Tell A Good Story

September 28, 2010 at 8:21 pm 1 comment

There’s an old saying that you should open a speech with joke. I think the rule should be, “open with a story”.  Storytelling is our oldest form of teaching. It is the most natural thing for human beings to tell and listen to stories. We seem predisposed to arrange our experiences and the knowledge gained from them into narratives. But we’re not always very good at telling stories, and we don’t necessarily learn to use them in facilitating training and health education. This is too bad because stories have the potential to influence self-efficacy, outcome expectations and risk perceptions. They can help people reframe issues, work out alternate solutions and problem solve. For someone who develops or delivers educational content, it is worthwhile to hone some storytelling telling skills.

So what makes a good story? Jason McDonald, a researcher at Brigham Young University, interviewed experienced filmmakers about the principles of great storytelling that could be used to improve instruction and learning (2009). His research yielded three key findings. I’m going to focus on the second – the principles filmmakers use to engage audiences. They are conflict, authenticity, and entertainment (McDonald, 2009).

Conflict is what motivates the action in stories. McDonald defines conflict as the“dissonance created when a character’s goals and desires clash with the goals of another character, with environmental forces or even with another desire the same character simultaneously holds” (2009). In a good story, a character is going along when they are faced with a decision or challenge that creates conflict, suspense or risk. They must make a choice, and that choice leads to some sort of consequence, good or bad. Good stories focus on the details that are relevant to the choice-consequence structure, and leave out the details that are not.

The second principle is authenticity which is when the characters behave in believable ways (McDonald, 2009). This is what allows people to relate to the story and put themselves in the shoes of the characters.  As Joe Petraglia notes, “the legitimization of information as authentic is not a matter of processing factual or technically correction information but rests on our belief that the information conforms with our sense of who we are and what we know (2009).” Authenticity makes the story legit. It doesn’t mean the story has to be true, it just

means that the story has to “ring true”.  I would also argue that authenticity is not only about the story, but also about the storyteller. Writers are advised to “write what they know” because their writing will be authentic, even if it is fiction. We should tell stories about what we know and tell them in our own voice. If you don’t feel a story, don’t tell it.

The final principle is entertainment, or the ability to capture the attention and interest of viewers (McDonald, 2009). When I first started teaching health, I was somewhat snotty about the idea that I had to entertain my students. I thought they should pay attention because they were students and paying attention was their job. What I failed to understand is that entertainment didn’t mean I had to put on a magic show. It meant I had to be interesting. And while this sometimes means you have to be funny or mysterious, it mostly means that what you say has to be relevant to the people you are trying to reach. My students weren’t bored because they lacked maturity. They were bored because I boring – I wasn’t getting at what was important to them. Storytelling is a way to be compelling, but your story has to be relevant to your audience, your characters have to be authentic, and you can’t tell people what’s going to happen or what to think about your story. Think about your favorite movies or books. They are about characters your recognize in situations you can relate to – even if they are in completely alien settings. And they don’t reveal the story too quickly or tell you what you were supposed to get out of it at the end.

The way I pull all of this together is by looking at my learning objectives and my learners. In the process of deciding what content to deliver, and how to deliver it, I look for opportunities to tell stories that will engage my learners and meet my objectives. Usually the stories are about people I know and places I have been. Although, sometimes they’ll be from what was on the news the night before the workshop. I have nothing against spontaneous storytelling, but advance planning allows me to develop discussion questions or activities around the story, and put them in the places where they will make the most impact.  In telling the story, I focus on the choice-consequence that moves it forward, and I leave out extraneous details that distract from the lesson. I picture the characters in my mind so I can communicate the way they speak, their gestures and their reactions. This makes them authentic. And I tell stories I know by heart so I can speak from the heart. Even if it is a story we all know, telling it from memory helps me tell it in my own voice. I also try to make sure the characters and context for the story are relevant to the audience. I never give away the end, and I try not to tell the point of the story until the listeners have offered their interpretation. And sometimes you don’t need to tell the point at all.

Take Home Messages

Tell a good story that is built around the conflict created by choices and consequences. Fill it with authentic characters and tell it in your own voice. Make it entertaining by focusing on characters and situations that your audience can relate to, and let the story reveal itself.

Check out my diigo bookmarks for more resources on storytelling in health education and promotion.

McDonald, J.K. (2009). Imaginative instruction: what master storytellers can teach instructional designers. Educational Media International, 46(2), 111 – 122.

Petraglia, J. (2009). The importance of being authentic: Persuasion, narration and dialogue in health communication and education. Health Communication, 24, 176 – 185.

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Thinking About Learning: Metacognition in Adults Connectivism

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Conni  |  September 29, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Great post! We know that in law, the outcome of the case is often based on who is able to tell the best story.

    Reply

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