Sharon Cooper-Murray does not tell a story to you, she tells a story with you. Cooper-Murray, a.k.a. the Gullah Lady, knows how to engage, something of a lost art these days: voice low, eyes affixed to the listener, body open and turned forward. The audience, be it one person or a crowd of 3,000, finds themselves mimicking her body language. Lean in, sit up straight, look forward, not behind or to the side or at the ground. The listener hangs on to her every word, her carefully crafted beginning, middle, end. You absorb her narrative so effortlessly you don’t realize that she’s stopped speaking, it’s your turn. What do you have to offer? What’s your story?

“I thought about conducting a workshop series a few years ago,” says Cooper-Murray.
“People think of storytelling as for children. But I started to look at it in contemporary society, storytelling not in the traditional sense.”

A native of Lake City, S.C., Cooper-Murray has a long history with storytelling — she graduated from Knoxville College with a Bachelors degree in Speech/Drama and studied English Lit, poetry, and philosophy. In the ’90s she completed an extensive oral history project, now housed at the Avery Institute, which spurred the creation of her entrepreneurial project, De Gullah Enna Pry. From this heritage development venture, Cooper-Murray established a touring folk music group, De Gullah Singers; an artist in residency program for folk art and crafts; and perhaps her most well-known creation, the Gullah Lady.

I started to tell stories which I think to some degree was not so intentional…in fact it was completely unintentional,” laughs Cooper-Murray. “I was producing a group of singers, and I’d done a great deal of research about Gullah culture and so to kill time between the singers’ sets, I’d tell a story for 25 minutes. It was like a filler. But then people started to call me.” Apparently, the well-told Gullah stories were popular, and people wanted to hear more of them.

“I knew I needed to develop a persona, so when I walked down the street it would be striking, so people would remember me,” says Cooper-Murray. “I pondered over a few different concepts and one day while researching I saw this woman in an 1860s skilled craftsman outfit, it had been indigo dyed.”

Cooper-Murray says she mentioned the idea of dressing like a black woman from the 1860s to her friends and they said ‘do you know the backlash you’re going to get, dressing like a slave?’ “I thought ‘yeah, but I would be able to tell these stories and they would look at the character and they’d be able to see where these stories originated,'” says Cooper-Murray. “And I needed them to know the background, I needed them to know it wasn’t me, these came from there.” And thus, the Gullah Lady was born.

After successfully building a brand based on storytelling, Cooper-Murray decided this was a skill she could share with others so that they could also market themselves and their own stories. She figured she could frame it as a workshop, one in which a small number of people could learn firsthand, from a pro, how to tell a story, and then how to turn that story into dollar signs. The What’s Your Story workshop series, which starts tonight at 6 p.m., will run the third Thursday of every month through June at Local Works.

“Anything you want to sell, any event you want someone to come to, if you can come up with a concise story, if you can draw people in with the first line, you could sell anything to anyone,” says Cooper-Murray. The workshop series caters to anyone in any field or stage of life, from someone in sales to someone in school. Students will be challenged with creating a four line pitch, or short story, that contains within it everything they’d want someone to know about their product or their trade. Maybe a realtor needs help selling houses, maybe a senior in college needs help finding a job, maybe a retiree needs help raising money for a charity event. 

“I thought, I can tell people how The Gullah Lady was branded then transform that idea into a class,” says Cooper-Murray. In addition to teaching students how to tell effective short stories, using the right sentence structure, the right words, Cooper-Murray will also instruct them on public speaking, another vestige of the pre-Internet past.

Now comfortable with speaking in front of, or approaching, anyone on the planet, it’s hard to believe Cooper-Murray ever had trouble with public speaking. But in college when standing in front of her class for a presentation, she says she froze. “I remember, my professor said ‘what did you think was going to happen? Did you think you were going to die?'” She says that “if you can get over the fact that this isn’t going to kill you, embarrassment isn’t the worst thing that will happen to you, you’ll be OK. I’m teaching the technique of storytelling plus the art of public speaking.”

Cooper-Murray is realistic — she knows some people may never conquer their fears of selling something, of speaking to a large group. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying. “You don’t have to have confidence. You just need an air of confidence.”

Keep up to date with the workshop series on Facebook; tickets for one class or the entire series can be purchased online.

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