As a school principal for nearly 20 years I played almost every role, as all administrators do. However, there was one role I relished the most. Surprisingly, it was not my position as head of school, coordinator of curriculum or community leader that was to become my legacy, but rather my talent as a captivating storyteller.
Every Friday afternoon I gathered together all the pupils and told a story. It became such a trademark of what I did that my wife often joked that I changed jobs simply because I ran out of stories. When polled to identify the most impactful experience of their school careers, most students pointed to the tales that were told on Friday afternoons. They noted that much of what they learned over the past twelve years had faded, while the visions conjured by the stories they heard remained vividly clear. I am still surprised when I receive calls from students who graduated years ago requesting a reminder not of a lesson taught but of a story told.
In an age where we zip along at breakneck speed on the information highway, and focus intently on our student’s ability to access and master the latest of technologies, we have often forgotten this most important of modalities of learning.
Movie producer, author and UCLA Professor Peter Guber, writes in a 2011 article1:
PowerPoint presentations may be powered by state-of-the-art technology. But reams of data rarely engage people to move them to action. Stories, on the other hand, are state-of-the-heart technology—they connect us to others. They provide emotional transportation, moving people to take action on your cause because they can very quickly come to psychologically identify with the characters in a narrative or share an experience—courtesy of the images evoked in the telling.
Equally important, they turn the audience/listeners into viral advocates of the proposition, whether in life or in business, by paying the story—not just the information—forward.
As I tell the students in one of my UCLA graduate courses, Navigating a Narrative World, without stories not only would we not likely have survived as a species, we couldn’t understand ourselves. They provoke our memory and give us the framework for much of our understanding. They also reflect the way the brain works. While we think of stories as fluff, accessories to information, something extraneous to real work, they turn out to be the cornerstone of consciousness.
Continuing on the same theme, Pamela Brown Rutledge, Ph.D., in an article entitled The Psychological Power of Storytelling writes2:
Stories are authentic human experiences. Stories leap frog the technology and bring us to the core of experience, as any good storyteller knows.
Social media technologies have created a demand for fundamentals: authenticity, participation, and engagement. Special effects and funny Super Bowl ads are fine, but they are expensive one-offs if they do not touch the core of experience. I don’t care how you calculate, that’s not going to get you a very good ROI. When organizations, causes, brands or individuals identify and develop a core story, they create and display authentic meaning and purpose that others can believe, participate with, and share. This is the basis for cultural and social change.
As I told my stories at the end of each school week no technology was needed to gain the rapt attention of my audience. The faces of the children told me that the actions of the characters were making an indelible imprint on their hearts and minds. My Friday stories created for them a wealth of new and powerful experiences. I could be confident that my students would not leave the school with ‘just knowledge’ but also with a moral and ethical database which would help them not only deeply understand that which they learned but also to appropriately apply that knowledge for the good of mankind.
Any educator or parent who wishes to ensure that the lessons they strive to teach and the values they hope to convey will penetrate and endure, should consider mastering the art of the storyteller. It is truly state of the heart technology.