Category Archives: public speaking

The Old Grey Waffle Test


“But how do you remember it all?” It is the question I am asked most often about my craft. I have answered it in this column at least twice. With two different answers of course, both of which are true. Today as I sat down to write this months FTC for you I realised I am going to give you a third answer.

“What is it about Three?” Is one of the questions I am asked most often about my material: “Why does everything happen in threes”; “Why is three the magic number?”
The observant among you may well have put three and three together and realised the answers to these questions are linked.

The thing is, folk stories, stories that stay alive by being told, heard, remembered, and told again do have a survival mechanism that has evolved in them. It came to my attention last night when I was reading Jo a bedtime story. I had chosen the tale of the Goddess Inana and her descent in to the Underworld. This is one of the Sumerian stories that was found on 5,000 year old clay tablets from the dawn of writing. A deeply significant tale of power, sacrifice, loyalty and resurrection. Having performed it on tour nine years ago I am re-learning it for a zoom gig in September. It is around twenty minutes in total but I only have to learn about 7 minutes of it. Here’s the trick: every element is repeated at least three times, sometimes quite cleverly.

Before Inana descends in to the Underworld she gives her minster, Ninšubur, a set of very specific instructions concerning the ritual mourning she must perform, including some quite shocking procedures, and a richly metaphorical request for help she must make to Inana’s father and two grandfathers. The story follows Inana down while Ninšubur waits. After three days have passed and Inana has not returned, that specific sequence is reprised as Ninšubur puts on the dress of a servant, covers herself in ashes and performs the series of lacerations to her eyes, nose, ears (in public) and buttocks (in private) as directed previously. She then makes the requests to all three ancestors. Father Enki grants the wishes of Ninšubur and produces the necessary help so we don’t hear the request sequence again, but we don’t need to; we’ve heard it six times by now. We have only experienced the mourning ritual twice though. Don’t worry, it’s coming up again soon.

After Inana has been restored to life she comes back from the Underworld accompanied by the Anuna, who are described variously as the “Judges of the Underworld” and as “Demons”. They are not just up for a jolly in the land of light but have to maintain the cosmic balance by taking back someone to fill Inana’s place in the realm of the dead. The first person they encounter is of course Ninšubur, waiting patiently by the gate. The Anuna are about to take her below when Inana stops them: “This is my minister of fair words, She did not forget my instructions…” and continues to run through the litany of mourning that Ninšubur executed, lacerations both public and private, the visit to the houses of the three gods and concludes “She brought me back to life. How could I turn her over to you?”. So we hear the same words three times but in very different contexts, first as impending imperative, second as action and third as both praise and a defence before the Judges, each repetition carrying a different emotional charge.

Much as musicians listen out for departing audience whistling one of their melodies, storyteller’s know we have got something right when someone quotes an oft repeated line back at us. After I’ve told The Field of Genies I enjoy hearing “Who gave you permission to do that then?” echoing across festival fields; those who have heard The Padisha’s Daughter Who Married a Donkey Skull find themselves approaching taps with the words “What fountain is this?”; and any audience that has made me run around at the end of The Hedgehog And The Devil will get up to leave afterwards with the words “Off we go again then” on their lips.

And there you have it, at the risk of repeating myself, repetition within a story makes that story easier to remember and the stories that have triple repetition are more likely to be told because they are more easily remembered.


…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Talking About Talking


I’ve got a booking to do two days of storytelling workshops down in Southampton later this March. Day one will look at stories, where to find them, how to learn them and day two will be a performance and public speaking skills workshop. In a similar way to writing Folk Tales Corner each month, it will make me examine what I do, try to make sense of it and find out if it makes sense to anybody else.

Standing up in front of a room full of people and talking was, famously, America’s number one fear. It has now slipped down to number 5, handing over the top spot to Walking Alone At Night. In the UK stats for 2015 it went the other way, pushing past Spiders and Deep Water to claim it’s gold medal at the top of the podium.

Personally I am baffled. We all talk to each other all the time, we speak to shopkeepers and ice cream sellers, bank staff and bus drivers, colleagues and customers. We waffle on country walks, bang on in belfries, rabbit away in railway carriages and pontificate on cold station platforms or in nice warm pubs. How can something so intrinsically human be our most common fear?

I suspect it’s not so much the talking that makes people fearful as the opportunity to be seen making a mistake. Despite the absolute knowledge that not one of us is perfect, we all tremble at the thought of demonstrating exactly how far from that unreachable ideal we are to the world.

So what are my professional tips should you be put on the spot? Well the obvious way to not get caught out is to know your stuff. Thankfully it is fairly rare for anyone other than actors or comedians to be expected to stand up and improvise on a topic they know nothing about. The chances are that when you are called on to wax lyrical to the masses, that it will be because you are the person out of the available people who knows the most about what you have been asked to enlarge upon.

A lot of people will spend their preparation time writing out every word they are going to say, getting each syllable just so. This results in them having to read aloud or learn the whole thing word for word. Neither of these are things most of us do on a daily basis and are therefore things we are not terribly good at. The first results in a lack of animation and eye contact and the second is just making life hard for yourself. Don’t give yourself the trouble of a script.
We are all used to assembling sentences on the hoof, we do it naturally everyday. If you know your stuff there is a very good chance that you have already put it in to words on many occasions, answering co-workers questions, explaining your days work to a partner or friend. Rely on your ability to use your native language and your knowledge of your material. Your head will be up, your enthusiasm will show, you can gauge your audiences responses, adapt appropriately and keep them engaged.

Tip number two is stop caring so much. For most people the worst performance problems stem from nerves, relax and give yourself a break. A bit of revision, a crib sheet of the most important names and numbers and you will be fine.

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