Transitioning from the Written to the Spoken Story

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Over the weekend, Jared (who doesn’t use his last name on his blog), writer of the fascinating and popular blog Moon Over Martinborough, told me about a dilemma he’s having. He recently added a podcast to his blog. Here’s the issue:

I’m aware that these podcasts are more ‘books on tape-ish’ than they are “campfire story-ish.” It’s amazing the way a written text changes things. I’m hoping to be able to shift them more towards the campfire/oral storytelling as I get better, but to do that I almost need to ditch the text. Or improvise a bit while referring to the text.

campfire1.jpg Boy, I can sure relate to this dilemma. Oral presentations rarely sound great when read from written text. I’m not a bad presenter, but I’m neither great at extemporaneous speaking nor telling off-the-cuff stories. I almost always need some sort of written text as a prompt or crutch, even if it’s just a few words or a picture on a slide. (By the way, I don’t think a “books-on-tape” sound is necessarily a bad thing; I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and most readers — many of them actors — do a great job.)

I watched the Golden Globes last night. The best acceptance speeches were those that were obviously planned yet delivered off-the-cuff (Mo’nique, Meryl Streep, Robert Downey Jr.) The worst was the one that was obviously read from a piece of paper. In the middle were those not planned and therefore very stream-of-consciousness and all over the place. Here I’m thinking of Drew Barrymore’s wacky speech. While it was somewhat incomprehensible, it was still endearing because it was real — and very Drew Barrymore.

I think Jared, whose blog is about about his adventures as a an expat American running a New Zealand farm with his partner, is right about ditching the text. My hunch is that the best approach may be write the story just to get it mentally organized and cemented in your brain. But when speaking the story, have — at most — an outline of one-word or short-phrase prompts in front of you. Or is it best not to write the story at all first?

I’d love to hear from oral-performance storytellers about making that transition from, as Jared calls it, “literacy to orality.” What’s the best way to take a written story and speak it so it sounds like a compelling oral story performance?

By the way, I listened to one of Jared’s podcasts, “The Triumph of Evil Cow”, a word-for-word recitation of the written blog entry of the same name, and I thought it was fine. To me, it’s about on par with, for example, spoken stories on This American Life. It’s perhaps a bit long; a listener may be daunted by noting that the story is 9+ minutes. Jared might consider a condensed version of his blog entries for the podcasts. He included a couple of sound effects, such as a crowing rooster, that remind me of sound-rich stories on NPR. He might include a few more of these in the story itself — such as mooing for the evil cow story.


Having read Jared’s Moon Over Martinborough blogs out loud to my husband every Saturday evening (as bedtime stories) from the very first blog, I am now loving that if I choose, I can also listen to his stories being read to me. Because the content of his stories are so clever, adventurous, funny, and yet mindfully touching and often bring me to tears with their beauty, I think to change the story by ditching the text would detract from the message I believe he is often unconsciously passing on. You can probably tell I am a therapist but the thread I hear from him often is to slow down, be grateful for what you have, love what you have and who you have and always be ready to give and receive.

Thanks so much, leelee, for stopping by and commenting.

Given that Jared’s spoken version of his blog entry sounds pretty darned good, you are probably right that not using the text isn’t a good idea in his case. The fact that his text translates well when you read it to your husband reinforces this notion.

For some people, though, oral stories may work better without written text as a foundation. That’s why I’d love to hear from performance storytellers about their techniques for delivering oral stories in a “natural” way. I’m curious about the extent to which they use written text in their preparation.

Thanks again for commenting.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...


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