Storytelling Tips

by Bishop David Roller

Some of you know that I’ve been working for a couple of years on re-telling the Bible stories. I’m convinced that sermons only work part of the time – that many times it’s better to simply tell one of God’s stories.

I’ve enjoyed immensely practicing to be a storyteller, but I’m learning that re-telling a Bible story is quite different that just “telling a story.” Most storytellers are either telling their personal story or a fictional story, but when we re-tell a Bible story we’re dealing with sacred material; it’s there because it’s important and the way it’s presented is important, often the very words are critical.

Because of that I try to be very careful to not stray from the biblical content. But I don’t feel any greater pressure to “get it right” than I do when preparing a sermon. In fact, I think a sermon actually involves more pressure, because in a sermon I pre-digest the biblical record and apply it to the listeners’ lives, which involves several additional interpretive steps. All I’m saying is that if there admittedly are risks in re-telling a biblical story, they’re not as great as the risks of assuming to interpret and apply the story.

Here’s how I work up a Bible story. Since I’m a visual-thinker let me present it to you as though I were drawing an animal.

1 – I identify the “nose” and the “tail.” That is, where does it begin and where does it end? The biblical stories are not always neatly separated, so you need to decide how much or how little you’re going to “package” as your story (Samson & Delilah or Samson & Nazarite vow or Samson & deadly revenge?)

2 – I identify the legs. That is, what does it run on? What about this story connects with me? What about this story “grabs” the listener? This will usually have some emotional content; perhaps fear, love, envy, greed, betrayal, forgiveness, etc. This is what will engage the heart of the listener.

3 – I identify the bones. That is, around what structure am I going to tell the story? Is it just a time line? Or is there a theme or a repeated phrase, an unexpected ending? I often like to have 3-6 “scenes” in my mind that I’ll simply re-create with words. I just imagine them (like a picture in my mind) and then describe back what I see.

4 – I identify the skin. Here’s where I start to work on the actual words of the story. I go back to the “nose” and “tail,” making sure I know my first sentence and my last sentence. Always have these two basically memorized. The rest of the story is best NOT memorized, but with enough familiarity so you can just tell it as though it happened to you.

Now practice. I prefer to practice alone because it seems weird to talk out loud with others listening. Maybe I’m just self-conscious! But I like to say the words, rather than write them out. Our speaking cadences are different from our writing cadences.

Pick out an obscure Bible story, study it and then start telling it.

Give it a try!