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To Critique or Not Critique - Or Be Critiqued?
By Chris King

During the past month, our Storytell Discussion List has been having a lively discussion about critiquing storytelling. Some members of the List feel we should be blunt for the sake and betterment of storytelling. Others feel that we need to be encouraging, not disparaging. Some feel that there should be journalistic storytelling critics, as there are art, theater and book critics. Many of us who are professional storytellers have experienced coaching and benefited from it.

Some types of coaching include critiques and other types give the storyteller control over the feedback received. In this article, I am going to discuss some of the ways I have received and also given feedback, along with what - in my opinion - has helped me the most with my storytelling. Keep in mind as you read that all of us are at different stages in our storytelling careers, are unique in the way we work and improve and respond in a variety of ways to feedback - whether it is laudatory or degrading.

The first step is to decide whether or not you want feedback of any kind. I feel that asking for feedback is one of the hardest tasks to face. Most of us are unhappy with criticism, even if we realize that by addressing a problem and/or problems mentioned that we will grow to be better storytellers. I want to point out here that as storytellers, we do receive audience feedback every time we tell stories. To the exclusion of extenuating circumstances, if we are at all in tune with our audience - and that is a storyteller's major goal, isn't it? - we can tell whether or not our performance was a success. Once in awhile a story doesn't grab our listeners, and once in awhile there are unruly and rude listeners (or non-listeners) present who cause a great deal of distraction for everyone, but if this is happening consistently during our telling, then it is probably time for us to ask for some feedback (including an honest critique).

How do we find a person or a group of people to give us feedback? I feel that finding the right person or group is a matter of trust between those giving and those receiving feedback. For me, it started when I wanted to improve my speaking skills and I joined a Toastmasters club. Every time a member gives a presentation, and evaluator is assigned, so we learned how to give and accept evaluations that were just, discerning, encouraging and helpful. I had completed all of the assignments in the Basic manual when I purchased the advanced manual, called Storytelling. The first assignment was to tell a ten minute folktale. I picked a German folktale, had fun preparing, and when the feedback, not only from my evaluator, but from the rest of the group, was so positive I realized I wanted to keep on telling stories - and I've never looked back. You see, I was comfortable with this group and I trusted them. Since then I have attended several storytelling retreats - all with leaders and storytellers I trust to be honest, but not brutal.

What method of critiquing works the best for you? I don't know many tellers and/or speakers who crave harsh criticism. Yes, I want those I'm getting feedback from to be honest and tough, but I also respond best to the artist-centered process for responding to creative work initiated and practiced by Liz Lerman and Doug Lipman. The storyteller is in control of what he or she wants. This method starts with "Appreciations" - we need to know what we are doing well and what are our strengths and the strengths of the story. We can stop there or continue, depending on the stage we have reached. The part of the process that has helped me the most are the "Questions." These help solidify what the story means to me and what part may be confusing to the audience. Why am I telling this story? Mary Hamilton and Cynthia Changaris hold WOW! (Working On Our Work) weekends and make use of this process. I had been working on an original story, ruminating and batting ideas and questions back and forth. Once I took my turn the story practically wrote itself, and I have told it several times to appreciative groups. This non-threatening, extremely helpful method is described in Doug Lipman's fine book, The Storytelling Coach, How to Listen, Praise, and Bring Out People's Best.

Even though it is difficult, try to get feedback from the person who hired you. After all, most of us want to return again, so if we show that we are serious about doing a great job by asking for feedback, they will usually respond. It is especially important, although not always pleasant, to ask for feedback when we feel that something didn't work out to their satisfaction. Even if they never rehire us, it is wise to know why. I do feel, as others on the List, that this is important for the sake of storytelling. For example, has anyone ever said to you, "Yes, we hired a storyteller last year and she or he was terrible. We won't make that mistake again. This year we are having a clown."

Should we give others feedback? I would never offer anything but positive feedback unless asked for it. Then, I would be sure that the person asking was sincere about wanting feedback and also prepared to, at least, consider its value. I would never give any kind of critical feedback, unless asked to, and I also hesitate to give feedback to some others who ask for it. These are the people who do not really want to follow any kind of advice and will also take the defensive and argue with you about your feedback. I feel that I am not helping them and am only gaining an enemy for the time and effort expended.

How about the evaluation sheets that audience members are often asked to fill out? Other storytellers and I have mixed emotions about these kinds of evaluations. First of all, let me say that if we receive 100 great evaluations and two that are poor and/or degrading evaluations, we tend to focus on the two (it is human nature). It is up to you, but I suggest that you be prepared to realize that there may be bizarre criticisms like, "I hate your haircut," and "Who do you think you are, anyway?" A well-known speaker/storyteller whom I respect a great deal when asked about evaluations, said, "Take what you feel is constructive and worth changing (usually a technique or skill), but forget what attacks you as a person (your character, style or uniqueness)." I find that if the same comment is repeated often, this is something that I should work on improving. Otherwise, use them if you want.

So, be brave and ask those you trust for feedback. Tell them what you expect from them, and then make use of it. It will often propel you to the next plateau.

And, remember, I love hearing from you, so send me your FEEDBACK on feedback and critiques.

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Improving Your Storytelling: Beyond the Basics for All Who Tell
Aspiring storytellers will be pleased to know that Lipman's down-to-earth approach allows for flexibility rather than emphasis on memorization.

The Way of the Storyteller
Very few books on the art of storytelling have matched the scope and charm of this book by Ruth Sawyer.

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The Story Factor: Secrets of Influence from the Art of Storytelling
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Pete Seeger's Storytelling Book
You can almost hear the banjo plucking away in the background as veteran singer-songwriter Pete Seeger tells his folksy tales and shares his useful tips on storytelling.


The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture
A lively, strikingly original look at the prevalence and endurance of stories in our lives and our culture.


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