Storytelling – the Textbook of Life

Once upon a time

I started teaching Storytelling in my lectures 20 years ago, back then it was part of the English curriculum at the Vorarlberg University of Applied Sciences, Austria. Thanks to my colleague Michael Williams who introduced Storytelling to the curriculum, I was able to provide unique English classes for Business Administration undergraduates. English for Executive Storytelling was initially met with little euphoria by the students – at that time it was probably quite ahead of its time. On the last day of the semester, students had  to tell a story in English about their life in front of the group. And so, in 5 minutes, the students learned things about their fellow students that they had never found out in the 6 semesters they spent together. It was a great course. The participants improved their English skills – good stories don’t leave out any details and require precise, descriptive language – and we also learned that one student had sung in the Eurovision Song Contest, that another was Double World Champion in artistic cycling and that one of the best English students in the class had once embarrassed himself so much in front of his boss with his poor English that he as a consequence decided to push himself to perfect his English skills. I will never forget this semester. My first storytelling event. The students still talk about it today.

Stories are universal

Storytelling can be integrated into all fields of study and business communication training. Stories are universal, a part of life and all cultures. Whether it’s the Brothers Grimm, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Thousand and One Night Stories or the American Chicken Soup for the Soul series, stories tell of how life goes, how things change and what people learn from these stories. Everyone can identify with a story and that’s why stories are so important in training and education.

In the past, stories were told over the garden fence, the village version of Netflix. Today, in the days of COVID-19, my street in sleepy Berkhamsted, UK has been brought to life by a chatty WhatsApp group. Stories are exchanged and a “listening ear” is on standby 24 hours a day in case you need support. But stories are not always positive. Unfortunately, horrible stories that aren’t true – rumours, urban myths, and again something timely: conspiracy theories. Untruths get repeated, translated, altered and fly around the world like Chinese whispers. Why is that? Simply because no one can resist a good story.

Stories are how we remember

Presentations without storytelling are colourless, anecdotes are a necessity. Stories are what we remember. They are the links to facts. Without storytelling, theory remains mere theory, facts remain sober facts, and audiences remain simply audiences. Storytelling treats audiences like people. According to Robert McKee[1] , in Business, presentations are meant to persuade the audience. Presentations are a push strategy. Storytelling is a pull strategy. The human brain tends to forget facts and bullet points. A story doesn’t grab power. It creates power over emotion. When I talk about the theories of Intercultural Communication in my intercultural training or lectures, an anecdote is the gateway to the topic, it immediately creates a better connection to the theory. As a stand-alone some intercultural dimensions sound very abstract, let’s take Edward T. Hall’s monochronic versus polychronic[2] attitudes towards time, for example. When students on my cross-cultural exchange programs embark on preparing their projects, the theory soon comes alive with the Austrians working down their to-do lists and their Indian project partners juggling several plates at one time. Of course the students align these differences as they have the same goal but to start with it takes some adjustment! And, if they had only seen the theory in the book, it would definitely not be the same experience. In the field of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Intercultural Communication, storytelling can be used beautifully. Through stories we learn to see contexts and this leads us to better understand otherness.

Storytelling and critical thinking

In 1969, Charles Handy introduced the study of literature to the London School of Economics. As with my business students in Vorarlberg, the economists were not really enthusiastic about this! Handy’s rationale was that “Great art worms its way into the soul in a way that company accounts cannot.”[3]  Stories promote critical thinking and moral or ethical action. Storytelling sharpens our thinking. By reading Shakespeare or Conrad, students are exposed to thoughts about acting in critical situations, are encouraged to find solutions, and understand that action is always contextual. Business is about balancing dilemmas. Shakespeare is often about how far people will go to achieve their goals (think Othello, Romeo and Juliet, etc…). In my storytelling class, we read short stories by Chekhov, O.Henry, and de Maupassant and drew lots of parallels – ethical questions like whether it was better to tell the truth or keep quiet, or whether you could live with less or no money – we had great debates. And these stories were partly from the nineteenth century. These issues are current, even in our COVID-19 world. In short, good stories always have relevance; dilemmas are timeless.

Storytelling and Storylistening

The topic of storylistening is something I deal with in my work and I have done for a long time but now I have a name for it, hoorah! I often work in international classrooms and have been part of cross-cultural teams on international field trips. In my many seminars in India and Russia, students learn about the differences and similarities between two cultures. As an English person, I stand between three cultures and support students in their learning processes. Storytelling is not just about the information we want to share, it is also about how the stories are heard and what the listeners do with the information. This is about context and how the listener perceives the message. So storytelling is more than storytelling, it is also storylistening. We can challenge our stereotypical thinking when we hear others’ stories and bring cultural dimensions to life with examples. At the “XPlore India” Program’s get-to-know-you session each year, I marvel at how two cultural groups share stories about their cultures using Hofstede’s textbook cultural onion model[4]. They tell stories, listen, and protest when I say it’s time to stop. This is storytelling and storylistening at its finest. What more could a trainer or lecturer ask for? I will not use anything else as it always works! Annette Simmons once said, “Storytelling is the closest you can get to taking someone else for a walk in your shoes.”[5]  In my opinion, we should wear as many shoes as possible because, the more shoes we wear, the more we will understand the ways of the world. On very many levels. Active listening is the basis of an understanding dialogue, the route to understanding otherness.

And the moral of the story is …

Human-beings learn through emotional experiences. Striking a balance between facts and stories is a prerequisite for education. Stories can be used to evoke feelings and emotions, and once that happens, the facts and rationale we want to share in education become more accessible. Stories will play an increasingly important role in education – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a living example of where we need to open the dialogue and nurture active listening. Only in this way can we create a real exchange about our backgrounds and eliminate stereotypes. On an individual note, I recommend that everyone collect stories in a story book of their own and think about the occasions they could be told – whether it is at a job interview, during presentations, or to build relationships. Stories are a basic requirement of togetherness and togetherness is a basic requirement for education to take place.

Please contact me to find out more about Storytelling & Storylistening in my Intercultural / English language training. You can reach me via the Contact Page or by phone/email.

vanessa@paisley-communication.com

+44 (0)7514 218083


[1] Robert Mc Gee, Storytelling That Moves People, A Conversation with Screenwriting Coach, (Harvard: HBR, 2003)

[2] Edward T Hall, The Silent Language, (New York: Anchor Books, 1959)

[3] Charles Handy, Myself and Other More Important Matters, (London: Heinemann, 2006) p.78

[4] https://news.hofstede-insights.com/news/what-do-we-mean-by-culture

[5] Annette Simmons, The Story Factor – inspiration, influence and persuasion through the art of storytelling, (New York: Basic Books, Revised ed. 2006) p.45

2 thoughts on “Storytelling – the Textbook of Life

  1. Amazing blog post!!! So much about it I loved, but I pulled these two quotes:

    “Through stories we learn to see contexts and this leads us to better understand otherness.” And

    “Storytelling is not just about the information we want to share, it is also about how the stories are heard and what the listeners do with the information.”

    Such a fan of storytelling as a tool (or the door, as you point out) to opening up to differences. Stories help us find connection, which then makes us more receptive to the information (including the differences) being conveyed.

    Again, great blogpost!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much – I realised I’d been using it for so many years and have decided to bring it into my training more again. As you say, it is a great tool for getting people to talk about differences. And with my topic of culture, the individual story is what gets left out in a lot of intercultural training. Thanks for reading!

      Like

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