Weaving, absorbing and telling a story

This post continues the exploration of the theme of Orality and Storytelling.

If you have a story to tell in class, you may think that the most important thing is to get the story straight. But in an oral tradition where you speak to a group of listeners this means raising your voice sufficiently for your audience to hear your story. In other words, it is not enough for a story to be intelligible, it needs to be audible if you want to share it.

We all know someone who doesn’t like the sound of their own voice, and sometimes that someone is us.

Our voice is an expression of who we are. According to voice expert Rébecca Kleinberger, our voice is something instantly recognizable about us and indissociable from how other people perceive us. I came across Rébecca Kleinberger’s work in 2019 when preparing a training course for English teachers to anticipate French education reform which introduced a Grand Oral as a key component in the Baccalauréat diploma for the June 2021 exam session. Part of the workshop consisted of sharing and developing a YouTube playlist called “Grand Oral is coming” as part of exam preparation for students who didn’t like speaking in public. Shortly, we will see why Kleinberger’s video on our complicated relationship with our own voice of our voice turned out to be one of the favourite videos on the playlist.

But first, a question : how do you feel about your voice when it is the focus of attention? Friend or foe? Because, when you raise your voice to tell a story, it’s pretty much all you and your listeners are going to hear for the duration of the telling.

We all know someone who doesn’t like the sound of their own voice. And sometimes that someone is us.

Do you like what you hear?

Photo by NFT CAR GIRL on Unsplash

I was in my teens during the age of the cassette recorder. This was a new way to record and carry music around, but it was also a unique opportunity to hear the sound of your own voice – in my case, while trying to be funny reading texts I’d written. The playback, however, was not always the delight I’d expected. And the problem was not so much the content as, er … well … my voice. This was true even when it was masked by a foreign accent or used to do an imitation of another person. I just didn’t recognize my voice as belonging to me.

Today of course, this sort of situation more commonly occurs by phone. If you’d rather not leave a voice message when the person you’re calling doesn’t answer, let alone listen back to the recording of a message you’ve just left to check it’s okay, then maybe you don’t like your voice either.

If you want to hear the sound of your voice as others hear it without recording, there is a simple actor’s technique that you can use.
Cup one hand around your ear, and place your other hand in front of your mouth like a sounding board. Now speak in your normal voice so that the sound bounces off the palm of your hand and is projected directly to your ear.
There’s your voice!
How does that sound to you?

But if you don’t like the sound of your voice, which voice are you referring to? In her popular TED Talk from 2017 Rébecca Kleinberger says you have a different voice for every person you talk to. This is because, without necessarily being aware of it, we all modulate the parameters affecting our voice such as rhythm, pitch, tone, breathing and so on, depending on who we are speaking to. The voice is still our own, but comes out in what could be called a bespoke version of itself, designed specifically for the person we are addressing.

Learning to hear your different voices

First things first. If we want to speak up and tell a story to an audience, we need to be able sort out the often complicated relationship we have with our own voice. Rébecca Kleinberger helps us to do this with her description of 3 basic human voices we all share.

Rébecca Kleinberger

Kleinberger begins with what she calls the outward voice, characterized as a way of projecting yourself in the world, a marker of your fluid identity. This outward voice is the one other people hear when you talk, the voice which travels through the air.

But it is not the voice you hear when you speak; that is called the inward voice and travels to your ears through your bones so it reaches you in altered form. For one thing, the inward voice gets filtered by bone conduction. This means that what you hear sounds in a lower register and more harmonically than the way your outward voice sounds to others. And let’s not forget the habituation effect : your inner ear is so used to hearing the sound of your voice that you actually hear it less than you should. There is a neurological filter which shuts down your auditory cortex and, as Kleinberger says, your brain hears your voice but your brain actually never listens to the sound of your voice.

Lastly, comes the inner voice, which Kleinberger invites us to think of as the voice we hear when reading a text silently or when preparing for an important conversation. It can be niggling and hard to turn off, but it is also the voice which speaks in dreams and, for some people, Morgan Freeman among them, it is the core of who we really are.

In the past, people who heard voices were seen locked up as evil, dangerous or mad.

Recent research suggests that, if we can begin to hear own different voices, we will no longer be locked up but, in fact, we will be released from a prison of our own making.

Now let’s see how Kleinberger’s model can help storytelling.

Morgan Freeman’s personal take on the inner voice

The inner voice for weaving the narrative thread

I have mainly used my storytelling voice in the language classroom, and learnt my basic technique from reading and observing the work of John Morgan and Mario Rinvolucri. They advise us to begin by choosing a story to tell – it could a traditional story or something real or imagined that you’ve read or heard. In their ground-breaking book, Once Upon A Time, they show how an oral story is built from a skeleton outline, not a full text, and is created by the teller who adds developments and personal touches to make the story their own.

Effectively, with hindsight, I can feel Kleinberger’s inner voice is always at work when building my skeleton notes on the page, letting the narrative thread weave its way in my head as I proceed. It’s a not always a smooth process, moving in fits and starts, but the inner voice is one I’m familiar with, and I try to note down good ideas as they come. The final skeleton is only ever one page.

The inward voice for absorbing the story

Morgan and Rinvolucri insist that telling a story differs from reading one aloud because a number of factors will make each telling significantly different. For example, the mood of the teller influences each telling; each teller’s past experiences affect the way they percieve the story and bring it to life when speaking; the seating and number of the audience will affect the telling, as will the teller’s relationship to the audience.

Before I get to the public telling of the story, I rehearse. Morgan and Rinvolucri suggest to replay the story in one’s head while mumbling the rhythms of the story (but not the actual words of the telling) aloud. I do a longer version of that.

The technique that works for me during this phase, I now realise, is to use my inward voice to oralize the story. I use actual words for this and find that it helps me how to navigate through each part of the story and find transitions. I do this in a low voice, which only I can hear. There is quite a bit of starting and stopping in this process, but it helps me absorb the story so I can recall it more readily when telling.

The outward voice for the final rehearsal

The final rehearsal, which allows me to check I’m comfortable with the story, comes ideally just before the telling in class. People advise doing this in a quiet place. In schools where I have worked, finding a quiet place to rehearse a story has never been easy. During my time at the Lycéé des Arènes in Toulouse, this was particularly difficult because there was never much free space inside the building and no recreational space outside the school.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I had to find a way to turn a noisy environment to my advantage, and ended up turning to the intensely busy road intersection, on which the school was built, for my final rehearsal. One breaktime, I decided to walk once round the intersection, surrounded by the day’s traffic, crossing four roads in the process, oralizing my story in full outward voice as I went!

I couldn’t have vocalized like this in a quiet place. When I came back into school, I felt relaxed, refreshed and ready to tell my story. I began to use this procedure systematically, and found that, when I told the story in class, I was bolder and more fluent because I was always telling it for the second time.

Going further

For more about Rébecca Kleinberger’s personal story, take a look at this short but insightful interview.

You will find more on the work done by Morgan & Rinvolucri on storytelling here, and I wonder if we realise just how pivotal their work is to the maintaining of a living oral tradition in the language classroom.

I hope you enjoyed the post. Please leave comments or questions below.

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