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The Importance of Storytelling

For Carleen Nagy, the best stories are told around the dinner table.

For Carleen Nagy, the best stories are told around the dinner table.

“When the kids were growing up, we’d always have lively discussions. Our home was always open to our children’s friends, and we never knew how many would be around the table. We’d spend time reminiscing and telling stories about the things we’d done in our lives. It was quality time.”

Though it can be tough for the younger generation to put down the technology, a well-told story can educate, engage, and even inspire the listener. “In today’s world, entertainment is often dumbed down. When we watch a video or movie, technology fills in everything that your imagination could dream up,” says professional storyteller Rabbi Dan Gordon. “When you’re told a story, however, you have the words of the storyteller, but the mind of the listener. It’s up to you to create the pictures for that story.”

Storytelling can also create a better understanding of family history. When Bill Taylor gathers for a large family reunion in Denison, Texas, he brings his genealogy research. “Without the stories, all we have are names on a chart. If we don’t pass along what really happened, that family history dies with us.” Edward “Buster” Bayer’s stories of Old Town Spring have been passed along for several generations. “My dad told me stories about the cattle drives, the railroad, and the start of the Whistle Stop Café. I told those same stories to my nephew, Eddie Trammell, who ended up putting them into a country song.”


Gordon says that the best storytellers are great story listeners. “As a rabbi, I’m continually reminded that listening to a story that needs to be heard is just as important as telling the story that needs to be told. When we listen well, we begin to understand the person behind the story, and it can become the essence of a strong relationship.” He notes that among his favorite listeners are the elderly, as well as prison inmates and mentally challenged adults. “These people tend to be dismissed and treated as less than functional human beings in our society. When you tell them a story, they understand that you’re giving of yourself, and this gift is appreciated.” Though Gordon has been telling stories for more than 30 years, he still books smaller engagements at elementary schools and senior adult centers. “My greatest joy is when I see the faces of kids, the sense of wonder and excitement. I see their imaginations working, and their creative juices flowing. It’s exhilarating.”


What makes a good story, and what’s the best way to tell it? Gordon offers a few tips on creating a memorable story:

• Start at the end. “Think in advance of what your last sentence will be. You want your story to have a lasting message or impact. That last sentence creates the punctuation on the story. It tells the listener, ‘Here’s why it was worth listening.’”
• Appeal to your audience. “If you’re telling a story to a grandchild, think of what that child might like to hear. ‘Once, when your mom was your age, she got into a lot of trouble.’ Or, ‘I once met someone who was really famous.’”
• Understand the listener’s attention span. “Be careful about the length of your story. If you’re telling the story to a young child, keep it short. And remember: not all adults have the patience for a long story, either!”
• Know why you’re telling the story. “Are you trying to pass along an important piece of family history or maybe want to share a life lesson?Understand what impact you want to make and how that might be meaningful to the listener. ‘And that’s why I never tried that again.’ Or, ‘That’s when I learned the importance of taking risks.’”
• Don’t get bogged down in details. “Think about all the details of your story. What’s important and what can you leave out? Get descriptive and paint a picture, but if you get a detail wrong, skip it. Whether something happened in 1971 or 1973 doesn’t matter that much. As the storyteller, give yourself poetic license. You don’t have to be 100 percent accurate.”
• Be dramatic. “Make eye contact, and vary your voice and the tempo of your story. If there’s something secretive you’re sharing, lean forward and whisper it. When you tell the listener about something exciting, speed up and burst into a louder voice.”

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