Writers On Writing / Exhilarating and addictive, live storytelling with John Knowles


Professional storyteller John Knowles tells us why he is captivated by the art of live storytelling, ahead of his one-day workshop Crafting Stories for Performance at Writing NSW on Saturday 28 March.


What are some oral techniques you can use to engage your audience?

People generally love to hear a writer read aloud passages from their books. To hear the author’s tone, accent, specific inflections and see their facial expressions as they read their own words brings them to life in a way that feels as if they are conjuring them up at that moment. The same is true for oral storytelling, but the impact and ability to connect and move the listener can be even greater. Oral techniques we study in my course include pacing, playing the character voices, pausing for effect, purposeful gestures that support dramatic phrases and proactive listening skills that help you attune your delivery to that particular audience moment-to-moment. Masterful oral storytelling is a dance with the audience where both can be leading at different times. When you tell your own true stories, the audience wants to see a heightened version of your perspective with surprising details so vivid that the listener feels as if they are standing there, next to you inside your story as it unfolds. 

You perform a monthly storytelling show, I Can Top That!  as heard on ABC 702 Afternoons and recently won the final of The Moth, the international storytelling competition. As a professional storyteller for most of your life, what do you love about performative storytelling?

True stories told well will captivate any audience, be it a dinner party, a speech, a wedding proposal or a storytelling event. The emotions you draw out of the listener are palpable and unchecked. Listeners love to place themselves in the palm of the hands of a storytelling. It’s one of the few occasions where strangers will give you their trust and assume your authenticity from the moment you begin a story with an opener like, “Let me tell you an unbelievable but true experience I had…” That connection with their minds and hearts is immediate, exhilarating and in my case addictive. Theatre actors, stand-up comics, orators and raconteurs of all types experience this high. You can too. I’ve been the person in my circles who seemed to have an amusing or crazy true story on just about any topic since I was a kid. Over the years, I have created a methodology for tilling the experiences of your life in search of the seeds of a great story. I share these methods and participants will practice using the exercises in the upcoming Writing NSW class.

What makes some stories better to perform in front of an audience than others?

The key to hooking and holding the attention of a live audience with a short story in my opinion is to do four things fast. Conjure a vivid image in the listeners head that is specific, relatable, intriguing and must plant a strong emotional expectation. I begin one of my stories by saying, “When my mother June died in hospital, my sister Wendy arranged to have mum’s body brought to my home to prepare it for display in a three-day vigil set up in my loungeroom. Wendy had organised this process for others many times, so I was unperturbed, until, on the day the body was arriving, an overseas emergency meant Wendy needed to fly to Canada immediately. “You’re in charge now John,” she said, handing me a booklet with instructions.”  Great stories don’t need to be this startling, a woman in one of my classes crafted a brilliant tale about a chance meeting with a stranger on an airplane that had the room stunned and in tears. Writing for oral storytelling is quite different from writing meant to be read silently. Elements like the rhythms of speech, words can be cut out in favour of a gesture or facial expression or even having a surprising prop on hand. These are a few things that we will explore in my story crafting workshop. Everyone has a great story from their past waiting to be crafted and deliver well. I can’t wait to hear them.

John Knowles

John Knowles is professional storyteller, writer, comedian and corporate trainer. He can be heard regularly on ABC 702 Afternoons with James Valentine performing his storytelling show, I Can Top That!. John hosts Bespoken Word, a monthly storytelling night at Petersham Bowling Club, and performs at professional storytelling events around Australia. He recently featured on a special double episode of ABC702 Conversations with Richard Fidler where John recounted stories and was interviewed about his uncanny ability to turn family recollections into festival stage shows. He trained at Ryerson Acting School, toured with a cabaret trio called Gods Cowboys and represented Australia at the World Theatresports Championships. John loves to teach.

Join professional storyteller John Knowles for his one-day workshop Crafting Stories for Performance on Saturday 28 March at Writing NSW.
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Crafting Stories for Performance with John Knowles

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