Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Roadblock #3: Echo Chambers

Let’s continue the “10 Roadblocks to Your Success as Professional Teller” series. Today I am writing about number 3: You are talking to the same people over and over again who are talking about the same subjects over and over again.

In looking through my latest copy of Storytelling Magazine (no online options as it is a printed magazine you can get only as a membership benefit or paying the $7.50 each cover price), I was scanning all the advertisements for storytelling festivals. Going from festival ad to festival ad, you’ll see mostly the same featured faces. Miss a storyteller this year at your festival? Fear not, because they’ll be back in two to three years.

Very frequently, we are hearing the same voices. Most are talented. But they are the same voices. The same sounds reverberating at our audiences. It is an echo of the echo of previous events.

Storytelling, festivals and otherwise, suffers a bit from an “echo chamber” effect. To help explain what I mean, I looked for a good definition online. I found one in Wikipedia, the best source never to be believed: Metaphorically, the term echo chamber can refer to any situation in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission inside an ‘enclosed’ space.

There are a number of conversations going on about storytelling, but they are behind closed, protected doors. Tim Ereneta writes much more eloquently about these things than I do. Some of the most common of these groups are the Storytell listserv, the new professionalstoryteller.ning.com and Storytelling Magazine. There is the Festival circuit as mentioned above. On the local level, you probably have a guild you participate in. I am part of all these lists and groups.

In most of these online groups, there are few fresh new discussions. Safe topics and queries get rehashed. There is often a fine sense of community once you find your way past the virtual gate, once you learn the rules. Community is valuable, but does it spread the word and power of storytelling? Mutual admiration is good and sometimes deserved, but there is little real critique of the work of storytellers both near and far. Part of this gentleness is due to the usually generous nature of we middle-aged storytellers. However, the other part is in fear. “If I make a direct statement, someone might do the same thing about my work.”

For example, in trying to develop a recognized Storyteller.net award system for storytelling recordings, the biggest problem was trying to find a panel to judge submissions. I am unwilling to be a panel of one like other award programs use. I could not gather a panel as not one storyteller wanted to be identified as part of the group that passed opinion on another storyteller.

First: “Your CD is great!
Second: “YOUR CD is great!”
First: “Oh, thank you. Your CD is great.”
Second: “Thank you, your CD is great too.”
First: “Oh, really? Yes, your CD is really great.”
And on and on and on, echoing down the line.

As I listen to other tellers describe things to me directly, it appears to me that many storytelling guilds in the U.S. are simply social clubs. There is much patting on the back, much nurturing, much caring community. Guest speakers are always other storytellers who do little to rock the boat or bring in fresh ideas. After the meeting, it is lunch and snacks. “I will say nice things about your storytelling so you’ll say nice things about mine.”

In these enclosed spaces, in these echo chambers, storytelling withers.

Generally, I do not think any of these groups or membership in them are a problem. What is the problem is our collective lack of outreach to the world. What is the problem is our fear of critique. In testing our new “Outside In” coaching method, the biggest challenge is having the coaching group have a non-apology-wrapped opinion about the work of another teller.

I suggest that we open the doors and windows, let the echoes out and begin to hear new voices or old voices in new ways.

New Conversations In Our Guilds
Invite guest speakers from outside of your storytelling group and indeed from outside of the storytelling artform. Stop separating the “youth tellers” from the adult tellers, throw them all into the same room at the same time. Invite such people as accountants, yoga teachers, marketing consultants, musicians, theater critics, painters and others to attend. Learn from them. Maybe you will even end up teaching them.

Find new ways in your guild to coach each other, being fresh, supportive, honest and challenging. Make this article a subject of your next meeting. Hash it out, own what’s real, congratulate yourselves if these thoughts do not apply to your group. Try something new if your guild has become an echo chamber of warm-fuzzy thoughts.

New Conversations In Our Festivals
Fight to eliminate the “regional teller” or “new voices” labels. Sure, bring in one of the circuit-riding hired lips. Have fun as most are lively, talented folks. Then, fill the rest of the event with your own local talent, talent you are growing in your freshly-refocused guild meetings. Remember the theater critic from the paragraph above? Invite them to the festival and hope they write about you or talk about you in their newspapers, TV and radio programming.

By the way, the idea that “if we do not book XYZ teller, then we won’t have an audience” is letting fear dictate your festival or event roster. Remember, when you started, no one knew who XYZ was. And if XYZ teller joined a monastery tomorrow, took a vow of silence and never spoke into the echo chamber again, would you shut down your festival?

New Ways to Communicate In Our Online Presences
Keep participating in the closed groups if it helps you. And, for every few postings you have in these groups, post something on your open, public Blog that the general public can read, see, agree or disagree with and learn from. Be a visible storyteller. Develop a thick skin and put yourself, and your opinions, out there. Develop a professional “social network” right out in public, where young people and others can see we are active, real and engaged. Post your videos and stories for all to see and hear.

We have lots of “niceness” echoing in storytelling. Why not knock down some walls and let’s have some “freshness” resounding as well?

(The illustration at the top of this article was done by www.gapingvoid.com. Warning: don't go there unless you can handle adult language and directness about marketing.)
The official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach.


  1. You've got me thinking about musicians. There are musicians playing in venues every night just about everywhere, ranging from amateurs at the coffeehouse to concerts that bring in hundreds or thousands. I'm going to ask my musician friends about the etiquette of critique. I know they don't go around being nice to each other all the time. The bluegrass scene seems most like storytelling, with open jam sessions encouraging amateur participation while at the same time festivals book tiered talent (headliners, regional talent, and youth showcases).... and a lively post-punk old-timey movement spearheaded by youngsters injecting fresh energy into the scene.

  2. Hmmm. A lot of thoughts roaming around in my head. You hit on some things that bother me, too--the same voices at all festivals keeps me from bothering to attend many. They are talented, as you say, but I've heard them many many times. Even if the material is new, the world-view and style is the same--I can predict that X will tell a hilarious family-based story, Y will tell a tug-at-your-heart story, Z will tell a lie, and A-W will be just as predictable.

    I prefer festivals that mix storytelling and other arts. Music, art shows, plays, etc--a variety to choose from.

    I think we need a way to offer honest reviews of storytelling and storytellers. That's why I started the review group on professionalstoryteller. Maybe we can start to discuss storytelling as we do other arts.

  3. Anonymous8:38 AM

    Sounds like the church!

  4. Sounds exactly like church, I seem to have worked in most major echo chambers. In some cases, tho', churches are starting to realize they have to go outside their doors.