Tag Archives: Storytelling Techniques

Why facial expression is important in storytelling

Why facial expression is important in storytelling

Everybody knows that your facial expression is important in making your stories come to life, but why?

According to a Harvard University study, the ability to understand emotions, known as emotional intelligence, is linked intrinsically to being able to understand facial expression.

“Emotional intelligence—the ‘accurate appraisal and expression of emotions in oneself and others and the regulation of emotion in a way that enhances living’… encompasses a set of interrelated skills and processes. Because the face is the primary canvas used to express distinct emotions nonverbally … the ability to read facial expressions is particularly vital, and thus a crucial component of emotional intelligence.”

Emotional Intelligence and the Recognition of Emotion from facial Expression. Elbenfein, Marsh & Ambady

There are many ways to work with your child to increase emotional intelligence.

For children, one of the optimum ways of learning this skill – the correct appraisal of the feelings of others – is through learning the meanings of facial expressions in stories.

This allows the child to practice identifying and ‘trying on’ facial expressions in a safe environment. They can experiment with fear, with danger, with surprise, with confusion; with jealousy…the list is endless.

Encourage your child to show you the face of the angry lion, of the sad swan, of the happy bear finding the pot of honey.

By doing this, you are teaching and preparing your child for the world around them.

You are helping them to ‘read’ the faces of the people around them, and this in turn helps your child to understand what social behaviours should be encouraged in these situations.

According to a recent study,

“The ability to recognize facial expressions at age 5 has been found to predict later social and academic competence.”

Recognizing Emotion from Facial Expressions: Psychological and Neurological Mechanisms. Ralph Adolphs. University of Iowa College of Medicine.

We all want our children to go out into the world best prepared to deal with the people and society around them.

Therefore we should use facial expressions in storytelling as a means of effectively educating our children to become emotionally developed and aware human beings.

OK, so there’s a lot of techniques and things to know about facial expression in storytelling, so keep an eye on your inbox for the following sections which break it down a bit and give you some key things to focus on:

  • How children mirror our behaviour and how you can use it in storytelling using the power of social referencing
  • How your face tells a story and how to use it (part 1)
  • A picture paints a thousand words – using your face to bring a story to life (part 2)
  • Eye contact in storytelling – can be difficult in a snuggle, but fine tuning it can make a great storyteller
  • Toning down your skills for your audience – you don’t want to overdo it
  • A note on storytelling and children with autism (relevant though not specifically part of this series on storytelling techniques)

You can also return to the chapter introduction – facial expressions and masks in storytelling – at any time

A Note on storytelling for children who have autism

Children with autism often cannot understand facial expression

There is much importance put on the ability of the storyteller to be able to make the right faces but it is a common feature of autism spectrum disorders, that children with autism not be able to discern the emotion from facial expressions, finding it hard to distinguish the meaning of a smile from a frown.

Storytelling with children with autism can be difficult. There is plenty of literature and places to find help however

Continue reading A Note on storytelling for children who have autism

Storytelling Techniques – Controlling Pitch and Speed

Using pitch and speed in storytelling

Pitch is the height or depth of the tone used when telling a story.

So for example, a mouse might have a high pitched squeaky voice, but can still express their anger or happiness in their tone within that range.

An elephant might have a very low pitched voice but can still express their excitement or fear in the tone of their voice while retaining that low deep pitch.


A great storytelling technique is pitch control - making your voice high or low.

Laughter within a story is very important and when combined with volume, really will illuminate the range of different emotions of the person laughing.

The witch’s laugh is either high pitched and loud, a confident and arrogant laugh.

The child’s high pitched but quiet laugh is a secret laugh behind their hand.

The low pitched loud laugh is the Father Christmas’ belly laugh.

The Gruffalo might have a deep and scary voice

Volume without pitch will only illustrate half the picture, so play with pitch to spice up your characters and give them defined personalities.

Generally, sloping the pitch of your speech up slightly can also bring a sense of mystery, or in dialogue, it indicates a question. It can also tell your child that you are looking for them to tell you what happens next, if it is a story they are familiar with.

Suspense and climax

Pitch is also a great tool to build suspense and climaxes.

We’ve all heard a horse racing commentary and if we put the speed of it aside (see the next section on speed), the commentator starts off at a reasonably gently tone and speed and as the horses gather speed and progress down the course, the commentary becomes higher and higher pitched as the speed of the horses gets faster and faster and as the tension gets tighter and tighter until the climactic photo finish…

…And we can all breathe again and allow our heart rates to start to relax.

This is the same strategy that can be reused in storytelling to build the suspense and excitement as an important event within the story approaches.

Children love this!

My daughter loves the story “We’re going on a bear hunt” which has a long and slow and fun build up followed by a rapid and exciting run away from the bear they find. It’s huge fun and one of her favourites and one she will recite to me on walks.

Similarly, in a story, when they hear a markedly increasing pitch they will begin to either giggle or sit up straight beside you in excitement as they become totally emotionally and mentally involved, anticipating the big climax.


A good story keeps a good interesting pace, but there are times when slowing your speed right down can do wonders for your story.

Controlling the speed of your voice when telling a story is a great technique

When your child hears you change from a regular to a markedly slow pace, they know instantly that something is afoot, and will listen attentively to your every word.

Slowing down your vocal speed emphasises the suspense, the fear, the sadness or the wisdom of an old granny. Speeding up your voice is a great and funny way to give a special character a funny voice such as a crazy squirrel, and will keep your child enraptured and giggling.

Variations in the speed of your story also keep your child engaged.

We all know children have relatively short attention spans, and they require variety so mix and match different speeds, tones and pitches to keep them interested or to refocus their attention.

If your child is as snug as a bug in a rug, it’s probably not the best time to tell them a fast paced story as this will make them more alert, and subsequently – awake. A regular or slow pace will encourage the atmosphere of calm, helping your child to relax and consequently, to sleep.

And just as the Big Bad Wolf was about to eat Red Riding Hood….


Savour the moment as your child looks deep into your eyes, hanging on your every word and dying to hear your next one.

A well placed pause is a fantastic device for building suspense, intensifying their wonderment and their enjoyment of the story. Be careful though, if a story is “scary” to a young child and you pause, your child may in fact react badly as they are unable to deal with their nervous emotion building up.

Young children need a happy ending, to restore their sense of security and belief that the world is always set to right. If your young child is unsure that what follows the pause is going to do this, they may in fact start crying before you’ve even told them the ending.

You know your child best, so judge what age you believe they can cope with this.

Older children who have some experience of negative feelings cope far better with this, and love the “not knowing”. However, if your story is an adventure, a comedy or a fantastical tale, the well placed pause is your secret weapon and guarantees your child’s delight.

Storytelling Homework

  • Practice, practice practice. I know it’s stupid to say that, but by now you’ll have read quite a lot on here so it’s important that you practice as you go or your kids won’t get the full benefit of you doing this research and learning.
  • Choose a regular story or choose a new book and draw out those moments of suspense or quiet.
  • Can you also use your speed and pitch to emphasise different meanings in stories you’ve read before?

Chapter summary: Using your voice in storytelling – techniques to make the stories magical.

Storytelling Techniques – Using tone and Emphasis

Using Tone and Emphasis

Children are especially sensitive to tone when telling stories and we all carry the imprint of our mothers saying our name in a “you’re in trouble buster” tone.

Tone and emphasis are so important and even when you speak at a regular volume, the tone of your voice is the single biggest giveaway to your emotion and the emphasis you give an individual word or phrase can completely change the message.

Tone is how we insert sarcasm into an otherwise straightforward sentence.

A single sentence can take on a multitude of meanings when given different tones and when emphasis is placed at different points. Combined, they illuminate the speaker’s motives, feelings and desires. The last thing you want is for your child to be cuddled in close at bedtime, but feel no warmth from your voice.

What is Emphasis in storytelling?

Let’s start with a brief summary of what emphasis means. The dictionary defines emphasis in storytelling (although it could be in any form of communication) as “special stress laid upon or attached to anything”.

I don’t want to labour the point (would that put undue emphasis on it?), so I’ll just say that for the purposes of this chapter; I’ll be discussing the most direct form of emphasis: Stressing an individual word or phrase in a story using your voice.

Consider this sentence:

“I know how to do it.”

For this exercise to really work, say it out loud.

Now let’s play with the emphasis.

Put the emphasis on the first word.

I know how to do it.”

Notice the feel of the sentence and the meaning behind the communication.

Now put the emphasis on the second word.

“I know how to do it.”

Continue and put the emphasis on each word in turn and listen to how the meaning and implications in the sames sentence can completely change depending on which word you emphasise and what emotion you put behind it.

“I know how to do it.”

“I know how to do it.”

“I know how to do it.”

“I know how to do it.”

Lastly, repeat the sentence as you did at the start of the exercise. I wonder how much the meaning of that sentence has changed for you now?

Using Tone in storytelling

Tone is, I think, easier to get to grips with than emphasis because it’s easier to see how to put an emotion behind the story.

Let’s use the same sentence we used for tone, but this time let’s experiment with the tone.

“I know how to do it.”

Try saying it in an angry way.

“I know how to do it.”

Did you grit your teeth or pull a face? If you didn’t try it again and see what a difference that makes to the tone of the sentence.

Now say it in a happy way

“I know how to do it.”

Did you smile? Did you cock your head to one side? Maybe you sat up a bit?

Again, try those things and notice the difference. Body language in storytelling is another extremely important factor and there is a whole chapter dedicated to it, but right now, let’s focus on the tone of the sentece.

Lastly, speak the sentence in a monotone, with no change and no emphasis. You will find it is extremely boring as it gives no idea of the speaker’s emotion.

Putting tone and emphasis together as a storytelling technique

If you storytell in a monotonous way, your audience will quickly tune out and probably become unresponsive to your story.

The whole storytelling experience will become a frustration for them instead of a bedtime bonding experience for you and your child.

So you can see how important tone and emphasis are in bringing your story to life as each character varies in tone and emphasis, maintaining the interest in the story.

The tone in which you choose to tell the narrative part of the story will let your child know what type of story you are telling, it may be a somber or scary story, it may be an adventure, it may be a funny story. Your child will recognise it based on your tone.

Practise saying “Once upon a time…” with different tones, to try to set the atmosphere for different types of stories.

How to tell a story by focusing on the storytelling technique of tone and emphasis

Another interesting aspect of tone, is that if you use storytelling to help control your child’s behaviour. Children will very quickly learn to recognise that “warning” tone in your voice when they are misbehaving, as it appears when the bunny rabbit is misbehaving in the story.

Equally, the tone with which you present episodes within the story will inform your child on what behaviour is socially acceptable and encouraged.

Remember that things can happen in stories long before your children experiences them socially for themselves, (such as stealing, bullying or becoming aware of differences in appearance) so this is a particularly important point to keep in mind.

You can prepare your child to recognise social situations and learn how to categorise them as acceptable or not acceptable and how to react according to what they have learned from your presentation of this same situation with your tone in your story. This is particularly important for stories with a moral lesson.

Storytelling homework

Now that you’ve had a bit of experimentation with tone and emphasis, continue to take that awareness into storytime with your children.

  • Focus on the flow of the story and see if you can enhance or dramatise the tale by increasing the emphasis on the key words or phrases.
  • Keep an eye out for the feelings and emotional tones in the story and see if you can bring them out even further by enhancing the tone with which you deliver them.

Remember: You already do this naturally. You’re just tuning your skills and stretching your experience. You may not get these right first time and you may feel silly doing the exercises. Do them and you’ll really enhance your storytelling technique.

Remember, it is not ultimately how you tell the tale that will make it successful, it is how your child hears it.

So above all, use all your faculties to make it wonderful for them – we will discuss in further chapters other ways to do this  –  so bend your voice to suit their ear.

“It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear”

Italo Calvino

Chapter summary: Using your voice in storytelling – techniques to make the stories magical.

Next lesson: How to use pitch and speed as a storytelling technique.

Bonus: Checkout this arcticle on using sound effects in storytelling to get some ideas on another excellent storytelling technique.

Storytelling Techniques – Focus on your volume

Using Volume to enhance your storytelling technique

As a storytelling technique, the volume of your voice speaks er… volumes about the emotions you are conveying.

Generally a story is comprised of a narrative along with dialogue between characters, or dialogue representing the thoughts of characters in the story.

So during any story you tell, you will need to change the volume of your voice to match the scenario within the story.

It would be fairly unconvincing if you were whispering while telling the most exciting part of an adventure story right? (Well unless of course it happens to be while the mice a sneaking past the sleeping cat…)

Controlling the volume knob is extremely important in how to tell a story

You also use the volume of your voice to reflect the type of story you are telling, to build the atmosphere and mood, as we have already discussed.

The volume of your voice can also differentiate for your child’s ear, which character you are portraying in the story. This is especially important when the story is your own and there are no pictures for the child to follow.

Remember too that at bedtime, you most likely want to soothe your child into a tranquil, happy state, and not make them too excited or agitated so they become wide awake, when you are expecting them to drop off to the land of nod soon after! Check out the following page if you want help finding some suitable bedtime story books. This also will be managed by both your volume and your tone, which we will look at a little later.

Setting the volume for your story scenarios

  • A loud booming voice is often used to voice big animals, grown men characters or a character expressing surprise or anger.
  • A low quiet voice is often used to voice small animals such as mice, shy little girls and boys or a character expressing sadness, confusion, fear or wisdom.
  • An even, normal volume is mostly used during happy, interesting and amused speech. It is also best for the parts of the narrative between the dialogue, to distinguish this from characters talking. Don’t forget to raise or lower your volume as you approach eventful episodes within the story, as appropriate. It raises your child’s anticipation for what is to come and leaves them hanging on your every word.
  • Volume in laughter also portrays the type of laugh appropriate to a character…a mischievous witch, for example, would have a loud cackle, while a character who has played a sneaky trick would probably have a low secret laugh to himself. So don’t forget to adjust the volume of laughter according to your story.
  • Whispering parts of the dialogue is a very effective means of lowering your volume to show nervousness, fear, danger or characters simply being mischievous.

As I hope you are starting to see; the elements of voice control in storytelling technique is hard to adress as a single element. You can’t address volume without also talking about tone and emphasis in your story recital (which is the next lesson).

Storytelling homework

  • Now you need to do something counter-intuitive: Do what you’re not supposed to. Speak loudly when the story is describing something quiet and speak quietly when something big or bold or loud is happening in the story. This will give you an idea of how uncomfortable it can be when it’s not right. It will also help you become aware of your own natural use of volume.
  • Now for the easier bit: Read a few stories with your kids and just be aware of the volumes that you use naturally.
  • Lastly, now that you’ve a good focus on what you do naturally, you can start to emphasise the volume in the right places . See what difference it makes to your child’s enjoyment of and engagement in the story.

Chapter summary: Using your voice in storytelling – techniques to make the stories magical.

in the next section: How best to tell a story by using tone and emphasis

Storytelling Techniques – Focus on your voice

Using your voice to it’s full potential

In terms of storytelling techniques, how to use your voice is possibly the first thing people think of when talking about how to tell stories and tales.

Unsurprisingly a bit of training on the best and most effective ways to use your voice during a story recital is also one of the easiest ways to really bring the tale to life for your listener(s).

Spending some time on using your voice when reading or telling children's stories

In this Chapter on using your voice when telling or reading stories with your kids

  • How to use the volume and why it is important to use it at the right time.
  • The use of tone and emphasis in storytelling and how you can use both to achieve completely different meanings.
  • Give your characters distinct personalities and separate them clearly by using pitch.
  • You’ll be amazed at how much changing the speed of the tale can add depth and help illustrate an otherwise verbal story.
  • I have a bonus that fits in here as well – Should you or should you not introduce sound effects?

Draw your audience into the story with you

Have a listen to advertisements on the radio or the TV.

Compare the difference in technique between say, the voiceover used to promote luxury beds and the voiceover used to promote sales of electronic gadgets at your nearest dealer.

Advertising companies are only too aware of the importance of the sound of the voice as part of creating the “mood”. The “mood” makes the listener anticipate and accept more readily what is being said.

You will hear a soft, gentle and relaxing voice that wants to soothe you into a tranquil state to sell the luxury bed – the voice in itself is promising you a good night’s sleep. Whereas the voice for the electronic gadgets advert will be loud, excited and high pitched, trying to excite you off your sofa and down to the store.

The way you modulate your voice portrays your emotion and stimulates a reactive emotion in your audience. This reactive emotion is what draws your child into the story. They “feel” the story and remain encapsulated in it, away from reality, charmed and enchanted by the sound of your voice.

Now we will go on to explore how you can modulate your voice to effectively tell stories and stimulate the required emotions. If you follow the tips in this chapter, you can look forward to a future of affectionate evenings, with your child tucked up cosily in beside you, and falling asleep happily after a fantastical story.

Becoming aware of your own abilities and just keeping an eye or ear open for when you’re naturally using these storytelling techniques is the most important step in learning how to tell a story. Read each of the articles on the links below and make sure you follow any homework given to really get the most out of your time.

Storytelling technique focus

So now we’ve introduced the concept, you’ll be keen to be given some homework right? Well, first of all lets set a focus. Read the following section on controlling the volume of your voice in storytelling and follow (and practice) the suggested homework at the bottom.

Storytelling Techniques – Sound Effects in children’s stories

Sound Effects in storytelling

Storytelling technique is all about getting your audience to connect and become involved in the story and for children, there is only one thing they love more than listening to a good tale: becoming involved in it.

Give them that opportunity by vocalising sound effects in your story and letting your child copy your sounds in the predictable place. So, for example, every time a horse is mentioned, say “Clip, Clop, Clip, Clop” and after a couple of repetitions, your child will naturally join in with you, as they become familiar with the pattern.

Using sound effects during a story is a great technique to bring it to life and engage the audience Continue reading Storytelling Techniques – Sound Effects in children’s stories