The Power of Storytelling

Open storybook with pirate ship and palm tree island.

“Have I got a story for you!”

No matter what you are doing, if someone gives you that opener, your curiosity is undoubtedly piqued. It’s the kind of introduction that ensures you will probably be laughing at someone’s blunders, sharing in someone’s successes or commiserating in someone’s failures. You can be sure there will be a lesson in there somewhere.  And what is the first thing you will do with this new found story? You will repeat it to the next person you meet. So, in honour of World Storytelling Day on March 20th, it is the perfect time to learn about the power of storytelling.

What is Storytelling

Storytelling is not just something you do with your kids or grandkids at bedtime. Stories are a form of communication that captures human imagination and makes information stick. This is the power of storytelling. Piece of paper with "once upon a time" written on it. Before the written word enabled information to be stored in a way that anyone could access it, verbal stories were a way to pass information to fellow citizens. It was not just for sharing actual stories, but as a means to organize and communicate cultural values, give directions, illustrate beliefs and simplify instructions. Stories were meant to explain the world around you and give context and meaning to the environment.

Storytelling is Everywhere

Nowadays whether you realize it or not, storytelling is embedded in almost anything we do. Advertisements tell a story about their products in a way to try and appeal to their target market. Companies try and impart their corporate values in training sessions using case studies, role playing or videos. Motivational speakers draw heavily on stories, often from personal experience, to rouse emotion and further a cause. And of course let’s not forget the stories told through music, theater and the arts. Actors on stage in a play. Even video games can have very complicated narrative storylines and immerse people from all around the world in multiplayer gaming universes. And yes, today you can make a career out of being a creative writer for video games. You would not have gotten that suggestion from a highschool guidance counsellor some years ago.

Why is Storytelling So Compelling?

Stories are interesting. It is a much more attractive way to talk about issues or explain things without having to study spreadsheets, diagrams or fact sheets. You can craft a story around pretty much any topic and make even the most dry or complicated subject at least tolerable. On the flip side, any journalist or writer knows that in order to make the news, you have to find the story. You need a hook. If there’s no story, then it’s just a list of robberies, accidents or events in a city.
Black and white image of newsroom with journalists at desks.
New York Times newsroom.

Stories Appeal to All Age Groups

Children from all cultures grow up with their own versions of Aesop’s Fables or Mother Goose. People from age 0 to 99 (and beyond) can take comfort in, wonder about and find pleasure in the myths and legends or sacred narratives and allegories that form the fabric of cultures around the world. Antique book open to a page.

Stories Are Easier to Remember

Studying lists with dates, events and names in history class is not only excruciatingly boring, but does an incredible disservice to the subject. I remember hating history class all through elementary and highschool because it was just rote memorizing. Nothing had context, nothing had any details of interest and it all just had to be regurgitated on a test and then you move on. Later in university and beyond I actually came to find history truly fascinating. I read books that made characters and situations come alive and have relevance in my life. When I think back, however, I do remember using mnemonics to memorize the historical dates and events. Mnemonics are mini stories in themselves – like “BEDMAS” in math, or “ROYGBIV” for a rainbow. Silhouettes of children in front of a rainbow.

Using Storytelling in Education

Telling a story at the beginning of a lesson can break the ice, relax the students and give time for everyone to tune in and focus. Stories present information in a way that is not intimidating and can make it easier to delve into more difficult subjects, or engage reluctant learners. Most people like to hear about others’ experiences, trials and tribulations, as long as it is not the focus of the lesson or too long winded. Stories can be used as a natural segue to the next lesson or topic, ending one thread and beginning another. They can also be open ended and incite discussion. Most students will study various types of stories, myths or legends throughout their schooling careers. I remember reading Greek mythology, Viking sagas and First Nations stories. Viking ship in ocean scene. Some educational philosophies use storytelling in more comprehensive ways, instead of just as a “unit study” in a language arts class. Montessori education and Waldorf education are two examples with deep roots in stories.

Storytelling in Montessori Education

Dr. Maria Montessori developed her philosophy centred around the child. “Follow the child” is a common phrase used to describe how a Montessori guide interacts with the children. A Montessori philosophy educates the “whole child”. This whole child approach is a very comprehensive and systematic way to build interconnected activities and lessons as a child grows. A great synopsis of what this means can be found here at How We Montessori. In Montessori elementary classrooms (yes, Montessori education is not just for toddlers and preschoolers), the children begin to learn The Great Lessons of Cosmic Education. Before you stop reading and think you’ve stumbled into some esoteric witchcraft, don’t let the title scare you away. The term “cosmic” in the Montessori philosophy refers to a wholistic and integrated approach. Remember that Maria Montessori lived in the early 1900’s, so sometimes her terminology is a little removed from modern parlance. If you would like a quick primer on some common Montessori terms, check out this great list at Montessori Services. Silhouettes of people in moonlight. The Great Lessons are 5 comprehensive stories that teach how the world came into being, how life formed, your place in this world and your connection to the rest of the world. You can read a summary of the 5 lessons here. These Great Lessons are a cornerstone of the Montessori philosophy.

Waldorf Education

Similarly in Waldorf education, there is a strong emphasis on nurturing the whole child and promoting life long learning. Waldorf education was the brain child of Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 1900’s. The approach focusses on music, theatre, literature and the arts using experiential but academic methods. Waldorf students delve deeply into the epic stories, myths and legends from cultures all over the world.

First Nations Storytelling

Many areas of the world have “first peoples” that may refer to themselves by various names, such as First Nations, Native American, Inuit, Maori, Saami, aboriginal or indigenous people. There are almost 200 First Nations governments here in British Columbia alone. The First Nations communities in this province have a rich history in storytelling. Puzzle Heads has been very fortunate to work with Nisga’a school district 92 in northern British Columbia to develop these family crest puzzles for use in language learning and keeping the Nisga’a language alive.
Native American pow wow dancer.
Native American pow wow dancer.

Ultimate Stories

Memes are probably the ultimate perfect bite sized stories that have grown out of the internet era. A few words and an image can evoke laughter, belongingness, rage and a call to action – maybe even all in the same meme! Memes masterfully distill a thought, idea or event into a simple and very consumable titillating tidbit. Like I said in the beginning – whatever the story, chances are you are likely to repeat it as quickly as you heard it. Or, in the case of a meme, like it and share it even faster.

Did you know?

World Storytelling Day started in Sweden in 1991 as a national day for storytelling. The concept grew and more countries started hosting storytelling events. Today there are storytelling events on every continent  except Antarctica!

Is there a storytelling event in your community? Will you participate in a virtual storytelling event? Do you use storytelling in your workplace or educational environment? Pop a comment below with your experiences – share your story!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *