What helped (and hindered) the first storytelling salon at my home

I hosted a storytelling salon with friends at home recently (first time to host one there). It was eye-opening fun and unforgettable.

This salon experience taught a lot about group dynamics based in a storytelling environment.

These learnings stand out:

1 — Vulnerable and forthright group sharing emerged, more so than what I first expected. The group’s response to the salon’s storytelling theme was more participatory and disclosing than what I anticipated. This was beautiful to engage in and observe; the intimate, sensitive journeys people offered were truly something to honor.

The story salon’s structure involved a pre-set theme called: Home-stories of retreat and reunion. The group dynamic unfolded in two ways: I first welcomed everyone and then opened the discussion by sharing a few stories about family that resonated the theme for me. I stood up to present, as friends listened in circle-seating while munching on breakfast.

This took 25 minutes, longer than what I envisioned.

After this, friends were invited (…not pressured!) to share their stories and perspective with the ‘home’ theme as a guide. Folks could present their insight standing or sitting, whatever felt natural. People began to offer really emotional and personal experience…moments that made a raw, penetrating effect on their home life: the painful bewilderment when parents die; acts of rebellion to family authority; and changed recognition of what home is and what it isn’t.

Changes for next time:

Limit opening facilitation to 15 minutes vs 25. Overall time ran out where each guest had told a story…except for one. Yikes! She was so gracious about it. The salon’s ultimate intent is to create an agile, attentive listening environment for those that want to share. One that embodies ample time for each person (who wants to give voice) to do so. So I definitely want to shorten my intro bit. Also — possibly suggesting folks keep their stories to a certain time frame may help too. …..will ponder what can help inclusiveness more on the time front.

2 — Clarifying at the start how intimate story gatherings can affect the senses provided useful groundwork. Before diving into the story-sharing piece, I offered clarification on how – potentially – this intimate spatial dynamic could impact us consciously or not. Often when a small group sits near one another (our seating arrangement is pictured just below) — the exchange of attentive energy stimulates the senses in certain ways: hair may raise up on arms; faces may blush; deep deep breaths unexpectedly may inhale/exhale; emotional candor often intensifies.

Physical or emotional reactions certainly are not an automatic byproduct; but given this was the first salon for us to host at my home, it seemed wise to be overt about how direct, close-proximity storytelling can engage physicality (and emotional life) sometimes unexpectedly. Tears and shaky voices ended up as apart of people offering their perspective. Random spikes of humor popped out. Lots of gentle accepting silences surrounded our stories too, along with I believe, a sense of okay-ness and affirmation.

Changes for next time:

Starting the salon with this little orientation piece is actually a no-change keeper. Folks offered appreciation for it later on. So if different people attend the next event – I’ll lean on this decision again with hopes of cultivating similar safety when it comes to supporting folks that want to open up.

3 — Recording audio devices were an offered tool for any storyteller, but folks weren’t into that.

I offered anyone to record their stories via a mini handheld audio recorder; tellers could simply speak into it as if it were a mobile mic. I find it useful to review told stories after the fact for growth & education. But no one else sought out the recording option. I’m better realizing that for me, I gain sense of community and also increased joy in the craft when reviewing audio later on. Others though may primarily seek the community, cathartic aspect of this type of gathering (vs viewing it as a more formal source of storytelling practice). This is absolutely natural, now that the differing expectation is clearer to me post-event.

Changes for next time:

Hmm, I’m not 100% sure if this even warrants a change. The salon ended up being a pretty personal, tender arena. Informal. I want those elements to be honored, preserved, and to carry over to future gatherings. But something about making this audio tool resonates, making it at least available to folks if they want to study or reflect on their oral storytelling at a later time. I may mention it again next event so people know it remains a potential tool at anyone’s disposal.

Looking forward (a lot) to pondering the next salon theme (and for it to hurry up -n- get here!).

“Wherever my story takes me, however difficult the theme, there is always some hope and redemption…”   Michael Morpugo

A vital decision when presenting a short talk or story

A colleague-friend years ago scolded me for how I was preparing for a short talk (to be roughly five minutes of stage time). I recall being very concerned that five minutes with the audience ‘just wouldn’t be enough time to make a credible effort…’

During these informal rehearsals, the intro would start with biographical remarks about myself, then progressed to the more relevant meat.

My observing friend looked at me with vivid critical sass after one of the rehearsals and said:

Your audience could care less about you.  They care about the experience you can create for them. They care about your teachable, relevant meaning that can help them.  So stop flaunting your ego with the bio stuff. Stop thinking five minutes is insufficient. Stop abusing your audience’s time and organize your thoughts in 15 to 30 second chunks, and get on with it!

Yikes.

I still recall the humbling crash my ego took from her words that day.  It was a hard realization to experience — that my love for speechmaking had (unintentionally) morphed into a sense of entitlement with time on stage:

Five minutes?! That’s not enough time to sneeze let alone for an audience to pick up on my depth of meaning…

That was my fumbling, fightin’, ego at the time; I shrink at the snobby condescension in my head back then.  But years later (and many short speeches and storytelling since) a fascination grips me as a presenter, storyteller, and devotee of the really short speech format.

It’s a fascination driven by one question:

How can any type of speaker, no matter their level of presentation or storytelling experience, create resonance with their audience in a five minute (or less) speech?

Even seemingly harmless content decisions in short-form stories or presentations can unintentionally distance an audience — vs bring them into your intended meaning.

This one content decision at the start creates stronger resonance: When making really short talks, all content decisions must ideally bridge this experiential distance or ‘separateness gap’ to make a more resonant impact — quickly, from the start. How to do this? Prevent that separateness from ever developing from the beginning.

Solution: Provide listeners with a specific, relevant scene in the first 15 seconds of your talk.

This decision will better convert your audience from a mental observation mode – to a more interactive & mentally more resonant participation mode.

Imagine Ms. Sara Sample Speaker as a hypothetical.

She’s about to give a five minute talk about holiday cuisine.  Her audience before she even takes the stage is in a mental observation mode consciously or not. Sure they know they are here in their seats about to watch Ms. Sara Sample. But their senses and train of thought are very much in observational on-the-outside-of-any-journey-of-meaning mode.

Keep in mind, as this Sarah takes the stage, she ultimately wants to get the audience to mentally journey with her, to mentally be involved in her content’s sense of progression. She wants listeners to be in full-on cognitive participation…not just observers merely consuming the sound of her voice and detached from specific meaning.

So she takes the stage and says:

“I love holiday flavors more than anything.  And each October, I remember as a kid how pumpkin pie would rule our house long before Halloween night arrived.  Dad even polished our special pie trays at the start of fall, and well before buying any Halloween candy for the trick-o-treaters.”

Our speaker Sarah, with this immediate scenic content decision at her beginning, has mentally transported the audience from observation mode — to a scenic experience which their imaginations can experientially identify with i.e. pumpkin pie and Dad fussing about. The simple scene progresses the audience to along with the speaker (again in the first 15 seconds).  Speaker and audience alike have now shared in live-time this family’s experiential delight for pumpkin and holiday anticipation.

This first 15 seconds of scenic storytelling (simple, non-complex!) easily starts off her short talk with topical relevance and unifies herself with audience expectation.

Ok, so why care?!

Why shouldn’t Ms. Sara Sample’s short talk begin instead with something like…: “I’m Sarah, a chef for 10 years and head of catering at Chicago’s Ritz Carlton. Before that I ran catering for special events, weddings, and holidays at different hotels in Miami Beach and New England. So today, I want to talk about holiday food with you all.”

That’s a passable way to start.

But this type of opener greets Sarah’s audience with a topical distance.

Or another way to describe the concern is this: Sarah is creating for her audience a sense of separateness by giving her mini bio at the start. As in, it’s highly likely that no one else in her audience can relate to being a seasoned chef at fancy hotels. Also her listeners hear her bio as being repetitive, since they’ve (highly likely) already seen it on the event agenda; the conference’s promo; and in a zillion twitter conversations before the date of Sarah’s stage moment even arrived.

But what does the audience have in common with Sarah-the-hypothetical speaker? Her talk’s topic aka holiday cuisine. That’s what they came for…not an oral re-enactment of her resume.

Other samples of scenic decisions at the very start of short talks:

Drew Dudley’s short talk: Everyday Leadership

“How many of you are completely comfortable calling yourself a leader? See I’ve asked that question across the country and I always find there’s a huge number of people in the audience that don’t raise their hand.”

The scenic moment:  The audience moves from their observer ‘seat’ to being apart of audiences across the country who have grappled with the speaker’s question.

Susan B. Anthony’s speech before court: On Women’s Right to Vote

“Friends and fellow citizens, I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, ….without having a lawful right to vote.”

The scenic moment:  The audience moves from their observer ‘seat’ to being involved with the speaker’s current legal threat with the right to vote as common ground between speaker and audience.

I so love the structure and possibilities in short-form presentation! Hope you enjoy and find this useful (comments welcome all the time). More thoughts to come about crafting short-form stories and presentation.

Photo attribution …a short fall by Eury licensed under Creative Commons

Ways to organize a storytelling salon at home

One of my “…just do it” goals for this New Year is to enjoy friends more often through casual storytelling and conversation. That goal began brainstorms for a storytelling salon event series at my home. The first storytelling salon for the year happens (gulp!) tomorrow. Adrenaline accelerates with every minute over here with last minute planning!

What the heck is a storytelling salon?

It is a personal, subjective experience to define for sure. But I work with this approach: each story salon occurs on the weekend at my home/apartment building, and includes hospitality for the first hour; then oral storytelling of archived stories that I’ve wanted to share with community for many moons; and casual theme-based group discussion afterward. The overarching interest is good ole community with friends in the context of storytelling and learning each other’s life experience more.

Three thoughts surface now as final details resolve before the big day tomorrow:

1. Deciding the core focus has been useful i.e. to cultivate an intimate story experience & environs for sharing personal perspective.

Once this focus for the salon crystalized more, other party-related or social options faded to irrelevance. The intent is creating a type of ambience where friends would ideally feel comfortable spending time (and opening up more too to the story-sharing aspect). Physical space – how it can affect the flow and disposition of people – has been an interesting consideration. The party room on the third floor of my home’s condo building turned out to be a better space conducive to intimacy (vs our specific home unit). There’s a slightly higher ceiling that some say can cause people to associate ideas more freely (…getting a kick out of that tidbit). Restrooms and a roof deck are feet away when folks need alone time.

The main element with this salon idea is to create an agile, non-demanding dynamic for friends that sometimes complex hospitality environs can distract from. A non-existent white glove treatment is the point. Think lots of cushy sofas and puffy-fluffy chairs organized in circle-seating; soft natural window light; a few candles; low overhead lighting; and the U2 playlist playing at a lower hum.

2. Choosing a potluck-brunch approach to hospitality has helped achieve simplicity and pre-salon collaboration. 

At first when planning loosely began last December, I leaned toward a full menu to provide buddies. But then I frankly felt the stressful stomach knots form. So a friend suggested a potluck option which has been fun and a creative collaboration for the group.

When sending the save-the-date notice out a while ago, I tossed out a link to potential brunch food ideas (cinnamon rolls or bagels or french toast for starters or other options). The group approach has helped keep the planning spirit light, and attention more on the storytelling piece.

3. Setting a story theme and an unconditional tenor toward participation has added needed, unobtrusive structure. 

The story theme is:  Home – running away and reunions.

In the spirit of facilitating greater focus and ease for guests — I suggested a theme for them to (casually) reflect upon before salon day.

The theme’s purpose is to provide perimeters regarding topic. Often in a public dynamic like this, a non-topic driven gathering can overwhelm concentration or prevent precise memory recall from kicking in.

In hopes of generating more ease and willing participation, the salon will start with a story from me about home in Oklahoma growing up…roughly a 7 minute story. Then afterward, I’ll welcome other people’s perception of their home experience with an opening question.

Guests can share their reflections as they’re open to it. If everyone is shy and isn’t down for sharing, no sweat! We’ll simply continue to snarf down cinnamon rolls and kibitz.

It continues to be a blast to plan and anticipate.

Looking forward to learning about friends more tomorrow, their stories from home, and tons of photos to relive the joy.

Photo attribution “Storytelling” by Renu Parkhi licensed under Creative Commons