Beyond Borders Storytelling

Stories for Wanderlusting Adventurers.


Forgetting Your Story
Will Spargur

I walk up on stage, blinded by stage lights, looking over a sea of silhouetted heads. I realize I am not prepared, I can't remember my story and, oh yeah, I'm only wearing underwear. I wake up sweaty and gasping, but it was only a dream.

For new storytellers, however, forgetting what to say next can be a very real fear, and you can't just escape by waking up. They have spent countless hours, days, or weeks working out the perfect story, so many people are understandably terrified that once they get on stage, they'll forget everything. But take heart: All storytellers, even seasoned pros, can face the dreaded blanking out, yet I have a never seen a storyteller forget so completely that they walk off stage. Somehow they work through the moment, but some do it more successfully than others. Here's how to recover like a champ when you forget on stage.

Stories are not lines in a play, a poem or a written 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, or they think it's for dramatic effect. One of my favorite storytellers, Scott Sanders, always takes to the stage with beer in hand. The beer is part prop and part memory aid. I once saw him forget a line, betrayed briefly by his blank stare. But he simply stopped talking and casually took a sip of his beer, which was just enough time to get back on track. Some people keep talking when they forget, trying to fill the void with words, repeating sentences, hoping they'll eventually stumble onto their next line. Instead, they get more nervous, causing them to forget even more. Stop, take a breath, it will come to you.

Scott Sanders
When you forget your next line, take a sip.

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. 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. But sometimes it must be done. 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..

Road Map
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. When I'm practicing, 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 situationor 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 your story, but even with all these tricks you might forget something. I always forget a couple things and so have many storytellers I've worked with. 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 written piece. It's your life, so 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.