Skip to content

Storytelling coaches who don’t take the stage make no sense

Here’s a bit of lunacy:

I was working with a storyteller who will be performing onstage next month. She’s nervous. The audience will be sizable, and she’s never performed in a setting like this before.

She’s being coached by someone who works for the organization producing the show. Her coach is helping her to craft the best possible story for the stage.

Last week she discovered something both startling and disconcerting:

Her coach has never actually performed onstage before. Never told a story to an audience of strangers before. Never actually done the job.

That is why she called me.

I’ve received these calls and emails before. Many times. Someone is preparing to speak – tell a story, deliver a keynote, lecture a group, perform onstage in some way – only to discover that the person helping them to prepare has never actually done the job themselves.

The assumption made by these coaches, teachers, directors, and producers is this:

Preparation for a storytelling or public speaking performance pertains only to the creation of the content. Determine the correct words in the correct order, and you’re ready to go. Nothing to be said about what will actually happen onstage.

This is lunacy.

It’s also called writing. Determining the best words in the best order is something writers do every day. I do it all the time. I’m doing it right now. Those words may be right for the page, but they are certainly not right for the stage.

The way I write for the page and the way I write for the stage is entirely different. The two acts of creation may look the same, but I assure you that they aren’t even close. A multitude of factors makes the two things very different.

Equally important, so much happens while you’re standing onstage. An unimaginable number of things take place in front of the microphone. In fact, the words you choose are directly tied to what takes place onstage. If I were attempting to craft a story absent my knowledge about actually performing that content, the story would be crafted differently and not nearly as well.

Coaching someone to craft and tell a story or deliver a speech without ever having done it yourself is akin to teaching a pilot to fly without ever having flown a plane yourself. It’s like teaching a NASCAR driver to race without ever having driven one of those cars yourself.

It would be like me telling Elysha how to deliver a baby, having never delivered a baby myself. She’d rightfully want to punch me in the nose.

Here’s the craziest part of this bit of lunacy:

It’s not hard for these coaches, teachers, directors, and producers to take a stage and perform every now and then. Open mics abound. Storytelling and stand-up shows can be found in many cities, including the one where this particular storyteller will be performing. Toastmasters afford speakers the opportunity to speak on a variety of subjects all the time. It’s not hard to get onstage every now and then and gain some experience.

Yet so many refuse to do so. Directors and coaches. Corporate trainers. Speaking consultants. None of them are doing the job, yet all of them think they can teach someone to do the job.


And I don’t think these coaches need to become regulars on the speaking circuit, They need not win storytelling competitions or deliver inspirational addresses or perform in front of thousands in order to be effective.

But they absolutely, positively need to know what it’s like to stand on that stage and tell a story. They need to understand what it is like to deliver a keynote or a sermon or an inspirational address. They need to know how an audience reacts to different types of sentences and combinations of words. They need to know how to punch a paragraph for the stage or disguise a word that is often impossible on the page but easy to do onstage. They need to know how to modulate their voice and use pacing, pausing, and tone to enhance a punch line signal, build suspense, signal the importance of a moment, and maximize surprise.

Not only this, but they should also be able to tell storytellers and public speakers a multitude of other things, including:

  1. What should be in your mind just before you begin speaking?
  2. How will the lighting impact your performance?
  3. What are the dangers of the unexpected laugh?
  4. What are the strategies for controlling your emotions onstage?
  5. How to remember what to say?
  6. What do you do when you forget what to say?
  7. How should you move about the stage?
  8. How do you adjust if the audience isn’t responding?
  9. What should you be doing one hour before a performance?
  10. What should you be doing 15 minutes before a performance?
  11. What should you be doing 5 minutes before a performance?
  12. How should you ground yourself if you’re shaking?

These and so many more.

These are the things you learn when you stand in front of other human beings and share stories, ideas, information, inspiration, and insight.

They are all essential if you hope to perform well.

Equally important, they cannot be taught by people who can craft, revise, and edit content absent that other important part. That essential part. That potentially scary part. The part that puts you on a stage, oftentimes alone, oftentimes feeling vulnerable, almost always doing something that doesn’t come naturally to you. Something you don’t do every day. Something you might be doing for the first time ever.

Like the storyteller who I will be working with this week.

If you hope to coach storytellers well, get your ass onstage every now and then.

If you train speakers in the corporate world, get your ass onstage from time to time.

If you’re consulting with public speakers, presenters, members of the clergy, or anyone else who is planning to speak to an audience of human beings, you’d better be doing the job yourself.

Not constantly. Not professionally. Not even exceedingly well.

But often enough that you understand the challenges and can help navigate those important, imposing waters of live performance.