Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Monday, July 29, 2013

Becoming a Confident Storyteller: step one to mastering the craft of audiobook narration


In an effort to master the craft of storytelling, confidence isn’t preferable, it’s imperative. In basketball there’s a universally accepted truth: no D (defense), no W (win). Axiomatically reimagined in the audiobook narrator’s parlance: no C (confidence), no S (storytelling).

What does confidence mean? Specifically, what do I mean by confidence when it’s connected to storytelling? Why is confident storytelling so crucial to mastering the craft of audiobook narration? And if confident storytelling is a prerequisite for mastery, exactly how do narrators cultivate this confidence process?

Defining the Confident Storyteller

Confidence is a state of being, a mind set, a belief in one’s self, often associated with one’s behavior or ability to perform a given task. From there we can define the confident storyteller: one who faithfully believes in one’s self as the sole interpreter of feeling. And where is that feeling located? The subtext.

What this definition implicitly takes for granted is that the subtext, not the text, is the emotional pool from which the narrator accesses the feelings he or she connects to the listener. Beyond that implication is a grander, slightly transcendent, notion that indicates just how aesthetically critical the confident storyteller is to the listener’s experience of the narrative: without the narrator’s committed and focused devotion to the subtext, there is no possibility of involvement because the narrator hasn’t connected listeners emotionally. There is no emotion for the listener to be involved with. A narrator who is disengaged from the subtext is effectively asking the listener to passively hear the text’s words read aloud.

Addendum: emphasized or modulated words that don’t emerge from the actor’s organic connection to the subtextno matter how confidently evincedare indicative of Aunt Mary’s style, not the storyteller’s. Non-organic, vocal thwacking suggests (even if the intent is sincere)) a kind of hubris that implies the narrator will arbitrate emphasis because clearly the subtext can’t.

Faith and the Subtext

When narrators fail to consistently respect and prioritize the subtext’s efficacy—as if connecting to the emotional stakes isn’t always and absolutely necessary—they deprive listeners of the story’s full emotionality. No matter how vibrant or unique the actor’s voice, no matter how well or how often the actor animates the words, a narrator who doesn’t faithfully engage the subtext all the time can hope at best to create a non-committal, lukewarm version of the narrative’s emotionality. At worst, disregard for the subtext disconnects listeners; it bores them. Narrators who do not engage the subtext are, in effect, asking listeners to pay full price for a half baked story. And here’s the resulting irony: no matter how confidently the actor proffers his or her vocal chops, what is revealed to the listener is a tepid, tentative rendition or indication of feeling. Listeners are hearing a narrator who is not in possession of emotional confidence: arguably a disservice to the listener, not to mention the audiobook publisher.

The First Step

Becoming a confident (and commensurately, a more compelling) storyteller begins with the narrator’s first step: the belief that the yellow brick road to mastering the craft of audiobook narration is located in the subtext, not the words. This step’s greatest challengeespecially for emerging narratorsis that it is so counterintuitive because as the metaphorical foot is raised, it admonishingly cries out: don’t act the words; engage their feeling! And this admonition applies to drama, comedy, fiction and non-fiction.

I’m not sure if there’s a suitable acting definition that would satisfy all performers, let alone academicians. But what I’m more comfortable asserting is the following: for many audiobook narrators, acting means consciously helping the text. Acting means don’t just sit there, vocally highlight or push the words, like a lion tamer snapping a whip and cracking demands at the nonplussed cat: do this, now do this!

Engage the subtext and each individual word’s emotional consequence will direct you to emphasize it (or not) organically: that’s storytelling. FYI, narrators are often surprised at how vocally non-demanding and aesthetically satisfying this engage the subtext process is to them.

Confident storytellers dive, not so much unconsciously, but without conscious agenda, into the first word’s subtext and intuitively connect to itnot as something to pronounce, but to feel. Confident storytellers eschew meaning and chew feeling because the intellectual story in front of their eyes is irrelevant to them as actors: only feelings are actable. Engaging the emotion embedded in the words and connecting that feeling to the listener is the narrator’s only responsibility.

Once narrators have faith that the subtext is the straw that stirs the narrative’s emotional drink, they can begin, if I can conjure this image, sucking the subtext as if they’re parched vampires who’ve got thirty seconds till the crack of dawn.

Confident storytelling is the result of myriad performance practices that become second nature over time. But these collective techniques are subsumed by the storyteller’s job-one: don’t act, don’t act, don’t act; connect, connect, connect.

Becoming a Consistently Confident Storyteller

If Rome was built in a day it likely wouldn’t have become the most dominant world power of its time. Confidence isn’t achieved overnight. Narrators who, often bravely and against their intuition, determine that flexing untried performance muscles in order inhabit the subtext is in the listener’s interest, must consistently flex as if each word they say demands this focused commitment from them: it does.

Believing in the subtext and engaging it are separate and unequal endeavors. In other words, believing is easier than doing. But before you can do, consistently, you gotta believe, consistently.

How can the narrator be certain their best effort to consistently build confidence is paying off? I’ve never met an actor who isn’t hyper aware of themselves as they work, who isn’t tuned in to the nuances of their performance as if their entire body was an oscillating antenna. Listen back to your performance. Listen often, particularly when you detect vocal slippage (loss of faith), when you sense movement away from organically connecting to the subtext and towards the dark side: modulation and other vocal schtick. Listen to yourself as if you’re a consumer and determine whether what you’re hearing sounds good or feels good (feels good wins). Who more than the actor can truthfully critique whether what’s emerging from that actor is a rose or something akin to a beautiful, albeit, synthetic flower. If you think, hmmm, sounds a little forced, a little pushed, a bit sung, or hit, don’t sit for it! Rewind! Go back and confidently believe that your obligation as a narrator is about confidently letting go of the words and grasping their feeling.


I’m eager to soon be working with John Keating (If you haven’t seen him off-Broadway in The Weir, currently playing at the Irish Rep., I thought the show and John were equally sublime.) and Caitlin Davies. Additionally, these posts are coming a bit more slowly as I am continuing to write fiction during my MFA creative writing program (I think of this process as grinding away with an ax in my head.).

I will be posting narrator workshops on my website ( shortly.


  1. Nice, Paul. Stanislavsky called Subtext, "The noise underneath." To me, Subtext is like an underground river ever-flowing with attitude. Also, I find two ingredients to confidence: Having the skills and recognizing one has the skills. I've taught many students who possess the skills, but have not "catalogued" them. PF

  2. Great!!! love that we always have the line to encourage us: Rome wasn't built in a day :)
    Thank you!!!

  3. Glad that makes sense. I've been to Rome. It looks like it took forever.