What the Heck is a Storyteller and What Does One Cost?

© Hope C Lewis 2017

Northeast Storytelling recently received an email from a board member of a non-profit in the region. The organization has an annual event and wanted to add a storyteller this year. There was one wrinkle. Since they do not charge for this event, they had no budget to pay the teller.

I know that many of us make a point of doing a certain number of charity performances for good causes each year. I also know that many of us will “negotiate” our fees. This board member is asking if we might have a new teller willing to perform free for the experience. This is something that we, understandably, discourage. One cannot take “experience” to the grocery store and pay for the Cheerios.

This got me to thinking. Clearly, we are in the same category as musicians, painters and other artists, being asked frequently to give away our skill and hard work in return for “exposure,” experience” and generally warm fuzzy feelings. I suspect that we all wrestle with the same question of balance. How do we share a gift that, by very definition, exists to be shared and requires an audience … and still eat?

Behind this query is one critical personal question that must be answered first. What is the reason that we are storytellers? Do many of us have an innate desire to educate and find storytelling to be an incomparably powerful tool toward that end? Are we, perhaps, performers at heart who find our best expression on the story stage? Do we feel a calling to share the wisdom of the ages with our communities for the good of all? Or are we seeking a business model that will remunerate us adequately for devoting our efforts to this art? Some of us tell because we feel a drive to share our personal insights, or to build a powerful link of understanding with our grandchildren, or because it is part of our jobs. The bottom line is that there is no wrong reason to become a storyteller, no minimum number of hours of study before we take our first steps onto the Story Journey.

An interesting and evocative fact is that fifty percent of our scholarship winners for this year’s Sharing the Fire conference (2017) are new tellers over 60 years of age. These are individuals who come to their storytelling calling with a rich background of life lessons and wisdom. Their paths as storytellers will be different than those that will be explored by our younger winners whose interests and goals range widely. All new members of our community bring something creative to the STF gathering. Their interests and questions push each one of us to reach beyond our own personal niches.

Getting back to the request from that impecunious board member, the array of responses to her question showed some of this rich diversity. One respondent lamented that we are asked so often to work pro bono. “Will the ‘exposure’ pay your rent or mortgage?” She asked, noting that dentists, doctors and plumbers are not asked to give away or negotiate for their time and skills. Other tellers whole-heartedly agreed with the first. Dave Ruch offered an entire article on the process of fee setting: http://daveruch.com/advice/how-much-should-i-charge-for-a-gig/

Another individual, who demands reasonable payment when possible, admitted to trading gigs for all kinds of things, including a free dinner and a place to display books and CDs with permission to sell them following the event. This creative teller has also performed in the waiting room of a dentist’s office and accepted payment of a free cleaning, exam of his teeth, and free dental x-rays.

Another group of tellers responded to the group by willingly offering other alternatives for coming to an understanding with an organization seeking a teller for little or no money. Some of the ideas proposed follow:

  1. Pass the hat at the end of the performance and split the proceeds with the nonprofit for whom you are performing.
  2. Ask if a board member of the organization (or local business) would “sponsor” you.
  3. Trade a performance for a meaty article in the local newspaper about what storytellers do and what the program you will be performing is about (good PR for them, not too shabby for you).
  4. Trade a performance for membership in the organization (if you are in full support of their mission).
  5. Trade your performance for some perk, like a restaurant coupon for a good meal for two at a top notch restaurant, someone to walk your dog while you are at a festival, a hand-knit sweater for your new grandchild, or some other creative idea.
  6. Suggest that the organization put a line in their next year’s budget hiring you as a consultant who will add to their promotional effort by writing and performing for them the Story of their Organization.
  7. Inquire whether there are other nonprofits with similar missions that might also be seeking a fundraising opportunity. Suggest that both nonprofits collaborate on a larger, paying event to raise funds for both of them at once. You, of course, would be the star (paid) performer.
  8. Make “significant advertising” a condition of the performance (this means sitting down with them and coming up with a plan for flyers, newspaper, radio, TV and/or other spots. If they are committed to doing a thorough job of promotion for the event anyway, and are willing to add all your promotional material to their advertising, it could be worth it.

In an example from Mike Lockett, he describes having swapped for radio advertising at a senior living place. The site runs multiple ads a month and wanted him to come for free.  They said they had a zero budget for programs and relied on the community.  He told them that he would come for a mention in all their radio spots for the month about how they hold programs like the Halloween Storytelling Program with Professional Storyteller Mike Lockett from Normal, IL. That tiny mention would have cost a fortune on the radio,

  1. Trade X hours of some special skill the organization has for something you could really use. i.e. 4 hours of graphics work on your own promotional material by their staff.

One teller wrote: A person helped me out by developing sales sheets and other things I needed on my computer for a program.

  1. If you decide to do a free program, create an invoice for the normal amount you would charge for the program and note “100% Friendship Discount.”

This idea comes from Susan Klein and was echoed by Simon Brooks and Andrea Lovett among others.  Andrea writes that she has done this many times and it gets the point across.

  1. Madelyn Folino suggests that because her library does hundreds of programs a year for all ages they are always looking for something new and affordable. She is willing to trade programs. Example: a local nature museum wanted a storytelling program on Lenape Indians. My guild members and I did it at no charge and the museum did a free animal program for the library. As an individual, you could negotiate a free something for a school or organization with which you are affiliated.
  2. Madelyn also came up with the idea to ask to be billed as a co-sponsor. An historical society asked me to do a free storytelling program on the history of their village (as if I had that in my back pocket!) I agreed to donate my services on the condition that my library be listed as a co-sponsor of the event. Thus, I was able to count everyone who came as attending a library outreach program (our stats are very important to us.) I also recruited one of our guild members to do the program with me and since she is not from the area, and negotiated a fee for her. Everyone ended up happy, but the experience reminded me that it’s always important to ask “Who’s in charge?” when you get that call, as the caller may not be the one who writes the check.
  3. Jim Hawkins advises that he has found that if he works with an organization’s budget, they appreciate his generosity and usually bring him back.
  4. Ask if the nonprofit would be willing to become a “live” site for a video recording of your performance. This could be used for promotional purposes. The NP’s responsibilities would include securing releases, providing appropriate staging, backdrop, lighting, etc.
  5. Gail N. Herman added that if she wants to go to a certain area, or is already scheduled there, she will ask the “free-ask” people to provide a place for her to stay as well as meals for that day or two.  Always send a contract or a “letter of agreement” with all agreed upon information in it.  Wording about fees could be “Cost for this event on (date) is donated by Gail N. Herman.  Normal Fee for performance/workshop is _____.
  6. And finally, Madelyn Folino reminds us to feel free to turn down an offer of a job with no pay, especially if it’s an open air fun fair and they say they’ll put you between the face painting and the juggling clown. I bet we all have some stories about worst jobs ever.

NSN identifies storytelling as an Art. Many of us tend to think of ourselves as artists first and business people second. As a result, it is inevitable that the question will come up over and over again of how each one of us balances our calling with our budget, our skills with our resources.

A special note of thanks goes out to all those who responded to the question. This includes, Karen Chace, Simon Brooks, Andrea Lovett, Mike Lockett, Jim Hawkins, Madelyn Folino, John Porcino, Gail Herman and Dave Ruch.

Hope Lewis is a storyteller from Seal Cove, Maine. She enjoys creating original stories, but particularly savors performing folk tales from a wide variety of traditions.  She enjoys telling for all audiences, from school groups to elders. Maine humor and local stories appear often in her programs.

She was honored to have been accepted as an Acadia National Park Centennial Partner for 2016, and to be currently serving as the President of the Board of Directors of Northeast Storytelling.



What the Heck is a Storyteller and What Does One Cost? — 2 Comments

  1. Hope, the options you shared were great. When somebody asks for a free gig the answer doesn’t necessarily have to be yes or no. I can ask for other choices. Very interesting. Good good job. Thanks.

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