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It should come as no surprise to any fan of the animated holiday classic, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS, that Boris Karloff was a master storyteller.  The actor’s mellifluous voice with the hint of a lisp that added a layer of charm to even the most menacing portrayals was a natural for drawing in listeners to share the world he was creating.

The standard elements of effective storytelling were there in abundance.  Clear diction and an enthusiastic tone of voice made his words easy to understand.  His use of inflection created characters that were readily identifiable when speaking.  Most of all, the listener sensed his appreciation of the work that went beyond drawing a paycheck.

Boris Karloff did not limit his storytelling to The Grinch.  He recorded a series of children’s albums of classic stories, and also Reader’s Digest presentations in addition to his frequent radio show appearances.  Just watch his introductions to the THRILLER episodes and you’ll see how much he was enjoying himself when he intoned, “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller!”

A recent revelation of “how he did it” came from a book I can highly recommend called, BORIS KARLOFF: MORE THAN A MONSTER by Stephen Jacobs.  (No matter how much you think you know about Mr. Karloff, I can promise you will find some wonderful surprises.)

Jack Hill, director of the decidedly quirky black comedy, SPIDER BABY, was also the director of Boris Karloff’s last four movies.  They were Mexican features and Karloff’s segments were being shot back-to-back in California for inclusion in the various films.  (Hill did not receive credit as the director, but had been the director of the majority of footage of each film.)

At one point, Hill asked Boris Karloff to run through a scene again during the rehearsal phase.  The actor “got to his mark” and played the scene…but, Hill noticed that the scene was different.  Boris Karloff had made a couple of minor changes.  The scene was essentially the same, yet not exactly the same.

Hill asked to run through the scene one more time…and, again, Karloff’s performance had changed a bit.  It did not hurt the scene; it was just different.

Jack Hill called this to Karloff’s attention.  (After all, Mr. Karloff was in his 80’s, and there was the possibility that he was unaware that he was doing it.)  The response surprised him.

Back in his early days on stage, Boris Karloff had started the practice of making subtle changes in his performance.  Actors who do the same role over and over again for a while confront the possibility that familiarity will make the role stale.  To counter this, and to keep his character fresh, he made subtle changes in his performance that did not alter the lines or the action.

This has application to us as storytellers.  The natural inclination is to rehearse and rehearse until we are word perfect with every gesture and inflection perfectly timed.  Doesn’t practice make perfect?  (In the art of Rakugo, Japanese comic storytelling, it certainly does!)

I tried this with a recent presentation.  I used a story example that is one of my “tried and true” items.  One thing that I’ve noticed is that I present it essentially the same way every time.  My anticipation is that the story will be understood, appreciated, and that the expected responses will happen at each key point.

In other words, why mess with success?

I altered the tone.  This story is always presented by leaning into my audience, pacing around the room to enhance the energy, and incorporating gestures to emphasize points.

This time, I tried a more laid-back, Jimmy Stewart approach.  In the place of gestures, I added pauses and knowing smiles.  In the place of pacing around the room, I told the majority of the story from a bar-stool chair, and I stood for emphasis.

Reactions from the audience were actually a bit better than they were when I usually present that story.  I’m guessing that those who are put-off by my “whirlwind” approach appreciated calmly listening and keeping me at a distance.

Anyhow, that’s what I learned from Boris Karloff about storytelling.  My experiments will continue.

Thank you for reading!