Did video kill the storyteller? Storytelling for video in the lockdown.

In a previous blog I discussed how as a storyteller I have been using the video conferencing platform Zoom to work with schools and public libraries during the national lockdown.  I talked about the merits and challenges of live digital storytelling and what I have tried to overcome not occupying the same physical space as my audience.  In this blog I want to talk about making videos of stories.

I made my first video three days before the lockdown was announced.  I was staying in a hotel and wanted to see whether there would be an appetite for the medium in the weeks to come.  In the following weeks I made and shared a few videos on Youtube, Facebook and Twitter (Goldilocks, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a couple of folk tales and a version of Romeo and Juliet).  I then went right off making videos but three months later I am honing the skill of being a prerecorded storyteller and I am very pleased with my most recent creations.

There were a few reasons that I initially went off prerecording videos. It’s a bit depressing to spend a lot of time (sometimes as long as two hours) producing a ten minute story that less than a handful of people will watch.  You see in this brave new world there is no shortage of digital content for the audience to watch.  Not only that but it’s a David and Goliath battle for attention which pits little old me making videos in his back room on a laptop with heavyweights such as authors, celebrities and theatre companies.  As a professional storyteller with a decade of experience and a large repertoire of stories my content is just as worthy as anybody else’s but I can’t compete with their production or promotional resources.

There have been things I’ve been able to do to improve my experience of making videos.  I stopped trying to make videos hoping they would go viral and started telling stories I really enjoy and wanted to share (I’m a storyteller and not a Youtube star). Despite issues with image and sound quality I have continued to use my laptop to record my stories rather than investing in new equipment which may have a finite usefulness. In my early recordings I used my laptop’s inbuilt video recorder but now I record using Zoom.  The sound still isn’t perfect but it’s much better. I also hung a colourful cloth as a backdrop to make my space appear brighter and started making recordings in the day time to take advantage of the natural light.  Finally and most crucially I started telling people that I was making videos.  I have worked with a lot of libraries as a storyteller and they have been super supportive of my work since the lockdown, sharing my initial videos and requesting more to share on their social media and websites.  Where initially I had been recording to pass the time I now had a purpose.

When I do live stories I like to get audiences involved, giving them actions and words to repeat, getting volunteers to help tell parts of stories and using props, costumes and water pistols to enhance the overall experience.  Working on a small screen some of this is still possible live because I can see how the people I’m working with are interacting.  If I ask a group to stand up I can see them doing it and know to wait for this to happen.  If you are prerecording a story and want the audience to stand up you have to trust they are doing it.  It’s far more difficult to allow an appropriate amount of time for an interaction which may or may not be happening.  In other words as the storyteller you are in the dark as to the impact of your recording (fortunately with a three year old at home I have a willing audience for my recordings before I share them more widely).  Another effect of not having an audience is there is no one to slow me down and something that might take me half an hour live is significantly shorter in video form.  To begin with I found recording to be an awkward process that I could become overly critical of my performance.  I have found the best way of countering the void left by the absence of an audience and feelings of embarrassment is to throw myself into the telling of stories and have found it a lot easier to record silly stories where I could be more physically dynamic than more emotive ones.

As with every aspect of the new normal storytellers are finding their feet and using their resources in different ways.  All of my videoed stories were achieved in single recordings.  I can do this because I record in a space where I get very few interruptions.  It does mean that some of my videos contain small errors but then so do my live performances.  The stories I share (my one take wonders) reflect a moment in time when the words fell out of my head in a certain order in much the same way they have done for ten years.  I prefer this method of working and feel it’s more truthful to the art of storytelling but we live in unprecedented times.

When storytellers produce videos we have the shared goal of trying to achieve the most impressive and engaging product possible and if that means enhancing our work by editing it, adding titles or music then so be it. Even a truly marvellous recording will enter a crowded marketplace and more than ever we are grateful to our network of supporters if our work is to find an audience on video sharing platforms.

Telling stories to a camera isn’t a perfect scenario but at least we are still telling stories and finding audiences.  So did video kill the storyteller?  No, like everything else it just forced them to think further outside the box (well the screen anyway).

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.