Written By: Monica Brady-Myerov, CEO and Founder, Listenwise
Storytelling is powerful. If you want someone to really listen to you – tell a good story. It’s that simple. I know this because I wrote stories as a public radio reporter for 25 years. Research shows students become engaged and better listeners, just by hearing a compelling narrative.
I say it’s simple, but really storytelling is part science, part arc, and part magic.
To tell a good story you need to really know it inside and out. And that takes research and time. You have to know everything about the story before you begin your first interview. Sure, there will be surprises and twists and turns and you should be open to them, but good solid research builds a solid foundation for a story.
I remember the series of stories I did on the state of children’s mental health services. It began with extensive research to select the right stories to tell. In one story about parent’s treatment choices I wove together two families’ stories in a way that would make a compelling story.
Former WBUR reporter Curt Nickish says his storytelling begins with his research.
“I know what the story will be before I begin interviewing,” says Nickish because the story is inherent to his reporting.
Stories work best when there is a narrative arc. That means a clear beginning, middle and end. Again it sounds simple, but you want that beginning to sweep in your listener, you want the middle to build to a crescendo and the end to feel satisfying.
Serial podcast creator Sarah Koenig told Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” that she lets the reporting drive the story. Serial investigated the murder of high school student and how her ex-boyfriend was convicted of her murder. But the podcast examines whether or not he really did it. The tale unravels like a ball of yarn. Just when you think you know he is innocent or you are convinced he’s guilty, another turn of the ball of yarn lets a strand fall loose.
Koenig told Fresh Air she produced the story one week at a time, rather than plotting out the entire story. This allowed the story to develop the narrative arc as her reporting went along. In the 12 part series the story takes many twists and turns as we hear Koenig bring in new evidence to consider and change her mind over the course of her reporting.
Capturing the magic of the story is what can really make it shine. People relate to emotions, so it’s important to capture those when you are creating the magic.
“It’s about people and their interests and their issues going through life. That’s how people relate,” says reporter Nickish.
A story that Nickish says highlights this technique is his profile of a tech entrepreneur who is trying to make nuclear power safer after experiencing the Japanese earthquake in 2011. The story immediately grabs your attention and then explores the entrepreneur’s life and what motivated him to focus on nuclear power.
Another technique is telling the story around an antidote followed by a moment of reflection to create a magic moment. That’s how Ira Glass, creator and host of This American Life puts together his stories.
“We structure stories like that over and over and over,” Glass told The Current.
Mixing these elements of science, arc and magic can be difficult but so rewarding when you hit the right storytelling note.
Try teaching with stories. Have students listen to podcasts, make documentaries, write creative stories, or even create their own story narratives in comic book form. The possibilities with using stories in the classroom are endless.