Here’s something for new storytellers to consider:
Do you talk with your hands? I never thought I did until other people started telling me that I did. Then I saw a photo of myself as a high school kid, telling a story. Those hands were in the air, waving all about!
As a theatre kid I took a bit (very little bit) of mime training. I learned a trick to help mime gestures read better: Do something in the real world (like cutting with scissors). Then put the real object down and repeat the movement as muscles remember what they were doing. The size, effort, direction, weight of something can be replicated as a gesture. This will help make gestures more authentic and believable. Try it!
Over time, a “dictionary of gesture” has emerged in my storytelling vocabulary. At times gestures can pull your listener’s focus to a certain moment in the story that needs emphasis: Showing a small seed in the palm of my hand; picking it up looking at it. The breadth of a giant, his height and mass. These can be readily shown in gesture, bringing visual definition to elements of a story, helping to strengthen a listener’s understanding.
In English as a Second Language instruction, teachers learn how gestures help to bridge understanding from one language to another. From drinking out of a cup to putting your head on a pillow, these common images can be shown in gesture and then are shared across languages. Connections are made and strengthened, soon allowing the utterance of new words and sentences in the second language.
Likewise, when I’m working with pre-language learners, such as those darlings at my Friday morning story time (Out of Hand & Sierra Waldorf School Store, 189 S. Washington St. downtown Sonora at 11AM), my hands move. Most of the children are infants to 3 years old. As I gesture a word or phrase, that word becomes embedded in the child’s emerging spoken vocabulary. What a delight! Just recently I was reciting the nursery rhyme “The North Wind Doth Blow” with repeating gestures to indicate the nouns in the rhyme. Soon my buddy Clavey (just 2 years old) began to chime, “Wind! Wind! Wind!” The moms and dads take these home to repeat and enjoy the rhymes and fingerplays at home. REPETITION! REPETITION! REPETITION!
The tone of a moment also comes forward with gestures. A broad open gesture implies coming in, welcoming. Arms folded across the chest, implies rigidity…closed off. Hunching shoulders: Fear. Relaxing shoulders, elongating the neck: Safe, secure. Spend time observing body language, and then borrow some of those movements for your telling.
In my storytelling workshops, I get lots of questions on this topic. My general rule of thumb is to do what feels natural. How do gestures evolve from your normal way of speaking? If you don’t feel comfortable using gestures, then don’t! In fact, in the early days of storytelling in libraries, librarians were told to sit on their hands and let the story flow only from the words. The story’s power lies in words and images.
But gestures certainly do have their place and their own power. If you’ve ever seen storyteller Antonio Rocha, you’ll know what I mean! Or storyteller Peter Cook, who tells using American Sign Language. He is an amazing teller, who happens to be deaf. And he builds bridges with his hands, bringing the hearing world into deaf culture and bringing the deaf community to dynamic new stories. Here’s YouTube of Peter (get passed 6 MIN. intro!)
Gestures offer a place where understanding can hang itself on a hook and linger for a while. So, go ahead…Talk with your hands! Do what comes naturally and watch your audience. Over time we all learn to hone and craft our telling. Our listeners become rapt in the story, and if we’re doing a good job they will forget that the storyteller is even there!