ORAL STORYTELLING Reading work aloud


In this 3-part bi-weekly series, storyteller Chip Colquhoun shares many of the key lessons authors can learn from the art of oral storytelling.

This week, authors all over will visit hundreds of schools for World Book Day 2024 with timid trepidation. They may possess a confident, entertaining voice on paper, birthing entire worlds within the mind of each reader – but in person that voice can feel worryingly raw, thin, and unsure. How can it compete with the growing multitude of mighty media demanding young people's attention? Will it turn off potential readers or – far worse – disappoint existing ones?

Yet they go forth – partly from a passion to share the empowering joy of creativity with new generations, partly from the realisation that a single school visit will pay the typical author more than their annual royalties.

The good news is that reading your work aloud is a powerful way to inspire young people into reading. I can say this with certainty because I began storytelling professionally a whole nine years before the publication of my first book, and I was constantly being invited back into schools because teachers and parents saw increased enthusiasm for reading among their children after my visits (usually accompanied by a rise in reading standards). 

That was without a book in sight! If telling stories without a book turns reluctant readers into recreational ones, it stands to reason that telling them from a book – something they can see, hold, even smell – should have at least as great an effect.

The better news is that reading your work aloud is easy once you start to use the 'Keyring Skill' of good storytelling: Tell the story with your listeners, not to them.

A performer knows they’ve done a good job when the audience has been focused on them and they receive rapturous applause at the end. A storyteller knows they’ve done a good job when they detect obvious signs that their audience has engaged with the experience – for instance, immediate questions about decisions taken by the characters, the truth of events, where the story came from, etc. All this shows that the audience are considering what the story means for them, and won't be forgetting it any time soon.

For me, this was best summed up by a Primary Times Children's Choice Awards reviewer who attended one of my storytelling shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018. She wrote, "It felt more like a conversation than a performance."

I call this the 'Keyring Skill' because it is the only skill you really need in order to read like a storyteller. Every other storytelling 'hack' for engaging listeners is just a key skill to hang from this ring: good to know, but only needed if it fits the listeners you're with. 'Doing all the voices' may mesmerise some listeners by the world you're bringing to life – but others may just laugh gleefully at your performance whilst getting distracted from the story itself.

That said, to further boost your confidence for your next public reading of your work, here's my guide to 'Doing all the VOICE': five key engagement techniques to hang from your keyring skill...

V is for Vocal Adjustment

This is something you do all the time, usually without thinking about it. If you’re concerned, you lower your pitch; if you’re excited, you raise your pace; if you’re trying to get someone’s attention across a crowded room, you project.

For those on the receiving end, there’s an almost universal unconscious understanding of what these Vocal Adjustments mean. Someone speaks to you with a lower pitch than usual? We want to know what’s wrong. Someone’s speaking too fast? We want them to slow down so we can understand what’s got them so excited. A loud voice cuts across a great distance? We turn to look, checking whether it’s our attention they want.

So if all this nuance of language can be transmitted automatically, you can be sure of enhancing your reading by putting just a little thought into it in advance. When reading a passage, consider how it’s making you feel. How would you adjust your voice if trying to convey that same feeling? Try reading the passage out loud with that same Vocal Adjustment, and you’ll share the same emotion with your listeners.

You can apply this approach to characters in a story too. What emotion is the character feeling? How would you adjust your voice to convey such a feeling? Read their dialogue with that same Vocal Adjustment, and all your listeners will feel a greater understanding of the character.

Remember: adjusting your vocals is not the same as ‘doing all the voices’. The latter makes you the object of attention. Vocal Adjustments designed around emotion cause a creative response within the mind of the listener, as they imagine how the characters are feeling or get a better sense of the action taking place.

O is for Openings

If you’re confident that your listeners will predict the next word, then preceding it with the inflexion of a question mark, along with a slight pause, can prompt them to say it for (or with) you. For example: "Mirror, mirror on the...?"

Doing this gives you an opportunity to confirm the engagement of your listeners – but not just for you. When they hear themselves providing the right response, they’ll recognise their own engagement. This will give rise to a ‘feedback loop’: hearing themselves engaging with the tale will encourage them to engage even more.

Once your listeners are familiar with your use of this technique, though, it can be fun to play around with it, and provide an Opening when in fact the next word is not what you’d expect. The fact that they still make an attempt is proof of their engagement – but the gasp, laughter, or other sounds of surprise or delight will again create that feedback loop.

Be careful not to overuse this technique though. A reading with too many Openings can become tedious, especially if the listeners haven’t yet become acquainted enough with the tale to accurately predict what’s coming, or they’re never allowed to be right.


I is for Indication

Let’s say you’re listening to someone telling a story about a spider. They say, “This story is about a very small creature…” – and, at the same time, hold out a closed hand that isn’t quite a fist. They look at their hand and add, “…who was actually…”

Slowly they open their fingers, palm towards the ceiling.

“…a spider,” they finish.

In that moment, what are you imagining to be in their hand?

Even without the presence of an actual arachnid, the storyteller’s gesture has guided your imagination to create an Indication of one. And if the listeners are creating, they’re investing in the experience of the story – which is the very definition of engagement.

Indication works best when it combines three core elements:

  1. a physical gesture (eg a hand held out);
  2. a suggestion of mass (eg by not fully closing the hand); and
  3. the teller’s sight line (eg looking at their hand).

Of these, item 3 is the most important. If you look up as if you’re seeing an elephant and declare, “The elephant stood up!” then your audience will be more convinced that you are indicating an elephant standing up. That in turn will encourage them to envision the same, even though you haven’t used a physical gesture nor given any suggestion of mass.

Item 2 is perhaps the most subtle of the ingredients, but a powerful one nonetheless. If you hold up a completely closed fist, how could anyone imagine a spider actually waiting safely in your palm for your revelation? How could they believe you’re holding an apple, a sword, a rope – or anything else?

C is for Conversation

This is the most direct example of reading with your listeners. As you go through the story, invite your listeners to comment on it, say what they think is about to happen, what they would do in a similar situation, etc. There is quite simply no method of confirming and compounding the engagement of your audience than this.

Conversation needn’t just be about the story – it can also cover the telling of the story. For example, you can combine it with Vocal Adjustment by asking your listeners to suggest how a character might sound. You can also ask them how they think the Environment should sound (see below).

There are two important factors to consider when using this technique. The first is to avoid giving your audience any suggestion of control over the story. Instead of asking, “What happens next?” your question should be, “What do you think will happen next?” Such avoids the potential of engagement-busting disappointment when you read on to reveal an action which contradicts your listener’s suggestion. If all you invited was their thoughts, you can legitimately move on with the words, “Shall we find out?”

The second factor to consider is knowing when to move on. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re telling a story – and you need time to finish it!

Keep those factors in mind, though, and Conversation may be the most powerful key skill on your keyring.

E is for Environment

This final technique is the easiest form of audience participation: inviting your listeners to create the Story Environment with you.

For example, you read that a wind is blowing through the trees. Why not invite your listeners to make the sound of that breeze? By contributing to the atmosphere of the story, they’ll feel further invested in it. Don’t worry about silencing them afterwards either. Just continue to read, raising your voice ever so slightly if needed, and you’ll soon find that your listeners quieten down naturally in order to discover the action that takes place in the setting they helped establish.


We All Engage Differently

As writers, we're more aware than most of the uniqueness of every individual. Not everyone is a fan of eye contact, and a performer who demands that all eyes look in the same direction could in fact be erecting a barrier to engagement rather than enabling it. Conversely, allowing a listener to relax and enjoy a story in their own way could result in far greater engagement than the listener is otherwise capable of.

But what about listeners who keep turning to chat with their friends during a story, perhaps making sudden noises or exclamations to the amusement of those around them? Are they engaging with the tale? 

In my experience – and the experience of every other traditional storyteller I know – those listeners are always providing some sort of commentary on the story, or contributing their own sound effects, dialogue, gestures etc. So why would you silence that? That’s a clear sign that they’re engaged! Just keep reading – they'll be keeping an ear out to make sure they don't miss anything, honest to promise.

Always keep the Keyring Skill in mind – read with your listeners rather than to them – and this will help you consider how to adapt your reading in order to broaden and increase the level of engagement from each unique listener.

In the next part of this series, we'll ask: Is there anything oral storytelling can teach us about how to write an engaging story...?

For more advice on using the skills of a storyteller in your public readings, find Chip's book All the Better to Read You With in bookshops now  illustrated by Korky Paul and published by Epic Tales.

*Header image: In-house collaboration between Ell Rose and Tita Berredo 


Chip Colquhoun began storytelling for children in 2007 and was asked to write the EU’s guidance on using stories in classrooms in 2015. He became a children’s writer when The History Press commissioned him in 2016 to write Cambridgeshire Folk Tales for Children. He’s since had 22 books published, most as part of the Fables & Fairy Tales series he co-produces with illustrator Korky Paul (published by Epic Tales), and is currently working with the National English Hub and the National Literacy Trust to raise the rate of recreational reading in schools. You can find him at storytellerchip.com

Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact illustrators@britishscbwi.org

Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. Contact illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org

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