Humans are storytelling creatures. Whenever someone says, “that reminds me of a story…”  we prick up our ears and settle in to listen. Two recent Scientific American articles, The Secrets of Storytelling and Fiction Hones Social Skills shed new light on the intricacies and importance of storytelling.  The first article, by Jeremy Hsu on the secrets of storytelling, hones in on why our human brains seem to be particularly well wired for both telling and hearing stories.

The impact of storytelling

The second article dispels the myth that avid readers are isolated bookworms, out of touch with their social world.  The article’s author argues that we humans use stories as a kind of social simulation to help better understand ourselves and human character in general. That entering these imagined worlds of fiction help us to develop empathy and rehearse social interactions so that we are better fixed to take on another person’s point of view.  The article’s author cited a 2006 experiment conducted by Raymond Mar (University of Toronto).  Mar and his colleagues assessed the reading habits of 94 adults and tested their sample on emotion perception and social cognition (by asking them to make judgments/decisions on emotional state/interactions through photographs or video clips).  What they found was a positive correlation between reading fiction and the ability to correctly assess emotional states and interpret social cues.  In other words, the more fiction someone read, the stronger their social aptitude. This is an opinion I’ve long-held (perhaps rationalizing my love of fiction) but it was so gratifying to see it described so well, and  backed by scientific evidence, in a peer-reviewed journal.

Like many others, I’ve been transfixed by National Public Radio’s Story Corps project.  Since 2003, the non-profit Story Corps has recorded over 35,000 stories of people’s lives. These digitally recorded oral histories are broadcast weekly on NPR and archived at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. The heart of the Story Corps project is the interview. Typically, the storyteller is interviewed by a friend or loved one, urged on to recount a story familiar to both of them. In addition to the warm humanity that comes through in these stories, I’m always struck by the interplay between the interviewer and the storyteller – the nature of the questions, the good-natured coaxing, and the way that rapt listening works to loosen the storyteller’s tongue.

So what is it that makes a good story?  Ira Glass, from This American Life (another fabulous storytelling radio show from National Public Radio), in his video series on storytelling, outlines the building blocks of good storytelling. First, he explains, there is the anecdote – a sequence of actions, one thing following another.  The power of the anecdote is so great that, no matter how boring the facts, you still tune in because it is a sequence of events, like breadcrumbs, that you are eager to follow in order to get to the implied and hoped-for destination.  What’s going to happen? He goes on to say that good stories include bait. The bait typically comes in the form of a question that your story is shaped to answer. And then there’s the all-important point of the story – the moment of reflection, the insight, the ah-ha moment that brings your story together and makes it all worthwhile.  Similarly, Brian Sturm, UNC Chapel Hill, explains his view of storytelling, theory and practice in this video. He explains what a story is and how good stories weave together character, plot, and events as a unified whole and why they are so persuasive (he also tells some great stories in the bargain).

In thinking about storytelling, I found this visual resource helpful  – The Periodic Table of Storytelling. It provides a useful organizational framework  (familiar to any graduate of a general chemistry course) through the different tropes, genres and storytelling methods in a handy, navigable chart.

The periodic table of storytelling

“Digital storytelling” has become an educational buzz phrase as educators and administrators attempt to use participatory media tools so that students can tell their stories more effectively to a wider audience.  There are some amazing online resources to help any educator bring digital storytelling methods to their students.  If you haven’t already seen it the Center for Digital Storytelling (based in Berkeley, CA – natch) is an amazing online resource. Penguin books sponsors a wonderful called we tell stories.  Contests abound, like KQED’s Digital Storytelling Initiative. The University of Houston has a wonderful web site designed to support the educational uses of digital storytelling.  The National Storytelling network, a sort of guild for storytellers, has an interesting website chock-full of resources. And there is even an international conference on digital storytelling, slated for March 2012 in Valencia, Spain.  There’s a range of useful storytelling tools available online like VoiceThread, Pixton, Voki, Storify, and Tikatok – to name just a few.  The always amazing Alan Levine (aka CogDog)’s wiki site on “50 Ways to Tell a Story” is a terrific resource where he tells the same story using 50 different online tools so that you can figure out the unique affordances of each one.  With free and easy-to-use storytelling tools and video, we can all be published authors.

Then there is the notion of transmedia storytelling – the fine art of telling a story via a range of media types (print, audio, video, etc).  The idea is to craft your story in such a way so that it has built-in mobility, so that you harness the power of various media to augment, so that you tell parts in one way, embellish other parts in a different way.  Here is a PFSK series on The Future of Transmedia Storytelling that gives food for thought.

A Child's Christmas in Wales

This Christmas, as a family, we gathered together on Christmas Eve, as we do every year, to read aloud to each other Dylan Thomas’s Child’s Christmas in Wales.

“All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.”

As it always does, that story wraps us in the warm glow of Christmas’s remembered bringing the snows, the guttering gas flames, the swelling uncles, and tipsy aunts to life – even though they were written about an age ago, in a place far far away.  Over dinner the next day, I urged my parents to tell stories from their youth to my listening sons. I could feel the story of my mother’s high school Latin teacher and my father’s first job as the operator of copier for architectural plans sinking into the fiber of my two sons’ young souls. Lodging there, expanding their perspective, and adding to the texture of what they will become.



Filed under Reflections, Teaching with Technology

11 responses to “Storytelling

  1. Neil Heyden

    I am at least a fair judge of character and reading of human emotion and intent, but read more fiction than nonfiction…

    Very nice moment with your sons listening to their grandparents’ stories…

  2. Kate

    I love it when science confirms my deeply-held convictions for which I previously had no evidence!

    Another avid reader here. 🙂

  3. Jane Vel

    Very interesting indeed. I belong to storytelling group in Argentina. We are looking for an image of storytelling. Where did you get the first one you posted here, the one in orange?

  4. I wondered if I could pay to use the image at the beginning of your blog, the orange oval with silhouettes in it.

    • rheyden

      Hi Claudia, I’m so sorry to take this long to get back to you! Unfortunately, the image is not mine to give. I found it on Creative Commons, so maybe you can too?

  5. Really enjoyed this article. Thank you so much for sharing. Storytelling is a powerful vehicle to that connects us to each other and to our humanness. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. ~Nea

  6. Thanks for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a leisure account it.
    Glance advanced to far brought agreeable from you! By the way, how can we keep up a

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