Wednesday, 29 May 2013 22:57

What Do I Mean By Storytelling and Storyteller Ethics? Featured

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What Do I Mean By Storytelling and Storyteller Ethics?

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Both weekly and monthly, I receive a huge number of publications that deal with business and technology. Ever since the whole Enron scandal became news, these magazines have and are featuring more and more articles dealing with ethics, honesty and trust. In every profession and career, attention to ethics, integrity, honesty and trust are paramount to ultimate success. Whether we are full-time professional storytellers or tell stories part-time professionally (for a fee), I suggest that there are ethics and principles that we, as tellers, should embrace and follow. In this article I am going to highlight and explain the storyteller’s ethics and principles in which I believe. I will warn you that in this article I am more opinionated than ever, but these are the beliefs that have worked for me over the years and have worked for those storytellers who are at the top of the storytelling profession today.

A professional storyteller honestly and accurately communicates his or her qualifications. We must never create qualifications – like programs we never gave, books we haven’t written or clients we never had – to make ourselves look more experienced than we are. I know wonderful storytellers who are in demand and have not yet been on the Jonesborough stage or told around the world or nation. It is more important to have the stories people want and need to hear along with the skills to deliver those stories effectively. It boggles my mind when I read about all of the falsification in resumes, let alone storytellers’ brochures and websites. Who would ever hire you for a storytelling gig if they found out that you were lying in your written communications?

A professional storyteller never, never uses another’s material or materials without permission. A short quotation credited to the originator is fine, but when a storyteller – and I have heard them – blatantly copies another storyteller’s words, interpretation and/or style of presentation, it is outright robbery. What makes us special as storytellers is our own uniqueness and special approach to storytelling. I feel strongly that if we have to take someone else’s words, we shouldn’t be storytelling in public (around the dinner table or at family gatherings, it is OK). Yes, we can observe and make note of what gives another storyteller power, but then we must use that power in our own unique way. If we do hear a story or an idea that we want to use and are sure that it would enhance our performance notably, then we must get permission from the person who created it, or not use it at all. (Note: on the topic of permission, be cautious about using stories from other cultures, especially the Native American tribes. Many of their stories are to be told exclusively by them at special times of the year.)

A professional storyteller can be trusted completely by his or her clients to give the best program he or she possibly can. When we are hired or asked to perform for a group, we must be willing “to give it our all.” That means proper preparation, a well-planned program with extra stories “just in case” (the unethical storyteller just “wings it”), excellent story research, loads of practice and sufficient contact and communication with the person who hires us. This also includes minute attention to details, never assuming, always confirming. It means arriving early and always “going the extra mile” to please. This effort to please, however, leads to my next opinion.

The trustworthy storyteller doesn’t agree to tell stories that he or she isn’t passionate about. Once people and groups know that we are storytellers, they often ask us to tell a story of their choice – not one of ours. I have also had groups ask for a particular theme that doesn’t hold any interest for me. I am not saying that we must never agree to follow a theme or tell a special group’s favorite story when asked. I am saying that if this isn’t in your repertoire or one of your passions (i.e. you don’t want to expend the time to work on that particular story), don’t agree to perform just because you would like to receive the fee. It is the surest way to “turn off” a client and word does travel. A much better approach that will pay off in the long run is to recommend another storyteller well-versed and well-prepared in that realm of telling. This leads to another principle that we each must decide for ourselves as tellers.

The ethical storyteller doesn’t knowingly choose to tell stories that will agitate, annoy or provoke his or her listeners. What do I mean by this? There are schools and conservative groups that don’t want certain topics like magic, ghosts, devils, witches, etc. included in our stories. There are tellers who disagree with me, saying this is taking away our freedom of speech. It may be, but I feel that when I am hired by a group, I want to please, not upset them. So I ask ahead about scary stories (how scary can I be?) and about other taboos. There are still so many terrific stories to tell besides these. I am also careful about the stories I tell for different ages, always suggesting that, if possible, that the age groups be separated.

The ethical storyteller treats all clients and other storytellers with respect and fairness. In my opinion this means never divulging confidentialities, charging different fees according to what the “traffic will bear” or speaking badly of or spreading rumors about another storyteller or client. If, for example, someone asks what you think about another storyteller’s abilities and you are not impressed by that teller, it is better to say nothing or make a suggestion of someone “I am more familiar with.” I also feel, as a storyteller, that when I attend another teller’s program or workshop, that even when I am not thrilled with the presentation, I respect the effort and act as an enthusiastic listener and participant. Just remember that not everyone in our audience will be thrilled with us either.

My all-time favorite marketing guru, Robert Middleton, says that people will hire those they know, like and trust. Can you be trusted as an ethical and honest storyteller? I would love to hear from you with your opinions about my opinions and beliefs. Just send me your This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.!

Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For more information about writing children's books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children's Book Insider's home on the web at

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