note, I am not recommending paying persons for an open mic night or persons whose names are chosen at random at a story slam type event.

I think that wraps up my suggestions.  For an easier way to remember, or a way to not have to pull up this whole blog again when needed, here are the highlights:

  • Set up your strongest storytellers in strategic positions.
  • Keep announcements and introductions brief.
  • Intermission is not a requirement.
  • Videotaping and audiotaping will increase your audience numbers.
  • Marketing should be diverse and early.
  • Pay your storytellers.

I suppose there is one more thing:  Have fun, realize that you are providing a way to inspire, entertain and transform, and keep creating storytelling spaces.  In the words of Ray Hicks, “Tell On!”

Sheila Arnold, Teaching Artist
Mount Vernon Research Fellow
P.O. Box 3694, Hampton, VA  23663
757-725-1398 (home and cell)

Join us for the NABS 37th Annual Festival Conference, in Montgomery, November 6-10.

One comment on “A Great Storytelling Show….How Does That Happen?

  1. Oni Lasana says:

    Thank you Sheila for this timely sharing on your expertise in this area…BAM! this came right on time for Keepers Of The Culture’s 23rd Annual Family Day in October. Even tho we have been at it for some time, as the returning Creative Director I look forward to sharing with our committee.
    Thanks so much for this and keep telling, cause I’m listening;-)
    Sisterly love,

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