Check out this statistic from Maxine Bersch:
It has been said that sixty-five percent of the story is carried out by nonverbal means. Only thirty-five percent of the meaning is conveyed by the words! — Maxine Bersch, Storytelling in a Nutshell: A Primer for Storytellers in Christian Education (Genevox Music, 1998), 101.
Think about that for a moment! For most of us, our major focus centers on the words of the story we are telling, but that means we are decreasing our effectiveness by sixty-five percent right off the bat! Even if we nail the verbal part of the story, we still can only score a 35 tops!
Setting an engaging atmosphere goes a long way in the nonverbal part of the story, but we also have to consider how we can use our bodies as we tell the story. Let’s examine three aspects of this: posture, eye contact, and movement.
You will most likely want, and need, to stand for most stories. As you stand, avoid slouching or shifting your weight side-to-side from foot to foot. You also want to avoid swaying back and forth as you talk.
While standing will probably be your default position, there are times when you may want to sit deliberately for emphasis, such as if someone in the story sits, or if there is an important point you want to emphasize. When you sit, try leaning forward slightly with your hands on your knees. You might want to consider this as your default position for the Christ connection at the end of each Bible story.
If you are telling a Bible story to preschoolers, you might want to use a story chair. Even if you stand and move during most of the story, you may be able to use the story chair at the beginning and end of the story to signal preschoolers when you are telling the Bible story.
Maxine Bersch establishes the rule of thumb for body language at the beginning of a story when she says to “smile, make eye contact, scan the room.” (Maxine Bersch, Storytelling in a Nutshell, 85.) In general, that would be the way to go. Smiling warms the kids up, making eye contact cues them to pay attention, and scanning the room pulls everyone into the story. But there are times when you may want to take a different approach—such as when you want to make a dramatic entrance to begin the story.
As you are telling the story, continue to scan the room and make eye contact with different kids. But don’t forget to use your eyes as another storytelling prop when you can. For example, when you are telling the story of the prodigal son and reach the point where the father looked off in the distance—look off in the distance. When you tell the kids that the father saw his son returning, let your eyes light up with joy. When the older brother complains to the father and the father responds, look down some as if upset.
Use your eyes to connect with the kids and to tell the story.
The rule of thumb is once again pretty simple: generally stay stationary. However, as we have already seen, movement is important. Here’s how Aaron Reynolds puts it:
Make your movement count. When you move during a lesson, move for a reason. — Aaron Reynolds, The Fabulous Reinvention of Sunday School (Zondervan, 2007), 128.
We have already covered moving to different spots on the stage or in the room, but there are different ways to move for effect as well. For example, short agitated movements accentuate intense moments in the story. If you are telling the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), quick head movement and turns of the body would heighten the distress the woman surely felt as she was looking for the coin. On the other hand, slow and deliberate movements emphasize important points, especially when matched with your vocal pattern as we will cover in the next blog post. For example, when you are telling a story where Jesus says, “Truly, truly,” pointing upward slightly with one hand and moving the hand forward with the same cadence as you say “truly, truly” will drive the point home further.
And that takes us to gestures. Be strategic in the gestures you use. When Satan offers all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus in the temptations, a broad sweep with a hand will really heighten that moment. When you tell the story of the disciples each asking if he is the one who will betray Jesus, touching your hand to your chest as you say “Is it I?” will add power to that moment.
TRY IT OUT: Using the story of David and Goliath again, think through how you could use your body to tell the story. If possible partner this with the storytelling style you thought of after the last blog post. Then video yourself telling the story to analyze your body movements and also to look for any subconscious habits you might have. Don’t worry about your voice for now. We’ll cover that next time.
Brian Dembowczyk is the team leader for The Gospel Project for Kids. He served in local church ministry for over 16 years before coming to LifeWay. Brian earned a D.Min. from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brian, his wife, Tara, and their three children—Joshua, Hannah, and Caleb—live in Murfreesboro, TN, where Brian enjoys drinking coffee and teaching 4-5 graders at City Church.