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What Happens in a Storytelling Workshop?

Do a Google search for "storytelling" and you'll quickly see that, in the last few years, people have gotten hip to the fact that storytelling is the key to every successful brand, ad campaign, activist movement, and inspirational TED Talk.

You'll also see that storytelling workshops are not only a path to being featured on The Moth Radio Hour, but also a path for startup founders who want to pitch more successfully and organizations who want to woo bigger donors.

Whether you work in a business or nonprofit, this means you may find yourself at (or even planning) a storytelling workshop during your next company retreat. But while some people think storytelling workshops sound like fun, people who don't like talking in front of strangers may find the thought agonizing.

That's why I want to give you a look into what actually happens at one of my storytelling workshops and why you shouldn't be afraid (and can maybe get a little excited) about attending your next one one.

Materials: Prior to a workshop you'll get some info telling you what to bring (an open mind) and what to leave at home (preconceived notions). You may also receive some supplemental reading which I like to include for people who need context or want to get a head start on things.

Group Intros: In addition to having everyone introduce themselves, I offer a check-in prompt about storytelling itself, i.e. "What is your relationship to storytelling?," "Do you consider yourself a good storyteller?" Checking in like this let's everyone know that most people are at least a little nervous about the process and also gives me a feel for the group as a whole.

Storytelling Intro: In a freestanding workshop, I give a brief talk about storytelling and introduce everyone to the main elements we'll be working with (i.e. character, setting, desire, obstacle, change). In every session of a workshop series, I share about whichever story element or elements we'll focus on that day .

Prompts: I always provide a prompt related to the workshop topic - i.e. your organization's mission, motherhood, entrepreneurship, etc. - and then give the group a set amount of time to write. All prompts are voluntary; they're there to provide potential topics or starting points and may or may not be useful. If a prompt doesn’t work for you, you can write about whatever’s on your mind; no one's going to grade you on how closely you stick to it.

Writing Session: During writing sessions, participants mine their memories for incidents they can develop into stories. I always remind storytellers that no experience is irrelevant, no memory unimportant. In fact, a memory may seem unrelated to the prompt but, once you begin exploring it, you may discover that it is connected to the prompt in a surprising way (the unconscious is an amazing thing!).

Writing Support: What if you can’t think of anything? No worries. That’s what I’m there for. During writing sessions, I am available as a sounding board and to answer questions. Some people do their best thinking while talking (myself included) and I am happy to listen as they figure out what they want to say; being present when someone experiences their story coming together is one of my favorite parts of what I do.

Sharing Time: Once a writing session is complete, depending on the size of the group and our time constraints, participants may share their story ideas in pods of two or three or as an entire group. Sharing time is for listening and encouragement. Especially in a freestanding class, I always remind the group that we’re sharing only the roughest outlines and providing each other with feedback on what's working in their stories (not advice or critiques).

Revisions: Shorter workshops usually only provide enough time for one round of sharing but longer workshops provide the opportunity for additional opportunities to revise and review stories.

Closing: After sharing time we close with a round of reflections and say goodbye. If we're closing one session out of many, we take our stories home and, if we want to keep working on them, bring them back next time.

In addition to practical benefits, developing our stories in a safe communal setting gives us a glimpse of the ways in which people see us. By revealing things we may not have shared before we often discover that we've taken the most interesting aspects of our lives for granted. We human beings are infinitely interesting but we don't always recognize the value of our own experiences; relating those experiences in front of others can be a revelation. In this way, storytelling workshops can bring unexpected insights that enhance not only our professional lives but our personal lives as well.

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