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Tips for Coaching Stories & Pitches

More than a quick fix

The first time I pitched a story to a storytelling show I got feedback from one of the producers. This was a requirement for participation at the time, connecting a producer to the storyteller to advise and coach the story and the teller, getting them ready to perform the story for an audience.

I didn’t know what to expect - I had received lots of feedback in my professional work, but now I was writing something personal - a narrative story, intended for an audience. This had to be different - but I wasn’t sure, so I held my breath….

The producer started by telling what she liked about the story - she said it was funny and evocative of the time I was telling about. She liked the surprise in the story near the end…. I exhaled. This was nice - different from hearing that ‘can I give you some feedback’ phrase in professional contexts that always seems to preface something hard to hear.

Then she asked me what I liked about the story and where I had questions. I felt comfortable now opening up about what wasn’t working for me about the story - I told her how nervous I was about performing this story in front of an audience because I did not think of myself as a performer. I opened up and asked a lot of questions - she listened.

Then she asked me a couple of questions. What did I think the focus of the story was? Was there something I wanted the audience to focus on, to feel, to hear in particular? What did the story mean to me? Why did I want to tell it? How could I show more than tell?

I didn’t have the answers on the spot, but her questions were connected to the very things I was unclear on in my story - she left me with the text and said, work on it some more and let’s talk next week.

This was not what I expected but it was what I needed. Her questions challenged me to go deeper into my intentions with the story – the questions put me back to work on the story, deepened my understanding of my motivation for sharing it – and got me closer to the purpose of telling the story – and most importantly what feeling or message I wanted to land with the audience. It helped me understand the work needed to not just write down the facts of a story, but share it, with heart, for an audience.

The feedback was not a quick fix – it sent me back to work on the story to find a solution in my own voice. Was I hoping she would just tell me what to do, what to fix or change? Maybe, but while talking I forgot about that and got more interested in my story.

Coaching and storytelling is everywhere now, made even more accessible through the virtual connectivity of pandemic life. When the pandemic shut down live storytelling shows I was missing the connections I felt to other story creators, missing the talk about writing, creating and how to reach audiences. With nothing happening in Montreal, I found myself connecting with storytellers through virtual shows mostly based in Toronto and the United States, leading me to connect with Sean Wellington, creator, and founder of GRIT Storytelling. We got to talking, I attended and participated in his shows and this led me to his Swap Shop - a group of storytellers, brought together by Wellington, to work together, giving each other feedback and collaborating on making better stories. We do collaborate and we also discuss, disagree, offer, fix, advise - we find ourselves doing all of this with each other’s work.

Exchanging feedback with the Swap Shop about storytelling got me thinking about my first story feedback experience and my training as a coach. What that producer did for my very first story was very much what I learned about coaching - that offering feedback and advice is rarely about quick fixes.

Many of us can be quick to offer advice that is a quick fix, our take on the problem delivered as we are running to the fire to resolve the issue. Advice and quick fixes are easy and sometimes are necessary when hearing someone’s work - but it isn’t always the best way to coach storytelling, or pitches and presentations.

Here are some tips about giving feedback on storytelling. These are phrased as storytelling coaching tips, but they can equally be applied to business and personal contexts because they are a foundation for better conversations about feedback. And they are even more important where stakes are about commenting and considering somebody else’s work.

These tips are based on my training as a coach and my work as a storytelling and startup pitch coach. They are however also informed by ongoing discussions and collaboration with Sean Wellington and the experience of the Swap Shop collaborators. Here goes:

Tip 1: Ask What They Need

Hearing feedback is challenging and not all are ready to hear it as readily as those willing to serve it up. Wanting to help is a great human instinct, but many of us are quick to run to the fire with a hose, quick to try to solve a problem, provide a quick fix, thinking we are responding to a need. There are moments with colleagues and collaborators where this can be helpful - but getting clear on expectations for any feedback conversation is key.

The thing is the stakes are high. In personal storytelling the feedback conversations can touch on elements of stories and style that touch deeply personal matters, things that lie under the story. Advising on pitches and presentations means you are wading into something that has implications for an individual’s reputation and success. If you are a formally trained coach you are aware of your duty of care for others. This means a responsibility to act with care, empathy, and compassion, to act in the service of the client. Non-coaches teaching or advising on stories, pitches and presentations have an equal responsibility to pay attention to the way feedback is given. This starts with getting clear on your role and the terms of feedback.

Start with the assumption that there are stakes for the person telling, presenting, giving the pitch and start by getting curious about the terms of the conversation - this means asking some questions first before you wade in:

Tip 1: Ask what they need

  • What kind of feedback do you need?

  • Is there something specific you want to work on?

Examples: the beginning, the end, the balance of fact and heart, the flow of the story, use of

language, metaphor, voice and energy or tone.

If they need a quick fix - ok - what is the quick fix related to?

  • Editing suggestions

  • Story format

  • Style of telling-performance

First step? Be clear on the terms of the conversation.

TIP 2: Get the context

Stories, pitches, presentations are about communicating a feeling or experience, a proposal and or a message - bottom line is there is someone in the audience and understanding the context and audience helps. Before you offer feedback, get curious about the what and where of the story - this can help shape the type of feedback offered. Is the story being told at a show with a theme? Is this an open-mic event, a slam, how long is the story expected to be? Do we know anything about the types of stories favored by the show (as in what style do, they typically feature)? Find out more about the context with these questions:

TIP 2: Get the context

  • Type of show (live, virtual

  • Format (slam, open-mic, curated show, length of story)

  • Nature of show (theme or no theme, experienced tellers, or a range)

This helps you and the teller target feedback and thinking about the story as it relates to the kind of audience you are expecting. For stories, is this a slam or competition where the audience will be voting? Is this a themed show where there may be expectations about hitting a specific time, idea, or style? Or is it an open mic show where you can try something out?

Context and audience in telling matters – even where we can’t know everything about an audience for both virtual and in-person shows, the format and purpose of the show helps you and the teller shape more about the story.

TIP 3: Are you listening?

As in really listening fully? I think of the many times I have listened to stories and pitches and leapt quickly to how I might quickly renovate the story, edit, and shape it…. we all do this. When I do this, I realize quickly that I am not really listening as I should be.

Deep listening means not thinking about how you might tell the story, or what you can offer or fix, but focusing on the voice, the presence, the story line, being fully with the teller. This is hard to do as we are trained to react – to take in a lot of information, make connections and come back with a clever response. Professionals do this in meetings all the time – we are listening to craft our response – maybe that’s the goal in a meeting – but it is not helping you hear, really hear the teller. The best story coaches are listeners first.

Here is a resource on practicing active listening as a way of toning your listening muscle.

TIP 4: Appreciate First

Before you offer the feedback that you framed with the teller (their need, not what you want to change!) – practice appreciative feedback. Look for something you liked or appreciated about the story - a phrase, a word, a feeling. This is not empty floral praise - it is a way of opening a conversation.

TIP 4: Appreciate First:

Ask yourself

  • What touched you, struck you about the story?

  • What did you like or love, what stayed with you, surprised you, made you pause?

  • What is a word, a phrase, the topic, the tone of voice, the teller’s posture, and style?

Appreciative feedback matters. We often assume our learning comes from editing and fixing, renovating and constant change. It can for sure, but we also learn a lot from what works, what landed with an audience and going there first is a strong way to open a feedback channel. If nothing touched or struck you - that’s ok - this is not meant to deliver false compliments. But finding one thing you like about a story, pitch or presentation is more challenging than finding the errors…. listen carefully and find the thing that works. This deep listening practice is a way to connect with what you are hearing in the story rather than what you might be inclined to fix or change.

TIP 5: Ask a Question

I often hear feedback that starts with immediate renovation, as in you need to, you should, you must…. or I would change this to that….

I can think of these changes too - lots of things I would change about stories that would have them told my way rather than in the voice of the teller. And often we offer advice based on what we would do before we consider how much we really know about the storyteller’s intention in the story.

Maybe the teller asked for something super specific – and then it’s OK to go there but before you do, what kind of question can you ask that will help the teller go deeper, understand their story better? Can you ask a question about the specific thing in the story rather than tell them what to do?

TIP 5: Ask a Question

Here are examples of powerful questions to ask tellers when hearing their stories:

  • What is the most important part of this story for you?

  • What part of the story do you want most to land with the audience?

  • You said you are concerned with the length of the story and need to cut it – what does the detail or length serve in the story for you?

  • What do you feel when you tell this story? What are you hoping the audience feels?

This doesn’t mean quick fixes are off the table in talking about pitches, presentations, and stories - but they do not always have to be the focus of feedback conversations.

Ready to give feedback? You have considered all of these:

TIP 1: Ask what they need

TIP 2: Get the context

TIP 3: Are you listening?

TIP 4: Appreciate First

TIP 5: Ask a Question

Great, but what if the storyteller, presenter wants a quick fix, wants suggestions on how to fix, change, renovate the story, pitch, or presentation?

TIP 6: Offer Suggestions

Offering suggestions is a part of coaching storytelling - with a focus on OFFERING. The difficulty in offering suggestions is it can land as prescriptive. Remember the stakes (in storytelling, giving presentations, delivering pitches) - emotions, reputations, egos are on the table as is your reputation as a colleague, coach, and collaborator. Focus on offering instead of telling - think of your tone and use of language as you offer the suggestion.

Before you offer a suggestion:

  • Is it part of what the individual asked for?

If not - ask, are you open to a suggestion on something else?

  • Are you deep in wordsmithing, editing mode (as in offering very specific changes to what you heard, word-by-word, line-by-line?)

Check-in - ask if specific edits are welcome.

  • Use language that is clear and open:

I am hearing a lot about X in your story and wonder about Y - have you considered telling us

more about that?

Bottom line?

Offering feedback does not always have to be about offering immediate solutions. Coaching pitches, presentations and stories is a collaboration - a conversation between you as coach or teacher and the person receiving the feedback.

Ask what they need

Get the context

Are you listening?

Appreciate First

Ask a Question

OFFER Suggestions

Finally, that first story I told a few years ago, coached by the story producer? Here tis - called A Plausible Eight-Year Old.

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