Category Archives: Ideas

Getting resourceful…

When I did my round up of my mad March I said that I’d write in more detail about my experience working in St Albans and about using open resources in telling stories.

A few years ago I worked at a Primary School in Hemel Hempstead.  I’ll be honest and say that I could only vaguely remember the school but I did remember the teacher who booked me and fortunately they remembered me when they changed jobs.  So it was that I was invited to work with an EYFS/foundation group not far from St Albans but this wouldn’t be a routine booking.  I was given the brief that I could only use open resources to tell the stories.

My immediate question was what is an open resource?  Well, an open resource is something that could be used for anything.  There is a popular drama game in which an object is passed around the circle and the participants explain its function.  The only thing it can’t be is what it actually is.  There are some objects that this is pretty difficult to do this with but there are others that allow the participant to use their imaginations; an empty plastic bottle can easily be imagined to be a telephone, a magnifying glass or a pneumatic drill, its far trickier to do this with a branded toy like a remote control car (although the remote control would probably be a lot of fun!).  Before arriving I was given a list of stories and a photograph of piles of coloured fabric, egg boxes, colanders, pine cones and lollipop sticks.

As a storyteller I am used to using my imagination to turn an object into something else for the benefit of the audience.  When I tell folk tales I often use gloves to represent birds and fabric to represent mountains, the sea or even blood.  In Roald Dahl’s The Twits and The Enormous Crocodile a walking stick becomes a rifle and oven gloves become crocodiles and coconut trees.  When I told Jeremy Strong’s The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog I used a dog lead as a tongue, a steering wheel, a rope and well, a dog lead.  Sometimes these ideas come about because I am on a budget, sometimes its because I’m looking for ways to encourage participation and sometimes because I want to encourage repetition – teachers often tell me that their children have demonstrated the ideas they have seen in a story at their playtimes.  In every case the simplest idea is often the best.

So it was that I visited a nursery without any props or costumes.  I introduced myself and my work before immediately apologising to the children for “forgetting” my work bag.  I asked if they could help me tell the stories using the resources provided by the setting.  Then working in a side room with a small group at a time the children were given a few moments to explore the resources before we told The Billy Goats Gruff and The Three Little Pigs.  I started each story the same way, by using some of the resources to build a map.  Just to make my task slightly more risky I invited the children to decide on the use of certain resources – Can you choose something to show a river?  Can you make a rickety rackety bridge? – we used pine cones and lollipop sticks and some rudimentary puppetry ideas to create the billy goats and yoghurt pots to create the pigs.  Working on the fly was very liberating and it was wonderful to incorporate the children’s ideas about things like the appearance of the troll into the storytelling.  The whole experience may have been low budget but it was a huge amount of fun.  Here is the feedback from the nursery:

Having seen your work before, I knew that you were a great storyteller, however, it is always a little worrying when you recommend someone to a new school. I need not have worried because you blew both children and staff away with your stories and wonderful energy and enthusiasm. You were able to engage all the children and included them all, even those that were hesitant at first. 

You were not at all phased when I asked you to tell the stories in a different way, using open ended resources (junk) and in fact, embraced the new challenge enthusiastically. You delivered a session, specifically tailored to the needs of our children and they responded beautifully. I loved the way that you gave them the freedom to choose their own resources and add their own ideas, this built their confidence and this was reflected in their own storytelling play after the session. 

Many parents have also approached me and told me that the children could not stop talking about you at home, so, I am sure, that the children would love to work with you again too.

Over the years I have received feedback suggesting I use more hats, more props and more costumes despite the fact I have packed an entire wardrobe into my session (I used to use a rubber glove tied to an alice band in Jack and the Beanstalk; recently used 35 hats to tell The Enormous Turnip!).  Some settings have cupboards full of story bags, dressing up rails and hand puppet sets for their children to tell stories.  Whilst this is brilliant and I appreciate that younger audiences require more resources I also wonder if in enhancing a child’s play with accessories we are sometimes overly prescriptive about how to play and may inadvertently be stifling some children’s imaginations and ability to create.  As I led these sessions I could see that the children got a lot from the experience of stripping things back and I hope to be able to offer similar sessions in the future.

Making secret plans and clever tricks a reality – my week with the Roald Dahl Company

Back in September 2018 I was invited to the central London offices of The Roald Dahl Company to discuss my work with “The Twits”.  Then, after seeing me in action, the company agreed that they would permit me to tell Roald Dahl’s “The Enormous Crocodile”.

“The Enormous Crocodile” is a brilliantly brutal story which is perhaps pitched toward a slightly younger age group than “The Twits”.  It’s all about a greedy crocodile who decides to leave the big, brown, muddy river hoping to find fat, juicy little children to eat.  As he heads to town he meets other jungle creatures who are appalled by his secret plans and clever tricks and set out to stop him.  Once he reaches the town the crocodile takes on all manner of disguises as he tries to fool the children he meets into becoming his lunch but in the end Trunky the Elephant delivers the crocodile’s just desserts as he throws him into the hot, hot sun where the crocodile sizzles up like a sausage.    

I got started on the project in the autumn knowing that I wanted to launch the story around World Book Day and that we were trying to moving house.  Roald Dahl is a master storyteller and my first draft of “The Enormous Crocodile” wrote itself with very little manipulation on my part.  The story’s quite short with quite a simple structure.  Like “The Twits” I feel there are two distinct halves to it; the walk through the jungle and the four clever tricks.  This and the fact the crocodile meets so many different animals would become the biggest challenges to the eventual presentation of the story.

By January I had a draft of the story and a completion date – two days before the start of rehearsals!  So it fell out like this; the Tuesday before we were due to start rehearsing I was in Derby to visit a school and go over the music with Joey, returning to London on Wednesday.  The Thursday was Verity’s birthday (aptly spent at London Zoo) and on the Friday before the Tuesday we moved house.  My first day of rehearsals was my first commute from Sussex and a journey that the previous week had taken 30 minutes took 3 hours because of rail problems.  After a chaotic week I made it to Roald Dahl HQ and entered the wonderful world of Roald Dahl.

Since meeting The Roald Dahl Company, they have been tremendously supportive of my work and offered not just their rehearsal room but paired me with professional director and dramaturg Amy Hodge (literally just back from opening a play at the Manchester Exchange Theatre and scheduled to work with The National Theatre later in the year).  I’m happy to admit that after 10 years of working more or less alone I was a bit nervous about how things might go but I needn’t have worried; in our time together Amy showed herself to be one of the singly most incredible theatre practitioners I have ever met; her input would be as an outside eye, sounding boarding, co-conspirator and confidant and it was such a privilege to breathe air with her for a few days.

So rehearsals started on the Tuesday morning and we had two days (about 12 hours) to create a presentation of the story using the contents of my suitcase.  It was a blissfully creative process, sharing ideas, problem solving and picking apart this much loved tale to produce something highly visual and interactive.  I have already highlighted the major challenges of the piece; it’s a story of two halves with multiple conversing characters.  It was agreed that the two halves of the story would look different.  The first half would be me on my own and the second half would include the audience more.  Amy helped me to re-evaluate my method of storytelling and out of it came a very simple puppetry which means I can bring several characters alive simultaneously without the need for constantly throwing hats on and off.  The end result is clear, playful storytelling.

After two very exciting days we reconvened in Wembley to do a pilot presentation to a public audience.  Unlike the pilot I did for Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief last year, this one was very successful.  The audience were attentive, they laughed in the right places and at the end there were no negative comments.

It was a fantastic week and whilst I am very excited to have had this opportunity I can’t help but feel a little daunted at the task of trying to get the story seen by as many children as possible.  Great storytelling demands to be seen and this really is great storytelling.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be able to quietly consolidate the story before a series of public events and festivals later in the year and by then I am sure I will feel much more confident about the story’s future.

So there you have it, how in a very short space of time secret plans and clever tricks have become a reality of real quality.  I’m eternally grateful to The Roald Dahl Company, Amy Hodge, Joseph Attenborough and Dan White for this wonderful image.  “I love it when a plan comes together” and I look forward to seeing how this plan develops in the coming weeks and months.

The Enormous Crocodile is available to schools, libraries and literature festivals nationwide.  For more information contact me.

Interview with Andy West on BBC Radio Kent (29/1/19)

On Monday 29th January 2019 I appeared on Dominic King’s Arts Show on BBC Radio Kent where I chatted live in the studio with Andy West about my career, stories, storytelling and working with young people as BBC Radio Kent marked the beginning of National Storytelling Week.

As with so many things I do it was all over very quickly but I absolutely loved taking part in the show, meeting the production team and seeing how a live radio programme is made. Having never appeared on the radio before I’ll admit to having been nervous beforehand but Andy West was a lovely host and generous interviewer who made me feel very welcome which helped me relax into the situation. At home I have listened to thousands of radio interviews but the experience is very different when its you giving the answers. I tried very hard to think about the questions and not how I was sounding. The whole thing was so utterly fascinating and exciting and has really got me thinking about the creative possibilities of radio and podcasting for storytellers (nobody can see you waving your hands on radio!) but whilst I’d be thrilled to do something like this again in the future I can tell you without hesitation that on Monday night one microphone was definitely more daunting than an audience of 500 children!

This was also an opportunity to promote the art of storytelling. Storytelling maybe one of the most ancient art forms but its also one of the most underrepresented in mass popular culture with most people associating storytelling with reading and books. The show gave storytelling a platform and me a chance to try to get across to the listeners why I love my job and hopefully enthuse a few people with stories along the way.

My friend Ben Jones, a partner in Preference Studio and responsible for my website intro video, has kindly edited the interview so you can hear it in full without interruptions for the weather and travel.

So here it is, my conversation with Andy West on BBC Radio Kent. If you listen to the whole thing, get in touch and let me know what you think.

John Kirk is a storyteller working in schools, museums, libraries and at events across the UK. For more information explore this website or get in contact.

Imagegate: why it matters to me and why it should matter to all artists

The following relates to a series of social media posts I made on the 6th December 2018. As the matter has been resolved I have chosen to bring the whole story together in a blog for the sake of closure and because it deals with an interesting subject.

Four years ago I was lucky enough to be involved in City Read.  City Read is an annual month long, London wide event during which readers come together to share a single book.  I told “Private Peaceful” in 22 of London’s 32 authorities.  This was huge for my career; in one month I exploded into the consciousness of London’s libraries as I went from working in North London onto a much bigger stage (in 4 years I have gone from working in Hackney, Haringey and Islington to working for over 60 authorities across England, Scotland and Wales).  The project also presented an opportunity to work at The Museum of London in the Docklands.

The booking in question was a weekend event at the Docklands Museum and meant telling Private Peaceful three times in one day to public audiences.  I was technically working for City Read at The Museum of London rather than directly for the museum this was still a huge thrill; my background to this point had been in heritage rather than libraries and I had cut my teeth as a storyteller with Hackney Museum, Bruce Castle and the Cuming Museum.  My day at the Docklands Museum came and went all too quickly.  I was part of a larger event themed around the Great War.  It was a wonderful experience and I had a great time but to be honest I hadn’t thought much more about it until what I’m now calling Imagegate broke this week.

It started when a friend of mine contacted me to say she’d seen a soldier at the Museum of London who looked exactly like me and that she was glad my work was going well.  I joked that I was pretty sure I hadn’t been around to fight the Great War but I’d be interested to see a picture of my doppelganger.  She then sent me a link which left me speechless.  You see, my friend hadn’t been to the museum, she’d been on the museum’s website.  The Museum of London had had another family activity day themed around the Great War and it was my face being used to promote the event.  I meanwhile had had no idea.

Here’s what happened.  All those years ago I signed a piece of paper which allowed the Museum of London to take pictures of my storytelling sessions.  Its not unusual for me to sign such documents and I’ll be honest I encourage libraries, galleries and museums to take pictures so they can use them in the future.  Whenever I give consent for photos or videos to be made its on the understanding that they are shared.  This is mutually beneficial as I can then use the media in my own documentation and promotion (I still haven’t worked out how to take pictures of myself).  In this instance the photo hadn’t been shared after the event but I knew it existed because some time ago in an idle moment I’d put my name into a well known internet search engine and it had popped up as being posted by CityRead in 2014.  Four years on from the CityRead event the picture was selected to promote a family day because staff felt it summed up the kind of activities that would be happening on that day.  For whatever reason I wasn’t credited in the promotion nor indeed was I contacted about participating in the event.

So why does the use of a photo matter so much?  Well…

It has taken me years to hone and develop my repertoire; I have done thousands of gigs and hundreds of thousands of miles, all in the name of building a reputation as a top quality performance storyteller.  Everything you see in this picture; the facial expression, the pose, the clothes and to a point even the words that I’m saying in the photograph, that’s all me and my work yet my contribution to the photograph is not recognised when its reposted.

I spend a lot of time and energy on getting the right permissions to tell stories.  Whenever somebody takes a picture or makes a video of me I immediately lose control of my work.  If they then choose to put their media onto the internet I have to trust that they do this with discretion so as not to compromise my work or my professional relationships.  In this instance, if this photo had been a video the people who trusted me with “Private Peaceful” (Berlin Associates acting on behalf of Michael Morpurgo) wouldn’t have been at all impressed.

The event that my image was used to promote featured a storyteller and yet I was never asked to participate and had no knowledge that the event was even happening.  So whilst there might be a perceived link between me and the event I in fact had no control over its quality as it was nothing to do with me.  The friend who alerted me to the picture didn’t know this and had got in touch to congratulate me on working for the Museum of London.  What if she or any of my followers/supporters had attended the event on the strength of the picture?  They would be disappointed to discover that they had been mislead.  Storytelling is a resurgent art form and its practitioners are as distinct as any other kind of artist.  I would like to be thought of as more than a thinking man’s party entertainer and we have to be careful about devaluing the storyteller’s art as it will inevitably have a negative impact on storytelling’s integrity.

As a result of the image being reused its probable that more people have seen this photo than saw the storytellings I did back in 2014.  Its a fantastic photograph but when my picture was taken it would have been outrageous to suggest to me it would some day be used to promote another storyteller and yet I have been powerless to prevent exactly this happening.  Yes, my complaint has been upheld but the event has already passed.  Saying this I am thankful that my image has only been reposted by a museum and it hasn’t been associated with anything stranger or more extreme.

When I told my story on social media friends and colleagues rallied around me in shared indignation, baffled at how anybody could be so thoughtless / rude / discourteous and to their credit the museum were quick to recognise that they were in the wrong.  They offered to take down the photo, they are reviewing how they use images in future and they also offered to add me to their pool of freelance storytellers.  Perhaps then this cloud does have a silver lining.

There is learning in this for me too.  I’m going to have to become much stricter about when people take photos knowing where the picture will be used in advance.  I’ll also have to look at the images I use on my website; am I correctly crediting photographers and workshop participants and is there a point at which I should really stop using even the very best pictures?

Imagegate has not been a nice episode but it has been dealt with and I can move forward.  I still admire the Museum of London for their incredible programme of educational workshops and as a place I aspire to work.  They took action as soon as they became aware of a problem and it’s my hope that not only I work with them again but that they will consider how they work with storytellers in the future.

Thanks to everyone for their support.

Look at the picture.  What can you see?

This is the makings of a sensory story.  Using the things you see I told the story of the Prophet Yusuf (some may know it as the story of Joseph) in a 20 minute Religious Education session.  In each session I offered a simple narrative, stopping periodically to share these items through touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste and hopefully enhance the participants experience of the story.  Let me talk you around the table.

1. Spices (green bowl) – at the beginning of the session I placed the story and set the scene by playing some Arabic music and encouraging the participants to smell some Arabian spices to get a sense of a Middle Eastern market.

2. Wool (pink bowl) – Yacub and his sons are shepherds.  I was keen for the participants to have the opportunity to touch sheep’s wool.

3. Stretchy sheet and plastic flashing balls – Yusuf has a dream in which the sun, the moon and eleven stars all bowed down to him.  I got some stretchy sparkly material (the sky) and encouraged the participants to gently bounce the flashing balls (the sun, moon and stars) on the cloth.

4. Water pistol – Yusuf’s brothers throw home into a well – it was enough of an excuse to spray the participants with water!

5. Cloth – the brothers then return home with Yusuf’s bloodied shirt and tell their father his favourite son is dead.  In reality this is an old towel with red paint on it.  It looks and feels pretty disgusting and got some great reactions from the participants.

6. Chunky chain – In time Yusuf is thrown into prison.  The chunky chain is heavy, cold and makes a great noise when you rattle it.

7. Grape juice – in prison the cupholder dreams of giving Pharoah wine. As this session was in a school we offered the participants grape juice.

8. Bread – in prison the baker dreams that birds steal bread from his basket.  These loaves had a  wonderful aroma and contrasting textures.

9. Cow mask – Pharoah dreams of 7 fats cows being eaten by 7 thin ones.  This mask has a sound effect embedded in the nose.

10. Split peas (yellow bowl) – Yusuf’s brothers come to Egypt to ask for food.  The participants could run their fingers through the split peas (grain).

I hoped that this range of objects offered a real range of sensory experiences.  Touch and sight are the easiest to fulfill with taste and smell in my opinion the hardest.  I’m a little bit nervous about allergies and if I was leading the session alone the logistics of offering a taste of grape juice would bring the story to a grinding halt.

Sensory storytelling is perhaps my biggest challenge.  They require a completely different discipline to my regular repertoire.  I am definitely on learning curve and although I’m becoming more confident sadly I get very few opportunities to lead these sessions.  This is a shame because the inclusive and accessible nature of sensory storytelling would mean they could work with anybody.  I devised this story with a mixed group of young people in mind; some with visual impairment, some with hearing loss, some with physical and learning needs and I was really encouraged by the way they responded to the sessions.  I hope that they begin to appear more regularly in my schedule in museums, libraries and primary schools.

Talking to a young child about remembrance

I was asked to lead a storytelling session for a group of 4-7 year olds which reflected on why we remember the Great War and the symbolism of the poppy.  I saw this as a challenge of both tone and content; how to talk about a terrible event in terms which will not traumatise a very young child?  Supposing this to be a dilemma faced by many teachers and families around Remembrance Day (11th November) I thought I’d share how I did it in order to make an important conversation a little easier in the future.

I started by telling the story of The Pied Piper of Hamlyn.  In the story the town is plagued by rats which make everybody unhappy.  A Piper, capable of playing enchanted music, comes to town.  He promises to get rid of the rats and the townspeople promise to pay him handsomely.  When the deed is done the townspeople go back on their word and the Piper leads all their children away.

The story of the Pied Piper is undoubtedly a sad one but it is a great way to talk about feelings, loss and regret.  It is thought that the story was originally told to help explain a loss of life caused by sickness but I wanted to use it to contextualise the devastation of war so I then told it again.  The second time I used the structure of the Pied Piper but told a simplified version of the Great War.  Something like this…

A hundred years ago peace in Europe was in danger.  The countries of Europe would do anything for peace so cities, towns and villages sent their young men to fight; many did not come home.  It was only when the war ended and Europe had its peace that these cities, towns and villages understood the heavy price that they had paid.  When the families of those who hadn’t come home from the war went to find them they found only fields of poppies; fields of poppies that had once been ploughed by farmers, fields of poppies that had then been churned by the bombs and guns of war, fields of poppies that were now lined with silent graves.

A generation gave their lives and their loved ones for what they believed was the right thing and so we might have peace today.

They shall grow not old as we who are left grow old

Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them

We will remember them

 

Between 2014 and 2018 John Kirk has presented multiple storytelling relating to The Great War including Michael Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful”, Terry Deary’s “The War Game”, Tom Palmer’s “The Last Try” and written educational workshops with Hackney Museum, Redbridge Libraries and Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow.  His Great War edutainment session Band of Brothers: a story of three liars remains available to schools, libraries and museums.  For more information contact me.

The role of the storyteller in wellness and well being

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a charity in Surrey enquiring about a storytelling session for a wellness and well being day.  Within a couple of days I received a second message from a housing project in Bedfordshire and a third from a school in London both inviting me to participate in well being days.  There is nothing terribly remarkable about a series of e-mail enquiries which happen to concern the same subject but in the past decade I have never been invited to work at wellness and well being events.  Sure enough, like London buses, three events turned up at once and wellness and well being is now firmly on my agenda.  The question is what should a storyteller do at such events?

Wellness and well being are to do with mental health and how you feel within yourself.  It’s an inter generational issue and concerns loads of important things like happiness, confidence, self esteem and self worth.  It’s about everything that can be knocked or crushed when we feel vulnerable or lonely.  If well being is defined in terms of how we maintain and nurture a positive outlook in the face of problems like bullying, family trauma and stress then it’s clear that storytellers have a role to play in its promotion.

Storytelling is an ancient art form but as an activity it’s inexpensive and universal.  Some people do karate, some go rock climbing and some tell stories.  Belonging to a storytelling club or attending storytelling events can be a great way of meeting new people, feeling a part of a group and sharing something creative.  Storytelling can transport a person out of their day to day existence, building confidence through participation and even changing a person’s emotional state leaving both the storyteller and the listener feeling good about themselves and (in some cases) empowered.  It’s difficult to quantify the long term benefits of storytelling as it relates to wellness and well being and whilst storytellers may not offer a solution to how we nurture and maintain a positive outlook stories undoubtedly offer respite from a chaotic world and pathways for resilience.

So what am I going to do at the Wellness and Well Being events I’m attending?  Well I am quite unashamedly going to do exactly what I’ve been doing for almost 10 years; I’m going to tell my favourite stories.  I’m going to tell stories that I have magpied off other storytellers, from books and the internet and I’m going to tell them in my own unique way.  You see its my long held belief that if I enjoy myself my audience will respond positively not just to my story but to the enthusiasm I bring to the narrative and this will lifts their souls and put joy in their hearts.  If my audience walk away with smiles on their faces having had some fun then I will have done my job.

If you want to read more about wellness and well being here are two very useful links to external websites.

NHS Choices

Mind (UK based charity)

If you are interested in finding out more about these types of session or other sessions that I offer contact me.

A storyteller in search of a story

Aspects of this blog are superseded by A Twit Update and My adventure with Dennis continues!

So this week it has been confirmed that I can no longer offer Roald Dahl’s “The Twits”.  It’s a sad day but not totally unexpected.  Over the last two years I have presented this marvellous tale on almost 200 occasions across England and then in Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands, Germany and the United Arab Emirates.  It been the most wonderful period and I’ll always be thankful for the opportunities my brief association with the Roald Dahl Estate created.  I will miss sharing what I consider to be a terrific story.

Knowing when to archive a story is as much a part of the creative process as developing the project in the first place.  Telling stories is a lot of fun but the bottom line is that a storyteller is a small business and once a client has seen your entire repertoire the opportunity for a future booking is greatly reduced.  Changing up material helps a storyteller’s repertoire remain fresh and the teller themselves remain energised but it can mean making some tough decisions about old or “well loved” material.

Over the years I have mothballed many projects for many different reasons.  Some decisions were forced upon me because of licencing issues (Private Peaceful and The Twits).  Some stories were very enjoyable to deliver but I found that my style had evolved in a different direction (The Mad Hatters Tea Party!, Dracula and the Unlucky Mummy).  Some stories were shelved because of a lack of demand or, in very rare cases, because what I did with them wasn’t very good.  In some cases when it hasn’t worked or I have been sick to the back teeth of a story I’ve managed to salvage something by finding it a new lease of life.  I don’t mind admitting that I didn’t like Anansi the Spider and the Stories of the World until I significantly altered the way I was telling it so that I was more comfortable with the material and it now sits amongst my favourite projects.  Generally though, if no one’s laughing anymore and the applause is polite rather than enthusiastic it’s probably time to let a story go.  After almost 200 presentations, as much as I love telling The Twits, I think the project has reached and exceeded its end point.

So what next?

My current project Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief will occupy me into the autumn but I am already aware that Beano Studios have another party interested in the book so I have no plans to make it available for schools presentations.  Instead I have been working up two new projects; Band of Brothers: the story of three Lions, which explores The Great War through the stories of three young men who fought it and It’s all Greek to Me!, in which I delve into some of the stories of Greek Mythology’s heroes.  I’m also toying with the idea of bringing Beowulf Sleeps back into my repertoire.  This was a project I did for a school three years ago.  I didn’t take it further at the time because it was at odds with the way I was then telling stories.  This autumn, as I move in a more traditional storytelling direction, I feel that it would sit nicely within my revamped repertoire.  I will of course continue to offer my usual array of folk and fairy tales, myths, legends and Shakespeare but beyond that I am really looking for the next challenge.  What that will be is a mystery right now but I hope that a famous author or publisher will have taken notice of what I do and offer me a title I simply can’t refuse but I’m not holding my breath!  In the meantime I can look forward to Mr Twit’s farewell party to be hosted on Saturday the 20th October 2018 as I take part in one final reading festival in Grantham being hosted by The National Trust.  When one door closes…

Read this and I’ll buy you some chocolate…

Recently a mother brought her child to one of my storytelling sessions.  When her boy got up and volunteered she jeered at him.  When he was embarrassed and didn’t want to do it anymore she said “I’ll buy you some sweets if you do it”.  I stopped her saying that volunteering should always be the individual’s choice but what she had done (other than mortifying him and putting everybody else off helping me) was to say to her child and the rest of the audience “sweets are better than this”.  Thanks.

This particular lady thought she was doing the right thing; she had attended the library to listen to a story – big tick.  Unfortunately though, it doesn’t follow that a love of books, reading and stories will rub off by simply turning up in a library.  When I deliver stories it’s very common for children to look around at how other people are receiving the story and judge their own response accordingly; are Mum and Dad watching? are Mum and Dad enjoying this?  You can’t hand a book to a child and say “read this and I’ll buy you some chocolate” because a carrot and stick approach is simply not appropriate when trying to nurture a child’s interest.  Libraries are undoubtedly the right place to encourage a love of reading and books but more often than not a child’s library experiences need to be positively reinforced by an adult.

It’s the same in schools.  We live in an age when many children see reading, writing and arithmetic as purely for tests and exams so, thankfully for me, schools are always looking for ways of inspiring their children.  A good author visit or storytelling day should have quite obvious and immediate short term benefits but authors and storytellers may not have the long term solutions a school is searching for.  The long term legacy of such experiences depend upon them being properly valued at the time and adequately followed up by teachers in the classroom.

I am keen for schools and the public to get the most out of what I do.  I try to encourage discussion of my visits and I try to build opportunities for further writing exercises into my session structures.  In public sessions I try to work with libraries to ensure stories are available to be borrowed and also encourage adults to engage with me on social media so that they are aware of my events in the future.  More often than not my work is about enjoyment and entertainment but by trying to inspire the adult as well as the child I hope that for some children a story becomes more than 30 minutes of fun.  A well-executed storytelling can become a doorway to a whole world of stories or a topic or who knows, a career.

We all have bad habits we can easily shake off.  It can be as simple as singing the songs at toddler rhyme time rather than using the time to check text messages or being seen to borrow and read books or just putting the book marking off and engaging with the class’s storytelling visit.  If we don’t do these things what messages are being shared?  Your learning is somebody else’s problem.  Reading is something you have to do.  I’m too busy for stories.  If we want to encourage and inspire our children we all have to raise our game.

Can I tell you a story? Advertising storytelling sessions

I love my job.  I love it because everyday is different and I get to meet literally hundreds of interesting people and visit loads of new and interesting places.  I love it because I work with teachers and library staff to create memorable experiences for young people and in doing so challenge myself and those around me to engage creatively.  I love it because of the responses I get from the children and young people I come into contact with.  I love the moment I hit the brief or when an entire room is really (and I mean truly) listening to, participating in or simply enjoying a story or just the little moments along the way; a thank you or just a smile.  I love my job.  I’m not very good at advertising that fact.

In the main storytelling is a pretty solitary business.  We are like snow leopards, rarely meeting other storytellers unless its at some kind of an event.  What other storytellers contact me most regularly about is work and how to get it.  Whilst I don’t have a magic formula here’s my tuppence worth…

Many years ago I was taught the following mantra about classroom management which goes like this: get them in, get on with them, get on with it.  Here I have adapted the mantra for those looking to sell storytelling projects to potential clients.

Get them in – imagine this as the starting point, the hook, the pitch – call it what you will, the objective is buy in and if you master selling yourself you’ll work.

Get on with them – once you’re in its important to have rapport not just with the group you are working with also with staff.

Get on with it – this is your pay off.  Be it fine art or morris dancing,  if you do whatever it is you do really well you’ve given yourself the best chance of a repeat booking or recommendation.

So how can we promote and achieve buy in to what we are doing?

Leaflets and cold calling

I don’t like leafleting or cold calling.  I think its time consuming and ineffective and I’ll tell you why….  Have you ever consider what it must be like to be a takeaway leaflet?  There you are all fresh from the printers crammed with promises of all the latest tasty deals.  What happens to you?  you are stuffed through someone’s door and promptly put in a recycling bin.  Why does this happen?  because the recipient doesn’t want any Chinese food.

Unsolicited leaflet advertising will only be so effective unless you can afford to bombard what you are doing into the intended target’s consciousness (sending multiple leaflets with the same or similar messages) or you can guarantee your recipient is going to be interested.  To ensure that you’ll need to speak to the right person.  Cold calling schools means speaking to school secretaries; the gatekeepers beyond whom maybe work.  You can save time and pay an agency to provide you with this kind of contact information without having to talk to school secretaries but what if they still don’t want what you are selling?

Making a website

The advantage as I see it of a website is that you are in control of its content and therefore your message.  As a storyteller I am able to display photographs to give site visitors a sense of colour and fun, testimonials that give my work credibility and I can outline projects and answer questions so that potential clients are able to make informed decisions about booking.  This is passive marketing.  I am adopting a policy of “If you can’t find the work, let the work find you”.

The problem is the amount of traffic my website receives.  You spend time developing what you think is a flashy looking website but keyword searches consistently take potential traffic elsewhere.  Search engine optimisation (SEO) is big business and you can pay web designers to boost your web search rankings but there are things even storytellers can do to become a top search result.

Paid listings – advertising will provide you with prominent links to your website and increase your traffic (search engine advertising, specialist advertising).  The problem is if your advertise too broadly some of your newfound traffic may just be lost (using keywords, “children story”, someone looking for a book rather than a storyteller might click on your advertising link).

Free listings – putting your listing into free advertising spaces may yield success.  The following is an example of a free link to my website which was created by another storyteller relating to storytellers working in London.

Find a storyteller in London: a list of storytellers

Keywords and content – if you hit upon a unique phrase or keyword traffic will be directed from a search engine to your website.  Equally filling your site with unique and interesting content may lead to more traffic (I get traffic to my website because of blogs and videos about Tim the Ostler.  Unfortunately these people tend to be studying Alfred Noyes poetry rather than looking for a workshop).

Active social media – An active social media presence will mean people are regularly reminded of the work that you do.  Likes, shares, retweets and follows all help to get the word out there (so when you’ve finished reading this, do me a favour and subscribe to my Youtube channel!).  Some people link their social media to their website content making this process less time consuming.

This leads me to what I believe to be the most powerful form of advertising…

Word of mouth recommendations

A person who watched what you do and how you do it makes a recommendation explaining what made you special and so a chain begins.  Word of mouth recommendations are like gold dust and fortunately in spite of the fact that at times I can be a tongue tied bumbler I’ve received a few over the years.

Reading back over what I’ve written it sounds like marketing a story successfully you’d have about as much chance as a salmon heading up a bear infested river but that’s not at all true.  Some of the best storytellers I ever met don’t have websites or even bother with marketing.  So what am I saying about selling stories?  That there’s no point?  Leaflets and websites are merely a glossy platform for promoting your creative ideas.  To achieve the buy in the interactions with potential clients should be as unique as the story that might be told.  Its about opening a dialogue about creativity; offering imaginative formats and fantastic content all mixed up with a healthy dose of enthusiasm and honesty as in the end no one’s booking a manicured sound byte.  If we place the emphasis on enjoying the experience of working with storytellers the rest will follow because the unique selling point of John Kirk – Storyteller is John Kirk.