skip navigation nih record
Vol. LX, No. 7
April 4, 2008

previous story

next story

Telling NIH’s Stories
Professional Yarn Spinner To Offer ‘How To’ at Plain Language Awards

On the front page...

On first meeting, Jon Spelman might be a monster, just awkwardly and somewhat sadly coming to terms with his ogreness. Or, he might be a dad, matter-of-factly relaying humorous details about his daughter’s self-imposed potty-training policy. Or maybe he’s Yancy Register, the old Florida crab and clam fisherman offering his insights on southern waterways. In fact, in the space of 20 minutes or so, Spelman—a professional storyteller—can get all three different characters to deliver valuable lessons via the same unique messenger.

On Tuesday, Apr. 15, he will bring his talent to NIH as guest speaker for the 2008 Plain Language Awards Ceremony. The Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL), the new home for the Plain Language Initiative, will host the event.


  Storyteller Jon Spelman will offer tips of the trade in a talk at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Apr. 15 in Lipsett Amphitheater, Bldg. 10.  
  Storyteller Jon Spelman will offer tips of the trade in a talk at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Apr. 15 in Lipsett Amphitheater, Bldg. 10.  

Turns out Spelman is accurately named. Within moments, he can put most people in a trance. If he can’t get you, then according to his own creed, he’s not doing his job. In a way, he’s part-magician, part-artist by trade.

“Stories are made up of mainly nouns and verbs, of course,” he pointed out recently at one of two workshops OCPL held for NIH writers and communication offices, “but they’re not so much about words as about the pictures and images your audience sees and hears while you’re telling the story. Sometimes things in your environment can work against you. Anything that takes your audience out of the trance is working against you.”

So how did Spelman start telling stories for a living?

About 27 years ago, he was in Florida running his own theater company when he decided to go solo.

“The theater was insufficient to tell all the stories I want to tell,” he says now. His first big gig spinning yarns for money occurred on an 11-week tour of rural Florida trailer parks and fishing camps. That’s when he became Yancy Register, a composite character Spelman created of several personalities he’d met in his travels. Yancy was so believable that audiences sometimes forgot he was made up.

“People used to make my checks out to him,” Spelman says, laughing. “I’d just sign them over to myself.”

The ability to fictionalize is one mark of great storytelling, he suggests, and one that NIH communicators should consider adapting.

“When you’re telling a story you’ve got several parallel messages going on simultaneously,” says Spelman. “The listener or reader is constantly being pulled into their own lives or pulled out of them. Stories are ultimately about emotions. What’s the emotional context of what you’re communicating? Your audience is not so much interested in the facts of it, but the truth of it.”

Another lesson he wants to impart is the value of simplicity.

“If you’ve got a complicated message, you’ve got to break it down, piece by piece,” Spelman stresses. “What you learn early on about storytelling is that your audience has only one chance to listen. Plain, simple language is critical. You want to get as many of their senses involved in the story as possible. Are you putting it into pictures so that people can see it? That’s what makes stories vivid. That’s what makes them work.”

Born in Missouri, raised in Ohio and well-traveled around the country, the fabulist finds few ethnic or cultural disconnects in his line of work. Everyone can appreciate a decent anecdote. Geographically, though, varying perceptions of Spelman’s profession have been duly noted.

“People in really rural areas seem to have a more natural understanding of storytelling,” he acknowledges. “Southerners seem more used to gabbing and talking among themselves, so some audiences wonder, ‘Hey, why am I paying you to do what we’ve always done anyway?’”

Spelman is now focusing on telling tales in his adopted home region along the I-95 corridor. Last month he moved from Silver Spring to downtown Baltimore. He’s currently at work on material for the local speakeasy circuit. His theme will be “After the Game. Death, dying, and whatever else there is.”

That good stories are often sobering, humorous and everything in between—all at once—is another lesson Spelman wants to get across to NIH’ers, who might have trouble seeing their work through the eyes of a storyteller. Adding a dose of creativity to even serious topics can help almost every audience, insists the character who is neither Frankenstein nor fisherman, but is a father whose kid once had a funny idea about using the facilities.

“At its simplest and most complex,” Spelman points out, “a story has to be as engrossing for the teller as it is for the listener. One of the great things about a good story is you want to see how it’s going to end. My favorite story is always the one I’m telling at the moment.” NIHRecord Icon

back to top of page