My Promise to You

About a year ago, a man in one of my workshops asked, “Why am I here? I don’t want to stand on stages and tell stories. I don’t want to compete in story slams. I’m not an entertainer. I don’t get it.”

It was a good question, particularly because the man in question hadn’t chosen my workshop. His wife had asked him to attend.

He wasn’t the first person to attend a workshop for this reason. “My wife told me to take your workshop” is a surprisingly common reason given by men sitting before me in workshops.

Perhaps you’re asking the same question. If you have no desire to stand on a stage and bare your soul, why learn to find and tell great stories?

Not that long ago, I was asking the same question. Two years into my storytelling career, Elysha and I founded that Hartford-based storytelling organization that I’d once talked about with friends. We call it Speak Up. Together we produce shows throughout New England to sellout audiences numbering as high as five hundred people.

About a year into Speak Up’s existence, I started teaching storytelling too. But as with my journey to becoming a storyteller, my career as a teacher of storytelling began against my will. As our Speak Up audience grew and people wanted to learn to tell stories, they began asking me to teach them the craft.

I balked. I had no interest. But they were persistent. Many wanted to take a stage and tell a story. Others saw storytelling as a potential asset in their careers as attorneys, professors, salespeople, or therapists. Still others thought storytelling might help them to make friends and improve their relationships. Buckling under the weight of their pressure, I announced that I would teach one storytelling workshop.

One and done.

Ten people spent six evenings with me in a conference room at the local library. I taught them everything I knew about storytelling. I told stories and explained my process for crafting them. I listened to their stories and offered feedback.

As with storytelling itself, I quickly realized how much I enjoyed teaching the craft. Deconstructing the elements of a good story. Building a curriculum around what I knew and was still learning. Listening to stories and helping to find ways to shape them better. Turning my students into the kinds of people who can light up a room with a great story.

My “one and done” workshop has grown into something I do regularly and with zeal today. I travel the world teaching the art and craft of storytelling.

The people I teach are varied and diverse. I teach performers and would-be performers who want to become better storytellers. Some have never taken the stage before, and others are grizzled veterans looking to improve their skills. Many of these former students have gone on to take the stage at The Moth, Speak Up, and other storytelling shows. In August of 2016, one of my students beat me in a Moth GrandSLAM competition for the first time. I finished second, and she finished first. Perhaps I taught her a little too well.

I teach attorneys, salespeople, and business leaders who want to improve their presentation skills, sales pitches, and branding.

I teach novelists, essayists, screenwriters, television writers, poets, archivists, and other creative sorts who want to refine their understanding of story.

I teach professors, schoolteachers, ministers, priests, and rabbis who want to improve their lectures and sermons and hold the attention of their audiences.

I teach storytelling to people who want to improve their dating skills. I teach people who want to be more interesting at the dinner table. I teach grandfathers who want their grandchildren to finally listen to them. I teach students who want to tell better stories on their college applications. I teach job applicants who are looking to improve their interview skills. I teach people who want to learn more about themselves. 

People have quit therapy and opted to participate in my storytelling workshops instead. While I don’t endorse this decision, it’s apparently working for them. Wives send their befuddled husbands to my workshops, hoping that storytelling will spark something inside them. Later they tell me how their husbands have opened up like never before. One woman told me that her husband has opened up “a little too much.”

People take my workshops again and again to discover more about themselves and find ways to connect with other people through their own personal narratives. A married couple once spent their anniversary attending one of my all-day workshops because they knew it would be a chance to laugh together and learn about each other. They brought champagne.

I teach the children of Holocaust survivors who want to preserve the stories of their parents and grandparents. I teach psychiatrists and psychologists who want to help their patients reframe their lives through story. I teach politicians, labor organizers, health-care advocates, and educational reformers who need to change hearts and minds.

I promise that whatever you do, storytelling will help. While I am often standing on a stage and performing, there are few things I do in life that aren’t aided by my ability to tell a story. Whether I’m teaching the metric system to my fifth graders, pitching Speak Up to a new venue, selling my DJ services to a prospective client, or making small talk at a professional development seminar, storytelling helps me achieve my goals. Storytelling makes me a better dinner companion. It compensates for my inability to hit a golf ball accurately. It makes me far more palatable to my in-laws.

No matter who you are or what you do, storytelling can help you achieve your goals. That is why that man was sitting in my workshop that day.

There’s no codified curriculum when it comes to storytelling. No universally accepted laws or rules, no canonical absolutes. Storytelling is more art than science. It’s an ancient form of communication and entertainment that has been practiced since humans first developed language, but the rise in the popularity of personal storytelling is relatively new. There are no official schools of thought. No hard-and-fast formulas.

But I tell my students this: If you apply my strategies and methods to the craft, you will become a highly successful storyteller. Not every storyteller agrees with my strategies, but every student who has followed my instruction has become an effective, entertaining, successful storyteller.

My instruction works. You too can be a great storyteller. It’s time to learn how.

Find out about storytelling programs with Matthew Dicks at Kripalu.

Listen to Matthew and Elysha Dicks’ Speak Up Storytelling podcast. 

Excerpted from Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling. © 2018 by Matthew Dicks. Printed with permission from New World Library.

Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher, best-selling author, and cofounder of Speak Up, a storytelling organization that produces shows throughout New England.

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