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  • Writer's pictureKevin Cordi

What I Believe, Do or Know as a Storytelling Coach

What I Believe, Do or Know as a Storytelling Coach Marni Gillard

I coach from a theoretical base, from a well of beliefs about how people learn. Do I mess up and sometimes act contradictory to my beliefs? Oh, yeah. But that sends me back to my core beliefs, or I realize it’s time to expand them. Here’s what I believe, do, or know as a coach:

1) I tell stories about being “coached.” My dad, my diving coach, saw the best in everyone he taught. His early death influenced me in many ways as an educator. My high school synchronized swimming coach drove our team to a college­level candlelit synchro show. A priest paid me five dollars in advance for my first long­term performing “gig” when I was only nine. I tell stories of teachers who shut down my learning as well. Early on I vowed never to put a student down to make myself look good. I’m full of tales about how I want and don’t want to teach, and I encourage students to remember moments of learning and failing to learn.

2) I put the teller in charge or his or her coaching session. I’m more follower than leader. I check in regularly – is this helpful? Would you like appreciations/suggestions now? I watch for clues. If the teller wants to speak, I follow her lead. Does this feel like a place to stop? Is there anything else you want from me/us?

3) I must believe in every teller. This is essential. Tellers will doubt themselves enough without my doubting their potential. My father saw that some divers were more naturally skilled than others. He still told every diver, “You can do it!” We learned we could succeed at any dive, if we just kept at it. His job was to do his best to see we didn’t give up. Some coaches care more about numbers of wins and quality of play than about players. I have very high standards, but the people I coach matter more than my standards. If I send someone away discouraged, I haven’t coached well.

And I want my storytellers to be better humans because of the stories they hear and tell. Our work isn’t just about skill; it’s about how we live our lives and treat each other. The world desperately needs stories. We need tales, and we need each other. I want my students to realize stories heal and instruct as well as entertain. Good stories help us be more generous, brave, kind and resourceful. They nudge us to laugh at ourselves and to wise up. I want to keep tellers telling ­ for their listeners and for themselves. I do that by believing in them.

4) I regularly remind myself there is no right way to tell any story. Some tellers are entertaining. Some quietly engaging. Some are loud and dramatic. Others casual, even goofy. There is an infinite number of ways. My job is to help the teller find his or her own unique way. That means getting out of the director’s chair, and becoming the investigator.

5) I find out how to help through deep listening. I listen wholeheartedly. I nod, laugh and grimace. I offer what Pam McGrath calls “a juicy face.” I wait out a long pause with relaxed patience. I know even experienced tellers, working with a new tale, struggle to capture an image in words. I look and listen for the nuances of a teller’s style. When anyone is listened to deeply, he is more likely to give that gift to others. Children of every age listen well, given regular opportunities to practice. Beyond the story, I know how to help the teller by listening to why she’s chosen this tale or what he wants from this coaching. Is it a new tale or one that may have gotten stale? Does the teller have a good sense of her strengths? What does he think

needs improvement? When I listen well, I hear many things. As a coach, I focus on the teller’s hopes for the tale. Does this take time? Yes. But when I just give quick tips, I’m more copyeditor than coach.


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