Telling tales

Stories are the catapults that propelled us to the top of the food chain.


Salmon Rushdie had it right. “We are the storytelling animal”, he once said. And it’s true: the human race loves a good narrative, well told, with characters we can relate to and laugh or cry about. That’s why the best bartenders can entertain guests at their bar with captivating tales. And it’s the reason storytelling plays such a crucial part in every World Class competition – and will be even more vital in the competition this year. So leave the talk about fermentation temperatures to the experts, plus those bartenders with empty tables – and join us on a journey all about tales.

The desert shapes the tale

Storytelling as a profession supposedly originated in Mesopotamia, in the Middle East. From here came the most famous collection of all stories, Alf Layla wa-Layla or One Thousand and One Nights. This epic collection, in about the ninth century, lead to tales spreading across the Arab world and North Africa.

For the next 1,000 years people would pay to listen to someone who could inform and entertain largely illiterate crowds in public spaces. The Djemaa el-Fna, or main square, in Marrakech was particularly popular.

The desert shaped the story, but according to local Yahya Rajel these tales are no more. "Nomads have forgotten how to tell stories as they have moved to the city," says Yahya. "The wilderness is the ideal environment for a story but people have no time for that now."

So let’s revive this tradition. Award-winning author Alex Burrett, formerly of London advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, explains how.

The story tells us!

1. Even if you’re not feeling confident, pretend you are! Don't apologise as you start, either with words or by cowering in the corner!

2. Relax and breathe – it's a game that everyone wants to play with you. It might feel like an ordeal, but that’s not how your audience sees it.

3. Tell it in your own words. If you try to memorise a story, you set yourself up for failure and confusion. Just remember the few lines of plot, and feel free to let them come out of your mouth the way you want. No matter how hard you try to tell the story you’ve learnt, it won't be the same as the story you tell. Let your imagination work because that’s what creates the magic, not your feats of memory.

4. If you get stuck, just keep going. Don't frown, swear, stop, or apologise. Try moving into descriptions of sounds, colours, smells, clothes, atmosphere to play for time – this also works well because it stimulates your imagination and mental images, It also keeps your energy levels going, which is the best way to trigger your memory. Alternatively, you can stay silent and engage with people's eyes. They'll think it's a dramatic pause, as you let inspiration return – just don't look at the floor to remember as that will come across in a negative way. Nobody but you knows what you were going to say, so they will never spot your departures from it. There are never any 'mistakes'. New improvised details or observations can be gems for next time.

5. To begin with, keep your stories to ten minutes long or less – you can time yourself beforehand. You’ll be surprised! Just three pages in a book can end up taking 15 minutes to tell. It takes a great deal more skill both to keep people's level of attention and to control the pacing through your longer stories.

6. Take time to finish. Look at people, smile, and listen to their applause – do not run away or gesture to dismiss it. The applause is the chance for your audience to give something back. The instinctive hiding gestures that most people fall can sometimes appear insulting. Just accept that everyone liked your story!

So how does this translate to the bar? Germany World Class winner Atalay Aktas describes his take on tales.

Create a story to match your drinks

Our job is to entertain, and sitting in front of the guest just mixing a drink with a jigger and then putting it on a napkin is not entertaining. It’s good to tell guests something about their drink, but to talk about the technical points, where the rum comes from, how many years it’s aged in oak barrels – well, I find that boring.

Educating people is important, helping them to drink responsibly or order the good stuff, that’s great. But you need to do it in a harmonious way. I want to be someone who comes in and tells a story, or writes a poem even. Every great drink has a great story behind it, even if that story is pure invention, and in 200 years people will read those stories like the mysteries of legend. People don’t know if they are invented or true which creates a mystery, and that’s really nice.

I like to tell stories about things that have actually taken place too. If you start by saying “you’ll never guess what happened yesterday…” you’re more likely to grab someone’s attention. We’ll always match a story to our signature drinks, or create drinks in connection with a story. As I make a drink, the story is occurring to me in the way the ingredients come together. We tell real stories around the drinks we’ve created, dedicate drinks to friends or family members, describe the history of the classics, and gradually people get to know us and what we’re capable of creating.

And want to hear a great story?

Here’s one that Lebanon World Class contestant Jad Ballout tells to explain the origin of his bar, called Garcia’s Cantina y Cocteleria.

Legend has it that Jose Garcia was a man who fell in love with Dahlia, the most beautiful bartender anyone had ever seen. Their relationship lived on through cocktails he tried and paintings she drew. But their love story was short lived when Jose joined the rebels to fight the people’s war and died in battle. To keep his memory alive, Dahlia opened up bars called ‘Garcia’s’ all around the world.

Years later, Jose was found to be alive, but the love of his life Dahlia was gone. Jose set out on a quest to find Dahlia but instead discovered the bars she built in his honour. Jose’s love for Dahlia lives on through Garcia’s and his never-ending quest to find her.

Some believe the story just told is true, but others say that Jose Garcia never actually existed, that he was simply a man of fiction created by storytellers; a rebel who fought armies on his own to save people from dictatorship and oppression; a man of the people who helped everyone on his way.

Beat that! Do you tell stories to your guests that compare with this? Or do you admire any tale-telling bartenders?