Stories for Wanderlusting Adventurers.
In a dream I walk up on stage, blinding lights, looking over a sea of silhouetted heads. I realized I am not prepared, I can’t remember my story and, oh yeah, I am only wearing underwear. We’ve all had that underwear nightmare, some situation in which we feel completely unprepared. For new storytellers this ranks as one of their biggest fears. They have spent hours,days,weeks working out the perfect story but are terrified that once they get on stage, they’ll forget everything. All storytellers, even seasoned pros, will face the dreaded blanking out, yet I have a never seen a storyteller forget so completely that they walk off stage. Somehow or another they all work through, some more successfully than others. Here’s how to be one of the successful ones.
Stories are not lines in a play, a poem or a writ piece. They are your life. Often the best thing to do is pause to let the memory resurface. On stage, what can feel like an eternity to the storyteller is only one or two seconds and the audience barely notices. One of my favorite storytellers, Scott Sanders, always takes to the stage, beer in hand, part prop and part memory aid. I saw him forget a line, he stopped talking and causally took a sip of his beer which was just enough time to get back on track. Some people, when they forget, keep talking trying to fill the void with filler words, repeating lines, hoping they’ll eventually stumble on their next line. What usually happens is they get more nervous causing them to forget even more and the story spirals into a death spin like a plane shot out of the sky. Well, not that bad but I like the metaphor. Bottom line. Stop, take a breath, it will come to you.
If you are having trouble remembering your story maybe, it’s just too long. Yep, I know it sounds self-evident, but it is amazing how many people forget the simple fact that shorter stories are easier to remember. I know, I know, you feel you must give the life histories of all your characters and describe in detail your childhood home etc, etc. But ask yourself, does my story really need those details? If I leave them out will the story still stand? Taking parts out of your story can feel like killing your babies. If you really are having trouble, tell your story to a group of friends. Ask them what they think can be cut. An outside perspective can be key to identifying what is important and what is irrelevant to your particular story.
A great trick to help you remember a story is breaking your story into three to five chapters or guide posts that mark the main events in your story. This is a great exercise to understand the flow of your story and organize your thoughts. I’ll repeat my road map over and over until I can quickly tick off each point easily. If it’s so long that I have trouble remembering it, I edit a little more. When I get up onstage, I take a breath, go over my road map then launch my story. If I am in the middle of my story and I forget I pause and mentally check my road map.
Practice with Friends
Nerves are the poison pill to memory. One of the best antidotes to nerves is exposure therapy. It’s a process of reducing fear and anxiety responses by exposing yourself to the feared situation or object. Gradually you become less sensitive to it. Before every story jam, workshop, or event I am speaking at I’ll make sure I practice a few times in front of a small audience. At work I have been known to go around the office at lunch asking, ‘Do you want to hear my story?’, gathering as many people as I can into a conference room and telling my story. I know it sounds kind of weird, but my co-workers always say yes and seem to enjoy doing it.
Forgetting is no Big Deal
Fear of forgetting should not stop you from telling a story. There are very effective ways to ensure you remember you story but even with all these tricks you will forget something. I always forget a couple things and I’ve worked with many storytellers who have forgot parts of stories they’ve told in practice. But I’ve observed that the audience is never aware of when a storyteller forgets a part of their story. Like I said, a story is not a play, a poem or writ piece. The audience doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be. As long as your story still flows and makes sense in the end they’ll love it.