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Storytelling Performance Part 3c - Non-verbal engagement strategies in performance storytelling

This blog is the third in an occasional series of entries exploring storytelling and performance and is linked to the conceptual model of storytelling that I developed in the second of these blogs, Storytelling Performance Part 2 – A Framework, which can be found by clicking HERE.

Realising that there is a lot to be covered here, I have split this blog into three sections a) Introduction (which can be found by clicking HERE) b) Verbal engagement strategies (which can be found by clicking HERE) and c) non-verbal strategies and conclusion. The argument developed over these sections is based on a recent article, 'The Social Art of Language’: a semiotic response to engagement strategies in performance storytelling which is published in: Storytelling, Self, Society, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall 2018.

Non-Verbal Engagement Strategies

In the final part of this extended blog, I will discuss how non-verbal engagement strategies can be used to effect a shift of storytelling competence, so that the story is visibly created by the teller and audience working together. While there are references to other tellings during the discussion, I will continue to use one of my own performances of ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’ (Grimm Brothers) as a worked example, the video of which can be accessed HERE [1].

In Part 3a, the introduction to this three-part blog, I emphasised my own commitment to the idea that story is the co-creation of storyteller and audience together (a characteristic of storytelling that I have placed at the core of the Storytelling Framework), and that it is possible (I would argue, desirable) for the competence to tell a story to be distributed between both parties.

Non-Verbal Engagement and Multiple Roles

In Part 3a (Verbal Engagement Strategies) I discussed the different roles that the storyteller has to take in relation to both the story and the audience:

  • Narration – the most obvious task for the storyteller is actually narrating the story. An audience may join in with repeated words or phrases;

  • Interaction – during the telling, the teller might ask the audience to interpret events, or the actions of characters, through questioning;

  • Characterisation – the audience can join in with repeated sections in which the teller steps inside the story and takes on the role of one of the characters;

  • Evaluation – the teller draws on the audience’s knowledge of, or views on, the story by managing discussion during which the teller may also give contextualising information (e.g. discussing variations of the tale).

Although I have separated verbal and non-verbal engagement strategies for the purposes of this blog, the two clearly need to work together in order for communication to be effective. The starting point for any discussion of non-verbal communication has to be the significance of the physical presence of both storyteller and the audience. One of the aspects of the storytelling framework that I have highlighted (see Part 3a) is the characteristic of storytelling as an embodied act. This is, perhaps, not as obvious as it sounds, and in my day-to-day working life

(in teaching and teacher development) the word ‘storytelling’ can mean many things. Yes, it can mean a teller and an audience sharing space and time, but it also commonly refers to story reading, story writing, or recordings of oral storytelling (audio and video). But a distinction needs to be drawn between these forms in which the text becomes fixed (whether in printed word, or captured performance) and the dynamic exchange that characterises a live performance in which (to quote the framework) ‘storytelling depends on the co-construction of story’. When storytelling is, thus, a live and embodied act, non-verbal communication becomes as much a part of the performance as the verbal and, for co-construction to occur, the audience and teller need to be able to ‘read’ each other[2].

Objects as story cues

Objects are used to enhance storytelling performances[3] all over the world and, in my own storytelling, I have used a mixture of puppets and props as a strategy to support learning in educational settings in which children had English either as an additional, or foreign, language. Objects in such contexts are sometimes referred to as realia, and they provide physical reference points for language. For example, in the telling of ‘Snow White’ to Flemish children (as discussed above), I produced a bunch of colourful ribbons as I said the word ‘ribbons’ at the point that Snow White was tempted by the witch to decorate her dress.

In ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’, the sea (starting with blue) changes colour as the wishes of the fisherman’s wife become more extreme. Colour, then, is a marker for the growing tension in the story and I use different coloured fabric to highlight this significance. At the start of the story, I say (at 1’10”) to the audience ‘…he [the fisherman] pushed his little boat into the…’, to which they respond, ‘…sea.’ I then correct them, lifting the blue silk and manipulating the fabric to create waves as I say, ‘No. The blue sea…’. Although, I warn (in the above section on closed questioning) against a ‘guess what is in my head’ strategy, on this occasion, this approach has a clear benefit. It sets the rules of the game of interaction for the audience, giving them sufficient information to be able to respond with the changing colours of the sea as the narrative progresses (and thus sharing storytelling competence with them). This means that when I lift the other coloured seas in turn, the audience sees the action as an invitation to verbalise the colour.

In addition to the coloured silks representing the sea, I also use a (commercially produced), fish puppet during the performance of ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’. The puppet and the silks not only act as realia but also as concrete representations of the fictional world. As such, they make the story world physically present within the performance space (and reinforce the embodied nature of the telling). Their function, then, in terms of engagement, goes beyond simply eliciting verbal responses, but reinforces the audience’s sense of immersion within the story world.

Vocal engagement strategies

I have highlighted the way that the children in Belgium imitated my characterisation of Snow White’s step-mother as she says, ‘Yeeeeeees!’ In my work with both student teachers and children, I often ask, ‘What does the word “yes” mean?’ The responses to this question usually are related to confirmation or agreement; however, I then go on to demonstrate a range of ways of voicing the word ‘yes’ that demonstrate that it can mean a lot of things. For instance, by framing it as a question with a rising pitch intonation at the end of the word, ‘yes’ can mean,

‘What do you want?’ The point here is that words have no intrinsic meaning until they are used within a specific context, and storytelling (an oral rather than literary mode of communication) is as dependent on the way words are said as much, if not more so, as the words themselves. In relation to audience engagement, the children, in imitating the intonation that I gave this single word, were demonstrating competence in giving it expression and therefore (within the story context) meaning. Through imitating the rattling voice and extended ‘yeeeeees’, the children were characterising through this single word, but the way in which the voice of the characterisation rattled in the throat also meant the act of speaking was not limited to sound production, but had a physical component felt in the upper chest and throat, emphasising (once more) the embodied nature of storytelling.

Returning to ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’, as the fisherman becomes more and more exasperated with his wife’s demands, the delivery of the rhyme (‘Little fishy in the sea,’ etc.) changes. This is most noticeable at the points where the fisherman calls to the fish over the red (08’07”-08’49”) and black (09’53”-10’47”) seas in turn. Through imitating my own characterisation in which the fisherman’s voice is grating with frustration (red sea) or whispering with fear (back sea), the audience demonstrates their storytelling competence not only in terms of the narrative, but also in connecting with the emotions of the protagonist.

This use of vocal technique for effect is not restricted to characterisation, but is also essential in any context in which the teller is inviting the audience to imitate their performance, and it is one of the significant ways in which storytelling is grounded in orality rather than literacy. Opportunities for the audience to join-in by mimicking the tone, pitch, volume or pace of something the teller has said depend on the latter deciding how they will deliver the words that they use, so that information about the characters, settings and events are clearly communicated.

Intonation is important, however, not only in imitative responses. The way that an audience knows that it has permission to be co-tellers of the story is both vocal and physical. This is the case when questioning, for instance: the difference between the delivery of a rhetorical question and a genuine question intended to elicit a contribution to the narration is subtle, but significant, and I have often witnessed inexperienced tellers disconcerted because an audience has interpreted the latter as the former, and has therefore failed to supply the expected response.

During the opening of ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’, I invite the audience to complete the sentence ‘He [the fisherman] pushed his little boat into the…’, by leaving a space (at 1’10”). The audience responds with the missing word ‘…sea’, recognising the genuine nature of the invitation through the lifting of my voice on my final word, ‘the’. Combining this with gesture tells the audience that they have permission at this point in the story to respond to this cue – this permission is necessary for competence to be shared and is the means by which the storyteller is orchestrates participation to create a storytelling community in which they are the principal, but not only, storyteller.

Gestural engagement strategies

There is a statistic about the importance of the physical in embodied communication that is

often thrown around without much of a critique. It is suggested that communication is only 7% verbal, 38% vocal and 55% physical – a statistical breakdown that is based on the work of Albert Mehrabian (1981). However, Mehrabian’s work was far more nuanced than the oft-quoted statistic suggests, and these specific percentages came out of his investigation into communication in highly emotional situations, not communication in general. Having said that, Mehrabian’s work, along with that of researchers such as McNeil (2000), points to the importance of body language in communication, and so the final section of this extended blog discusses the way that gesture can be strategically employed to draw the audience into participation in the story world and in sharing the competence to tell.

Continuing with the example performance of ‘Snow White’, as I characterised the ‘Yeeeeeeeeeas!’ of the step-mother, I slapped may palm against my heart as an emphatic gesture. The children, in imitating my characterisation, not only copied my vocalisation, but also the physical action. The embodied nature of storytelling was manifest here, not only for me as the teller, but also for the children as they gave physical expression to the word ‘yes’, feeling their hand striking their chests at the same time as the physical sensation created by lowering and rattling the voice in the throat. Again, they were demonstrating that they had the competence to give expression to the story that we were telling together.

In order to explore the ways in which gesture can support meaning and affirm the audience’s participation I am going to return to specific moments in the video of my telling of ‘The Fisherman and His Wife’ (click HERE)[4].

Drawing on the work of McNeill, and my previous writing on storytelling performance, I will refer to three aspects of gesture: emphasis, illustration and direction.

Emphasis – providing visual cues to indicate individual elements of spoken language, often achieved through a ‘beat’ with the hand(s).


At the point in the performance of ‘Fisherman and his Wife’ in which the audience fills in the space left by me to describe the sea with the word ‘blue’, I respond with the affirming, ‘you’re listening, good’ [08’26’’]. At the same time, I use my hand to create two ‘beats’ with the index finger raised: these serve to indicate that the idea is significant. Of course, such beats are part of everyday speech, and we use them to make it clear which specific word, phrase or idea is significant as we speak, but here they are affirming the role of the audience in telling the story, and confirming that their intervention has demonstrated their competence to tell.

There is an additional aspect to this gesture which can be easily overlooked. As highlighted in the second part of this blog on engagement strategies, the multiple roles that the storyteller plays have to be navigated, and so the performance needs to make it clear whether the teller is narrating (standing outside the story and relating its events), characterising (behaving as if they are within the story) or evaluating (standing outside the story and commentating on it). In this example, the gesture accompanies language which is in the second person, ‘you’. The direct address to the audience stands outside the story and is a commentary on their performance of it (when they reply with, ‘blue’). The deliberate use of an emphatic gesture helps to confirm the embodied presence of the teller in the world of the here and now (that the audience also inhabits) and makes the dialogue between teller and audience spatial and physical, as well as verbal.

As with all aspects of communication, it is possible for the teller to overemphasise everything that is said, and overplay every contribution from the audience. The inevitable outcome of this is that when everything is given significance, nothing is significant. This can be a feature of the way that some people talk to children – they think that it is affirming, but it actually muddies communication as the listener has to work harder to pick out those things that are truly significant without the distinct markers that aid such judgement.

Illustration – where ideas and words are acted out through gesture.


When we converse, we naturally act out stories, adding an additional layer of information to support meaning. Think of occasions where you say something like, ’…and I Looked behind me‘, twisting your head and to make the point. At the start of ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’, I narrate how the fisherman pushes his boat into the blue sea. My words, ‘and he pushed’ [1’09”] are accompanied by the pantomimic act of my pushing the boat. Of course, if the boat and beach were real, the pushing would have to have been a great deal more strenuous, and prolonged, but this single action is a sign which represents the equivalent activity in the real world. Despite its symbolic value, however, this action brings the world of the story into the performance space and forms a point of physical characterisation at the same time as, verbally, I am narrating in the third person.

Of course, the teller can encourage the audience to participate in making actions, emphasising their competence to tell. However, even in this case (where the audience does not imitate my action) as I repeat it through the telling, the act of pushing becomes a cueing device so that the audience knows that they are about to join-in with identifying the colour of the sea into which the fisherman pushes his boat.

Direction – indicating either space or time through gesturing. For example, pointing to a space to mark a shift in focus, location or time.


It is only natural, as we give directions to someone, to point the way in which they should go. Actually, as we converse, we are constantly telling people where they should be paying attention through gesture, whether pointing with our hands, nodding with our head, or simply turning our eyes and using gaze to focus attention. All of these form part of our everyday repertoire of non-verbal communication, and in storytelling they can be used strategically to help the audience know where they should be looking, and how the storyteller is relating to the story world (telling the audience about it, or reacting within the story world itself).

To illustrate this point, I want to use two different examples from ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’. In the first one, I indicate that the audience should join in with the rhyming call to the magical fish [3’10”-3’13”]. This simple arm gesture contrasts with the section [between 9’10” and 9’50”] in which the fisherman talks to his wife who is crowned as the king. To mark her presence I am holding the crown over where the audience should be ‘seeing’ her, and I turn to talk to the wife using my gaze to direct the audience to look at the space which the wife is inhabiting. Although all of these gestural strategies (gaze, hand flicks and chest orientation) help the audience to see the story world and become immersed in it, it does not invite them to actively participate.

By contrast, when I want the audience to join in with the fisherman’s rhyme over the waves, I say, ‘..and this is your chance to join in’ [at 3’11”]. As I do so, my arm arcs up (with a flattened hand) and over the audience to the side, and then I make another gesture over the audience that is seated directly first pointing at them (‘you say…’) and then indicating myself (‘…after me’). There is nothing to suggest that the audience would not have joined in if I had only used the verbal cues, but the use of gesture in this way maximised the potential in this moment to involve the audience directly in the telling.


At the core of my proposed storytelling performance framework (see Storytelling Performance Part 2 – A Framework, which can be found by clicking HERE ) is the conviction that storytelling depends on the co-construction of story. The strategies that have been discussed in this extended blog highlight overt ways in which a storyteller can share the competence to tell with the audience. Competence in this sense means having both the skills and the opportunity to act, with the consequence that the teller needs to engage the audience in such a way that they know what to do and when they can do it. Verbal strategies, such as questioning, need to provide clear cues that avoid extended moments of ‘guess what is in my head’ (unless used playfully). Non-verbal cues need to help the audience understand where the storyteller’s language and attention are directed (through the use of gaze and other signals), and whether a response is expected or not (through the raising of the pitch of the voice at the end of a sentence).

Although all of the aspects of the framework underpin the discussion, the following have been highlighted as being of particular significance:

  • Storytelling involves multiple roles – the teller needs to be able to tell the story, and shift from a third person (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘it’) narration to first person characterisation (‘I’) to second person (‘you’) engagement through questioning or inviting responses from the audience.

  • Storytelling is embodied – the physical nature of storytelling means that communication is non-verbal as much as verbal. Ensuring the audience knows when they are free to contribute to the storytelling, passing the focus to and fro, is dependent on the ability to provide cues through gesture, and shifts in gaze and tone of voice.

  • Storytelling is grounded in orality (c.f. literacy) – unlike a written text, the meaning of spoken language is provided by contexts that may not be linguistic (tone of voice, gesture, sideways glance etc.). In addition, storytelling is adaptable to the specific audience, and the time and place of performance, which ultimately creates a text which is negotiated (unlike fixed written text).

[1] The reasons for choosing this telling are:

  • that it is readily accessible via YouTube

  • it avoids having to address the ethical concerns about putting into public a detailed critique of another teller’s work

  • several techniques are demonstrated in it which are commonly found in storytelling performance such as switching between first and third person, and direct interaction with the audience. (These strategies are also discussed by Bauman Verbal Art as Performance 295, Harley 131-2, Howes 97-115, Stotter 54, Swann 147-8).

  • exploring this telling provides an opportunity for me to understand my own storytelling in more depth

It’s important to say that I don’t consider this telling to either exemplify high quality storytelling, or indeed one of my own best performance. The context for the telling was very tricky, and I wince at aspects of my performance when I watch the video, but it does provide a useful case study because of the ways in which competence is visibly shared between me as teller and the audience.

[2] As a member of the local storytelling club, Three Heads in a Well ( I have argued against the introduction of theatre lighting to highlight the performance area. My reasoning is grounded in this very argument – if I have lights in my eyes, how do I ‘read’ the audience and have a meaningful exchange with them?

[3] See Pellowski, 1990

[4] This section of analysis is a summary of that in my paper 'The Social Art of Language’: a semiotic response to engagement strategies in performance storytelling which is published in: Storytelling, Self, Society, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall 2018.

References for Part 3c: Non-Verbal Engagement Strategies

Bauman, R. (1977) Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights IL, Waveland Press.

Grimm Brothers (1987). “The Fisherman and His Wife”. In The Complete Fairy Tales. Translated from the German by Jack Zipes. London, Vintage Books, pp. 89-97.

Harley, B. (1996) 'Playing with the wall' in Birch, C.L. and Heckler, M.A. (Eds), Who Says? Essays on pivotal issues in contemporary storytelling. Little Rock: August House 130-140

Howes, H. (2014) Storytelling In the Moment. Gent, Academia Press, 2014.

Mehrabian, Albert (1981). Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth

McNeill, D (2000) ‘Introduction’ in McNeill, D (ed) Language and gesture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Pellowski, A. (1990) The World of Storytelling (2nd Ed.), Bronx NY: H.W. Wilson

Stotter, R. (1994). About Story, writings on stories and storytelling. Stinson Beach CA, Stotter Press, 1994Swann, J, (2002) “A Man Amongst Men, The Intersection of Verbal, Visual, and Vocal Elements in an Oral Narrative”. Storytelling, Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Perspectives. Edited by Maria F. Blayer and Monica Sanchez. New York, Peter Lang, pp. 145-161.

Performances Cited:

The Fisherman and his Wife, performance by Alastair K. Daniel, Brighton (UKLA International Conference), 4 July 2014. Available at HERE (Accessed 21/3/18).

Snow White, performance by Alastair K. Daniel, Gemeentelijke Basisschool Lochristi, Belgium, 22 March 2019

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