Keeping it real in your storytelling


All artists are storytellers. Storytelling is at the very core of all art forms – it’s what unites all the forms and shapes, regardless of the content they embody. Everyone’s got a story – real or fiction – to tell but the hard truth is that not all stories are compelling and most of the time a story falls flat because of how it is presented.

So here’s three tips on how to tell a story without fear or fervour:

Don’t seek approval

Seek to tell a meaningful story truthfully, not being too concerned or hung up about what your audience wants. While pandering to what your audience wants may seem to be doing your “duty”, it is actually short changing them.

Have trust and faith that your audience has the intellect and capacity to follow your tale. They are smart and discerning too, do not dilute your story to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Remember that you are that audience too – you enjoy listening to stories and you are first and foremost a fan of stories. The only difference now is that you’re telling it. Don’t waste that opportunity because you might not have another. You are in service of the story, not the other way around, therefore don’t be too overawed with praise or even awards. You are not trying to outperform anyone else.

Photo by cottonbro/

Now or never

Strike while the iron is hot, so the saying goes. Don’t tell a story just because the microphone is in your hand or your finger on the keyboard – tell it like your life depends on it. Treat it like it’s news and current, even if the events are old.

Urgency doesn’t necessarily mean telling a story fast – it’s about telling it NOW. Use active verbs and active sentences. One thing we do not have control over is time – time is a privilege and it waits for no one.

The superpower of a storyteller is in capturing these moments in time in all their vividness. We aren’t in this world forever but our stories often have a longer shelf life than the mortal storyteller. Just look at the number of novels, writing and tomes from centuries ago that are still in circulation and that resonate centuries later.

Stories define not only ourselves as individuals but also the age and times we live in – they help us to not only make sense of the world around us but also give those in the future some insight of the time the story was set.

Focus on the telling

Forget about trying to impress your potential reader with your range of vocabulary, big, fanciful words or even sudden melodrama – these are often techniques used by storytellers with nothing much to say, and audiences can smell the lie after a while. Truth be told, most of the time it is HOW the story is told, not the plot itself, that matters.

The lifespan of a story is often linear – it has a clear beginning, middle and end – but you may choose to tell the story in a nonlinear fashion through flashbacks, different points of view, or even withholding key plot twists until the very end (or even reveal it early on). This holds true regardless of the form, be it a song, a film, or a short story.

You have to be aware of the audience’s reaction from the start and be ready to improvise on the telling to suit them in different times and places. Most importantly, your personality as the storyteller will shape the audience’s expectation and appreciation of the story you are about to tell them. So work on your storyteller personality or character to make the telling compelling.

Next: The difference between ‘entertaining’ and being an ‘entertainer’

Azmyl Yunor is a bi-lingual singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, gig organiser and published academic in the field of cultural studies and popular music studies. With prolific output (both solo and with his various band projects) ranging from folk to punk to noise rock since the late 1990s, Azmyl's articulate observations on the cultural politics of contemporary Malaysia set him apart from his peers in the Malaysian music scene. He tours the region regularly and is also active as a freelance columnist, speaker and radio host. Azmyl also sits on CENDANA’s Industry Advisory Panel.
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