What Must a Good Storytelling Coach Understand?

All too often, storytelling coaches don't really understand their job.

Why? Because even very skilled storytellers sometimes misunderstand their job, too.

What’s the Job of the Storyteller?

Let’s take Simon (not his real name), who tells stories as part of his job as a non-profit administrator—frequently as part of his presentations to civic groups, potential funders, etc.

Simon's Successes

Each group Simon tells to is slightly different. They all respond differently, depending on what they are expecting, how comfortable they are with each other, what their expectations are of Simon, etc.

Simon asks in advance about the group he'll be telling to, learning their concerns and expectations.

Still, Simon always needs to respond to his listeners’ responses in the moment. If, despite his careful planning, a funny story draws blank stares, he might change his pace, his language, his facial expressions, and more—all in search of drawing a positive response that he can build on.

After all these years of practice, in fact, Simon rarely fails to adjust well enough to succeed.

When Simon Became a Coach

Simon is a masterful storyteller, so it wasn't surprising that others asked him to coach them. Thoughtful presenter that he was, he was aware of much of what he did, such as his thorough research about each group he visited and his careful preparation of his stories.

Simon's Students' Struggle?

His students loved what Simon told them. So they went off eagerly to try things out on their own audiences.

To everyone’s surprise, though, their story presentations didn’t go well.

In response, Simon gave his students more thorough advice on each story: when to speed up or slow down; at what points to toss in a playful aside; exactly when to push harder to build to a climax during each story. He created a long list of do’s and don’ts, of rules and techniques.

Sadly, the more precisely he instructed his students, the worse reviews they seemed to get.

What was the matter?

Simon had made a very common, very understandable—and very unfortunate error.

What Simon failed to realize was simple: when Simon told stories, he didn’t follow his own rules. Unaware of his unconscious storytelling processes, he assumed he could think for his students.

Instead of following rules, Simon as a storyteller followed his listeners. He used a combination of conscious and unconscious thinking to adjust continually to his listeners’ responses—a combination that I like to call “creative intelligence.” Based on the sum total of fast thinking and slow thinking, Simon was able to give responses that (with a few unavoidable exceptions) any situation required.

In other words, when Simon told stories, he used his creative intelligence flexibly and successfully. But when he tried to coach others, he resorted only to what he was consciously aware of: the slow, conscious subset of his skills.

Worse yet, he remained unaware of his own skills that his students lacked—so he wasn't able to help them succeed.

So What’s the Job of the Coach?

Like so many other successful storytellers, Simon assumed that his job as a coach was to apply his intelligence to:

  1. The stories he taught his students, and

  2. Conscious preparation for an event.

Inadvertently, Simon had applied his intelligence to his students’ stories, rather than to their ability to respond to their listeners.

How to Choose a Coach

How will you know if someone can help you free your creative intelligence? How will you find someone who will help you become more and more the teller that you want to be?

You might begin by asking a potential coach, “How do you understand your job as coach?”

Some answers to give you pause

If the coach’s reply to your question about "What do you see as your job?" is:

  • "I’ll help you polish your stories”

    —then it’s likely this person intends to coach your stories—rather than to coach you.

  • “I’ll help you refine your presentation”

    —then this person may be focusing on the teller only—not on the teller’s relationship with an audience.

  • "I’m an expert. I’l teach you to do what I do,”

    —then it’s very possible this person wants to make you into a static replica of her.

Some answers to give your confidence

On the other hand, if the coach's answer about her understanding of her job is:

  • “I’ll help you become clear about what your story means to you and how you can help your listeners come to their own shades of meaning for it," or

  • “I’ll help you engage, delight, and respond to each different audience,” or

  • “I’ll help you find your own approach to understanding and shaping your stories in a way that works for any particular set of listeners,” or

  • “I’ll help you overcome whatever obstacles might be preventing you from connecting deeply with your audience,”

then there’s a very good chance this person understands both the job of the teller and the job of the coach.

Collect Information Before Taking the Plunge!

No one answer is likely to disqualify a coach by itself. But you need to ask enough questions to reveal a potential coach’s understanding of what it means to tell, and of what it means to coach.

At that point, you’ll have a good chance of finding someone who can think well about you—and about your strengths and struggles in responding to the unique needs and desires of each audience.