According to the Book of Lists, speaking in front of a group is the No. 1 fear people have -- beating out the angst of facing creepy insects, icky illnesses and even death. In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, "This means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."
But speaking to a group doesn't have to be scary, especially if you approach the task as a storyteller rather than as an orator. After all, human beings have been trading stories since the beginning of civilization. Confront your glossophobia -- aka the fear of speaking in public -- with these tips, and you might soon be the one your friends call upon for a good tale.
SHOW AS YOU TELL: "Everyone can tell at least one story well," says Jon Spelman, a professional storyteller and instructor with the Washington Storytellers Theater. Spelman's job is to help his students find that one story -- be it a personal anecdote, a folk tale or a historical incident -- and to work with them to perfect the delivery.
First step? Forget about words. "Do not ever try to memorize a folk tale verbatim," says Amy Saidman, also of the Washington Storytellers Theater. Instead, Spelman and Saidman recommend "storyboarding" a tale with images in your mind and then describing those images to your listener. So when you recount the time your sister convinced you to eat dog food, you should be reliving the incident in your mind, re-tasting the kibble and visualizing Fido's confused look. "If you're present [in your story], and you create images in your mind . . . you'll take your audience there," says Saidman.
In addition, Spelman advises students to reject adjectives in favor of nouns and verbs, which challenge the teller to speak more actively and also allow a story to unfold one image at a time. Forget the classic "It was a dark and stormy night." Instead, try "Darkness fell. Rain clouds rolled in, blocking the light from the star-studded sky."
FACT VS. FICTION: If you've ever repeated the saga of something that happened to a friend of a friend of a friend, then you know that sometimes the facts give way to a bit of fiction. Not to worry, says Spelman. Great storytellers recognize that "truth is more interesting than facts." Focus on the emotional truth of a situation, rather than the hard facts. Rather than lie, Spelman says, combine two true stories with a common element. An example: Pair up two incidents involving the same person -- say, two times you got lost because of your ditzy girlfriend -- and combine them into a single day for maximum impact. Spelman insists this type of "creative nonfiction" is the core of storytelling. "The audience wants [a great story], but it doesn't want you to lie."
GET TO THE POINT: Don't attempt to challenge the late Strom Thurmond's 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster record when spinning tales. "Good storytelling has focus," says Saidman, as well as a beginning, middle and end. She advises tellers to think of a story as a bicycle wheel; the center of the wheel represents the point of the story, and the spokes are different anecdotes that are connected to the point.
If you find yourself stopping midway though a tale to ask yourself, "What's my point?" Then you've probably lost your way. You're also in trouble when listeners start checking cell phones, filling coffee cups or yawning -- all universal signs that your tale is falling on deaf (or dying) ears. If this happens, ask if your listener wants to hear more, or skip to the end of the tale. "There are worse things than ending a story early," Spelman says. Chasing your listeners away by droning on and on definitely falls into the "worse things" category.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Tell the same story again and again -- ideally, not to the same listeners -- and develop the parts that most captivate your audience. Spelman recommends repetition as a means of tapping into your natural expressiveness.
"We all have naturally expressive voices and faces," he says, but many people can find that expressiveness only when they are comfortable with the story. "I can't promise that everyone can play a nice sonata on the violin," says Spelman. But with a little practice, Spelman promises that everyone can spin a good tale.
Bridget Bentz Sizer
* The Washington Storytellers Theater. WST is a local nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the craft of storytelling. WST offers workshops for those interested in brushing up on their skills as well as events with professional storytellers. If it's an audience you crave, consider taking the stage at WST's SpeakEasy, a themed open-mic storytelling night held the second Tuesday of each month at HR-57 (1610 14th St. NW, 202-667-3700, www.hr57.org). 274 Carroll St. NW. 202-545-6840. www.washingtonstorytellers.org.
* StoryCorps. Have you always wished you could record your grandmother's story of life during the Depression? Consider interviewing her with the assistance of StoryCorps, a national project devoted to collecting and archiving oral histories of everyday Americans. While traditional storytelling involves a single storyteller, StoryCorps is a two-person collaborative effort, with one interviewer and one teller. For a suggested $10 donation, users can record themselves in one of two stationary StoryBooths in New York -- one in Grand Central station, the other at the World Trade Center site -- or at one of StoryCorps' traveling MobileBooths. 800-850-4406. www.storycorps.net.
* Yellow Moon Press. Looking for a good story? Yellow Moon Press is a Massachusetts-based publisher of spoken-word materials. Yellow Moon's catalogue includes books on folklore and ghost tales, as well as CDs showcasing various master tellers at work. 617-776-2230. www.yellowmoon.com.