If you are old enough and were brought up in the UK, you can shut your eyes and travel back in time and hear once again the voice of Daphne Oxenford. Imagine sitting on your mother’s knee listening to BBC Radio’s Listen with Mother, and hearing the words, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” Later the television programme Jackanory (I’ll tell you a story) ran for 3,500 episodes over a thirty year period.
This blog in three parts is all about the power of story and its potential as a tool for learning. It comes from a white paper I wrote last year for Walkgrove. To get the point across, I’ll be telling one or two stories along the way.
The first story
The first story doesn’t have a great plot; nothing much happens but hopefully it will paint a picture for you of a particular moment in time. It takes place at a school in Manchester in the early 1970s. A man called John Cunliffe, a schoolteacher, is promoting children’s books and stories. He enters the space reserved for storytelling, and slowly settles his tall, slim frame into a position seated on the carpet. His ability to command a circle of the deepest concentration even amongst the most excitable and hyperactive of audiences is quite marvellous. It might be his voice, a rich spoken baritone with a colourful Lancastrian dialect; but probably not. It might be his prodigious height, but probably not that either. It might be his Edward Lear beard; but no; what makes the man so charismatic is the promise of a story. He’s not yet a celebrity in his own right. His best known creation, Postman Pat, features but is not yet widely recognised. And so it is not John, but the great wealth of stories he tells and the style of his telling them, that commands absolute attention.
I like watching plays on the radio; the colours are so much brighter there!
What makes stories so compelling? Lewis Carroll had something provocative to say about the mixing of perceptual modality. “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?’ (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)
It’s not the pictures the writer paints, it’s the pictures the reader or listener draws for himself. You did not need to see Ysanne Churchman in the real flesh-and-blood world to know that Grace Archer wore royal blue (The Archers, BBC Radio 1950 – present day). Her voice and the whole ambience of Middle England Borsetshire told us that. On the other hand when Coronation Street was broadcast for the first time in colour (episode 928), it was a jolt to see that Elsie Tanner’s dress was a modest off-white colour, with a grey diamond pattern whereas the dress that Elsie wore in my mind was a vivid fiery red even though I’d only ever actually seen it on screen in black and white (Coronation Street, ITV Granada Television, 1960 – present day).
It is a very important point to keep in mind in this 21st century when rich media is the all-pervasive.
Storytelling in the workplace
Surrounded as we are by a profusion of imagery and audio-visual media, can we detect in our businesses and organisations a groundswell of interest in storytelling? Does that storytelling depend upon anything other than a narrative and a human voice? After all that’s how we’ve been communicating since we humans lived in caves and exchanged tales by firelight. Now in this Age of Information, story-telling is used to engineer practical outcomes for people, communities and organisations. Some see it as a central plank in the construction of communication, education, training, government and innovation in the 21st century.
Story is compelling but its appeal depends on what the receiver brings to it far more than the richness of the media the storyteller uses or the attractiveness of their personality (although these are important too.
What do we mean by “narrative”?
When we use the word ‘narrative’ we refer to anything that forms part of a record and an account of a human experience. This would include sculpture, painting, dance and artefacts as well as written texts, poetry and spoken stories. With the rise of social media that is synoptic and heavily text-biased, we are at risk of diluting that distinctly human skill of narrative. Composing or reading a Tweet of 140 characters or a txt msg is not the same as building, creating and declaiming a sustained and rounded narrative; something which has a beginning, a middle and an end.
When a learner reads silently or listens to a story, writes one in poetry or prose or presents it non-verbally through art, dance or mime, they are learning to make sense of the world, of themselves and of other people around them. Perhaps the greatest gift a teacher can bestow is to inspire an interest in stories. As we develop language through infancy we meet many stories – myths and legends, fiction and fact. Not only do we learn from them the rules of language, but also we learn about our Human Condition.
As we are exposed to culture in its many rich and diverse forms, we open windows onto people, places and situations that we’ve not met before, and so we are able to analyse and synthesise, in other words from the experience of others we build for ourselves a world and a way of life and work that is uniquely our own.
That brings me to the end of the beginning. In the next 2 instalments I’ll say why narrative is so important and how stories, case studies or scenarios – however we choose to describe narrative – can be so useful in engineering particular behaviours in the workplace or the community.
I’ll discuss the convention of “They all lived happily ever after” and suggest that unhappy endings may be more useful when story is used as a device to change behaviour.
Finally I’ll compare and contrast how adults and children experience story; I’ll explain the “monomyth” and how storytelling was a key control of social behaviour in ancient Greek society. I’ll finish with 7 key tips on how to use story as instructional strategy.