To Zoom or not to Zoom that is the question.. (Telling stories to young people using video conferencing)

I was looking at some photos of my work as a storyteller and I found two which sum up the dramatic change to my working life quite perfectly…

Thursday 5th March 2020 (World Book Day), telling Roald Dahl’s The Twits
in Liverpool Central Library

then exactly three months later…

Friday 5th June 2020 (launching The Summer Reading Challenge)
telling Roald Dahl’s The Twits in my back room

In just twelve weeks I have gone from packed assembly hall to lonely living room and in the process have had to master video conferencing.

I have mixed feelings about telling stories via a computer. Yes, its a way of engaging an audience when being in the same space isn’t possible but it’s much harder to gauge how that audience’s feelings about a session. Yes, its a thrill to think your storytelling is being seen all over the country and even around the world but its also frustrating for someone with a big theatrical style to find themselves restricted to a small screen. Since the beginning of the lockdown I have tried a few different ways of storytelling. I have prerecorded short videos, done some writing and recorded some audio but I still miss live storytelling. I have had a lot of conversations with other storytellers about how they are working and recently conducted a survey. This was a tiny poll asking storytellers and workshop leaders about their preferred medium for live delivery but it reflects what I hear anecdotely; to Zoom is the thing.

The reason why many storytellers are turning to Zoom over Facebook, Youtube and other video conference services (Microsoft Teams, House Party, Google Meets etc) is because its being widely used by the general public . There are question marks about Zoom’s security but there is no point using a platform that nobody else is using. The other advantages I see for using Zoom as a storyteller is that the sound quality is very good and its possible to see the audience (on Facebook and Twitter all you see is the number of engagements). This means not only can I interact with the audience during the session but there is the potential for qualitative evaluation afterwards.

I have done a few storytelling sessions using Zoom and Google Meets. Bearing in mind that I am essentially interacting with a webcam I have been happy with their delivery but I have had issues relating to my broadband and some Zoom bombing. Whilst there isn’t much I can do about the reliability of my broadband there’s plenty storytellers can do to prevent people intentionally disrupting sessions. Here’s what I have been doing with libraries to keep my sessions safe places for children and families.

  1. Appoint an administrator. Once I start telling a story I don’t want to be thinking about managing my audience. The administrator is there to ensure everyone has a good time.
  2. Password protect storytelling sessions and discourage the sharing of passwords on social media. I am proud of the fact that my work in libraries is free at point of access to users. Sadly though advertising events on social media can draw the wrong type of crowd. By encouraging virtual ticketing and making users sign up to sessions before they receive the necessary passwords we discourage potential disruption whilst keeping the events free. The other advantage to libraries is that users are encouraged to visit the library website for passwords and possibly engage with further local content.
  3. Ensure that mics are off and video is on. To further safeguard sessions we ensure that anybody joining is prepared to show their face to the camera. If they are unwilling to do this without good reason then they are ejected by the administrator.
  4. Enlist monitors to support the administrator. Although my sessions exist in a virtual space I encourage libraries to log on and assist the administrator in observing the audience. This is especially helpful with large crowds!

If using a new medium wasn’t enough to think about then consider that many storytellers are using ticketing platforms to monetise their work (this is after all our professional livelihood)! There’s really no time to be technophobic because you still have to adapt your content to your chosen medium.

Just three months ago I looked like this….

March 2020 telling Greek Myths with a Primary School group

now I look like this…

June 2020 telling Anansi the Spider with a Primary School group

Every storyteller is different and will engage with video confencing in their own way but in my view its no good just telling a story to the camera especially if you’re doing it live because that’s what television does. I want to engage my young audiences in the same ways I would do if I were with them. To this end I have tried to make my delivery as visually appealing as possible. I already use props and hats but I have introduced a colourful background and as I tell stories I have played with my proximity to the camera. I’ve experimented with talking to audience members as they join sessions, playing games and increasing the roleplay content of sessions. In some instances I have forewarned groups of things that may be useful if they want a 4D experience (paper and pen to draw responses to my questioning and water pistols to squirt the watchers!). Rethinking my repertoire is a huge challenge but I’m working and it’s a lot of fun and I hope that some of the ideas that have come out of this process will stick.

In so many ways storytelling was designed for video conferencing platforms. Its an ideal entertainment for a small screen and although I yearn for a live audience I believe that telling stories virtually will become part of many storyteller’s “new normal”. For that to happen storytellers must be prepared to engage with technology, adapt the way we tell our stories and begin to build new audiences. What came from necessity could prove to be the beginning of something truly exciting for an ancient art form.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.