How becoming a storyteller can cure perfectionism
If you asked me four years ago to stand in front of an audience to tell a story without notes or flashcards I would have frozen there on the spot. All through my tertiary studies and University years I would have a near panic attack every time I had to deliver a presentation or even answer a complex question during tutorials, rendering me next to mute for most of the session. This irrational fear of speaking in front of a crowd had dug its way deep inside my psyche for a good forty years.
Fast forward to now, and I wouldn't say I'm completely cured, but glossophobia has certainly descended a long way down the list. Stage fright is still present, but I now know once I start telling a story, this fear dissolves soon after stepping into the role of storyteller.
Glossophobia is the medical term for the strong fear of public speaking. Boston University states, according to several surveys, the fear of public speaking is even greater than the fear of death. About 75% of the world’s population struggle with this social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, to some extent.
We all have different reasons why the fear of public speaking affects us so much. And in my case it was, as my life coach would call it, a 'strategy' called perfectionism. Paradoxically, perfectionism - or thinking you always need to do more - can actually make you less effective to the point of giving up whatever project you are tackling.
I fully agree with Hara Marano (Psychology Today) who argues, "because it lowers the ability to take risks, perfectionism reduces creativity and innovation". Ultimately, it leads to procrastination, because you think you never have enough knowledge or skills or resources not to make mistakes.
This is where the storytelling has been very useful, in that it almost reverses this trajectory of feeling not good enough and falling into the trap of having to do things in a certain way. Storytelling is essentially a form of play, where you need to use your creativity and you constantly have to innovate by adjusting your intonation, gesturing, word choice and levels of engagement.
I didn't set out to overcome perfectionism, or glossophobia for that matter, when I first started with oral storytelling at Kinder. It just kind of happened. And I now wish I had done the practice and training I have done to become a storyteller a long time ago. It certainly would have made my years at university and work life a lot easier.
So, how did I overcome this all too common anxiety?
Yes, like everything else you need to learn, it is a case of practice, practice, practice. But there were some other things I've had to internalise first, things that you only come to realise when you immerse yourself in the practice.
About four years ago I started working as a Kindergarten assistant. The Kinder Teacher at the time, on my second day, asked me to hold a 'quiet activity' for about 20 minutes with the four-year-olds. My colleague was doing yoga in one room and could I please do something else in the other room. And could I please start this activity now.
Talk about being thrown in the deep end! Did I mention, back in those days, even a bunch of little ones honing in on me made me feel uncomfortable?
Around that time I was completing my Literature and Anthropology Majors hence I loved stories, books and human connections. So, I thought reading a book might just do the trick for something gentle. I was not prepared for 15 fidgety and mega-distractable 4-year-olds whose war cry was "I can't see!!" even before I began. I quickly discovered I will need to get creative if I was going to hold their attention every session.
Shortly after commencing at Kinder, one beautiful Sunday in March 2016, I visited my friend Mariam Issa in her RAW community garden in Brighton. It was World Storytelling Day and what I experienced changed my life.
It was subtle. It was clever. It was seemingly simple yet I already sensed deep down it was multi-layered with meaning and functionality. It was beautiful to watch and hear. And it was something I thought would be absolutely exactly perfect for the quiet activity I had been searching for at Kinder.
Jackie Kerin from Storytelling Australia Vic performed the ancient Asian folktale "Cracked Pot" using a quaint wooden stage (butai in Japanese). I later discovered this to be a type of Japanese storytelling called Kamishibai (kami = paper, shibai = theatre), a multi-modal form of storytelling that combines performance, literature, art and education. A variety of literacies including visual, oral, gesturing and sometimes written, are combined in one compact practice.
From the moment Jackie opened the stage doors I was hooked.
To get me started, Jackie lent me a spare stage and I bought a couple of her Kamishibai stories so I could start practising at my workplace. Meanwhile I commissioned my handy husband to make me a stage and he found some scrap pieces of pine wood lying around the shed. And voila, four hours later I had my first rustic butai (Kamishibai stage). This then went to my clever artist friend Liz Norman from Frothy Betty Creative Productions for beautification.
At first, whenever I did storytelling at Kinder, I wanted to know every word I 'should' be saying to go with the story. I didn't want to say the wrong thing or say it in the wrong way - it had to be just ... perfect. What if I leave something out? What if I forget the most important plot point of the story? There was no way I would ad lib any parts of the story.
Since then I have attended a number of workshops, seminars and training sessions on how to be a storyteller and have been part of a few storytelling gigs at festivals and community gatherings. And I am lucky to be able to practice every time I work at Kinder (2-3 times a week).
But it is neither the theory nor the storytelling sessions at Kinder which have had the most significant impact on my confidence levels. Two things have made the biggest difference in the way in which standing in front of a crowd no longer sends shivers up my spine and fills me with dread.
Firstly, in a playful Storytelling workshop, aptly called "Story Play Day" (for adults) with the lovely Lana Woolf from Sparking Change,
I learnt the invaluable art of being comfortable to ad lib.
In one exercise - my most challenging one and one that even most of my Kinder Teacher colleagues won't attempt, we each had to write three elements of a fairy tale (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood: Wolf, Path, Grandmother) on a separate piece of paper. Those pieces of paper were spread out in a circle on the floor. All the participants positioned themselves around the outside of the pieces of paper. The people on the outside were asked to tap their hands gently onto their thighs, creating a rhythmic beat sound. We were then asked to volunteer stepping into the middle. The idea was that the storyteller in the middle starts a made-up story - of any genre, location, characters, theme. The task was for the people on the outside to randomly select a word from the papers on the floor and at any moment interject this word to the person in the middle who then had to weave the word or concept into the story without stopping.
I decided to give it a go, even though it scared the living daylights out of me. Somehow, having the others stand in a circle around me, all excited and playful like little children and beating their 'drums', made me feel supported and brave enough to jump into this proverbial 'ring of fire' in the deep end of the ocean.
What came next still astounds me and I will never forget how incredibly creative and empowered I felt from this accomplishment. I proceeded to tell a story that was weird and wonderful and somehow made sense, weaving in the shouted-out words without once saying "Umm", stopping or being self-conscious of failing.
Secondly, being a regular at RAW Garden's monthly Storytelling events - a supportive network of regular people who like to come together in a story circle, share or just listen to other's true or fictional stories - has taught me a number of invaluable lessons.
I learnt it's okay to be vulnerable and make mistakes. I have been to many sessions, where people who have been through much worse than me, have been brave enough to share stories of failure or loss or embarrassing moments. It's okay to forget lines, details or even important plot points, because you can always add things by saying, "What I didn't tell you" or "What you should know", and make it part of the dramatic telling of the story. It's okay not to be 'as good as' this seasoned storyteller or that storyteller who has been drama-trained, because we all start somewhere on our storytelling journey.
And it's okay to be the authentic Me with my voice and my background and my way of telling a story - and so even if you have ten different storytellers telling the same story each telling will be unique.
A storytelling circle is just about the most cathartic and human experience you can encounter.
And so, when I'm about to perform a story in front of five, fifty or a hundred little or big humans, I am aware of the butterflies in my stomach and I'm aware of my raised heart rate. But as soon as I start the performance and I look into the eyes of my audience and make that initial human connection, all those feelings disappear in a puff of smoke, and I know whatever happens will be alright.