Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Making the Storytelling Connection

June 1, 2011
General Communication Studies

“Once upon a time, oral storytelling ruled. It was the medium through which people learned their history, settled their arguments, and came to make sense of the phenomena of their world.” So begins a position statement released back in 1992 by the National Council of Teachers of English about the importance of storytelling in education. Even though today’s college students come to classes with their iPod ear buds plugged into their ears, carrying their iPads and sending text messages on their cell phones, storytelling has the power to connect these students to the content they are learning in ways that their technological devices cannot. The YES! (Youth, Educators and Storytellers Alliance) of the National Storytelling Network emphasizes that storytelling enlivens the delivery of curriculum, accelerates and enhances learning, and engages students. While we often acknowledge that storytelling has a “place” in the K-12 context, we might be reluctant to accept how storytelling in the college classroom can be a transformative experience. However, many university communication professors have joined those who value the art of storytelling as an instructional tool.

Storytelling helps students to understand how others see them and how they see themselves.  An introductory activity in an interpersonal communication class or a family communication class involves asking questions about students’ names. A simple exercise to help students connect with their family heritage is to ask them to explain the “story of their names.” Many students respond by explaining their names reflect those of family members or, in some cases, public figures (celebrities and politicians) who their parents admired. The resulting conversation easily leads into discussion of self identity and how we perform that identity in everyday life. 

Storytelling is one of the best ways to help students learn about other cultures. If students are to learn what is valued in a culture, they should explore the values found in the folktales of that culture. Along that journey, they discover that even the number patterns found in the stories of a culture are significant: the number three reflective of the Trinity in tales from Northern Europe; the number seven indicating perfection in Jewish stories, the number four reflective of the close ties to the earth of Native American stories. When using storyteller Jim May’s technique of identifying “culture of birth” and “culture of choice,” students also come to understand how they have been shaped by their own culture. In describing culture of birth, students describe the religious, political, economic, and geographical location from which they came. When describing their culture of choice, students compare what they have chosen to become.  Often, the culture of birth and the culture of choice have many differences. It is the juncture of those differences where captivating personal narratives live.

Storytelling, whether in an advertising class or a public speaking class, is a natural way to teach organization. The storyboard technique that allows students to sketch the ideas for an ad sequence  helps them learn how to structure the story in much the same way as helping public speaking students see that all presentations have a beginning, a middle and an end.  Storyteller Donald Davis identifies what he has labeled the “Five Languages of Storytelling”: the language of gesture, the language of attitude, the language of sound, the language of oral words, and the language of audience feedback. Incorporating these five languages into a unit focusing on delivery connects students with the concepts in memorable ways. 

Just as personal narrative was the basis for the revival of oral storytelling in the United States in the mid 1970’s, personal narrative is an important way to engage today’s students. As part of their senior learning portfolios, students at my university are asked to write a reflective essay about their journey in higher education, reflecting what they have learned on that journey. The resulting narratives, not only help us assess learning in our communication programs, but they also help students identify their strengths and weaknesses. By telling their stories, students frame their experiences in ways that help them plan for future careers or for future graduate study.

Storytelling can play a significant part in social activism. For his performance thesis project, one of our graduate students chose to collect narratives from international students, and then compile a script featuring the stories of six of the students he interviewed.  The resulting public performance raised awareness of the isolation that international students experience at our university. However, one of the most memorable moments occurred in the dialogue that the performer had with his audience following the performance. An international student from Columbia said: “For the first time I feel as if I am valued.” Voices that had been silenced had been given a venue through storytelling.

The work of Walter Fisher and his formulation of the narrative paradigm helped communication professors realize that all of us are inherently storytellers.  ost students do not think of themselves as talented orators or gifted filmmakers, but it is easy for them to picture themselves as storytellers. Not only is storytelling useful in today’s classroom, but storytelling plays an important role in the boardroom. The use of stories to develop business leaders is built on the principle that all of us are storytellers. Douglas A. Ready, the founder and president of the International Consortium for Executive Development Research, writes: “When done the right way . . . storytelling by a company’s senior executives is a way of providing potential leaders with the necessary context from respective role models.” Ready’s strategies for implementing a storytelling leadership program can be easily adapted to the higher education context. He recommends:

  • Get the top team actively engaged.
  • Develop a collective point of view on leadership effectiveness.
  • Consider all available alternatives.
  • Get the right team in place to carry out the program.
  • Coach the storytellers and orient the participants.
  • Use stories to stimulate dialogue, reflection, and action.

One of my favorite descriptions of storytelling is the one that Rives Collins and Pamela Cooper use to begin their book, The Power of Story: Teaching through Storytelling: “Lewis Carroll once called stories love gifts”. Whether used in an interpersonal communication course, a public speaking course, or an organizational communication course, storytelling is a gift worth giving our wired generation of students.

About the author (s)

Trudy L. Hanson

West Texas A&M University