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The Challenge of Telling My Own Stories [Part 1]

Over the past few months, following years of telling the stories of others, I have earned the privilege of telling my own story on a larger platform – and yet I could not have grasped these opportunities if it weren’t for the many struggles along the way.

First talk of 2019 @ Tembusu College

First talk of 2019 @ Tembusu College

I have always admired the ability of documentaries to engage people on complex topics in a relatively short amount of time. This is something that I can never do when speaking in real life. Compared to what documentaries can deliver in terms of the storytelling experience, what I can do in person just doesn’t hold up.

This was most apparent during my first two years of making documentaries, in which I felt that the production process allowed me to tell a particular story the best I could, a luxury that I did not have when speaking in person. In the case of my works, I prefer to show rather than tell.

Yet, ironically, I am generally a very talkative person. I enjoy the attention of others when I speak, though only if what is spoken has value. So, in the virtue of self-interest, I have continuously tried to polish the way I spoke about the tale of becoming a documentary storyteller. It is a story that I have repeated many times since 2015, from the dinner table to small crowds. Clarity in material is never an issue; after all, I am telling my own story. But there are several challenges that I continue to grapple with.

Challenge 1: Details

Every story always has a fair bit of information that needs more context, yet diving into them may sometimes take the audience too far away from the main point of the story. This is especially true for me, where there are many life events that I cannot omit, as they were significant milestones in the journey of me thinking about embarking on—and subsequently persevering through—this path of making documentaries. To simply sum it all up as a realisation of my passion would be far from the truth, as my love for this medium is not my main fuel or driving factor.

As such, my first few ‘storytellings’ were incredibly long-winded. I could remember the faces of regret as a casual question of “Why did you decide to do documentaries?” went on to become a confusing lecture. Respecting the time of my audience, I had to find some way to shave off the excess. Initially, this was difficult to do, as I felt that taking details away essentially removes a certain level of honesty from the story. This is also a struggle that parallels my experience when producing documentaries. It is also this parallel that made me adopt a ‘rule of thumb’, so to speak, that the removal of details for sake of audience engagement should not be frowned upon if it does not take away from the logical analysis of the story. There should also be an enthusiasm to answer the call for greater details from the audience.

Using that as a guideline, I felt more comfortable in shaping my story. With every opportunity to share, I tried a slightly different version to find out what different audiences liked. These tailored versions ultimately did justice to my own story while respecting the time and attention of those who invited it. But structure is only one aspect of storytelling.

Challenge 2: Delivery

There is also delivery. Remember when I said that I’d rather show than tell when it came to my story? This was influenced by the magic that documentaries have in expanding a dialogue with immersive visuals and audio. “Let me take you on a journey of sights and sounds as my voice guides you”. What a luxury that would be if we could do that in person. But the technology to have our imaginations projected onto a screen at the speed of thought has yet to be realised, so for now, being a documentary storyteller will have to suffice. But what about my own story when I share it with peers, where I can only use the spoken word?

Till this day, I hold a fear of being misunderstood. This fear affects my choice of words, in which I prefer speaking in greater detail in the hopes that this would prevent misunderstanding, even if it leads me to ramble. Once again, I have had plenty of opportunities to practice telling my own story. And while I experimented on removing the excess parts of my story, so too did I experiment on the way that I told it. It was in this abundance of opportunities that I found comfort in improving my impulse to over-correct my word choices due to fear.

With practice, I found that succinct but descriptive words, amplified by my talkative nature that manifests itself in dynamic tones and hand gestures worked well for me. It also came very naturally for me to do so with peers in casual settings. But in a different setting—say a professional stage or in front of a camera—I found this method a bit harder to put into practice.

Challenge 3: Stage

The larger the stage in which I have to tell my story—ergo the larger the risks—and I seem to find myself reverting back to old habits—taking the safe but ineffective way out. A tell-tale sign would be my tone. My fiancé says I sound like a duck. I don’t know what that means, but it can’t be good.

This is still very much an early work-in-progress. Though that can also apply to the first two challenges. Fortunately, I am now able to once again have the privilege of opportunities to work out how to project my honest self regardless of the nature of the stage. I hope to write a Part 2 of this article next year. But for now, this article and the following video can serve a marker for future reference.

OKJ