Storytelling: It’s Harder Than You Think

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When last did you attend a professional development course on your terms?

Drawing upon the latest research from neuroscience and psychology, award-winning writer Will Storr reveals how authors, screenwriters and journalists of all levels can make their writing more compelling.

Imagine these two scenarios:

One: Thousands of teachers are working 60+ hour weeks in a battle to keep up with their workload. Mental health statistics and lack of teacher wellbeing is being cited as the main drivers for teachers leaving the profession. School leaders are fighting back, with no-marking and ‘no email communication out of hours’ policies, attrition is winning.

Two: Ross McGill is working 60+ hour weeks in a battle to keep up with his teaching and leadership workload. Statistics from the Department for Eduction workforce census suggests, that after 20 years of teaching, he has a 50% chance of leaving the classroom versus a 44% of remaining in the classroom if workplace support in place for his personal wellbeing. Despite fighting back, designing and promoting no-marking and ‘no email communication out of hours’ policies, attrition won.

Which story do you connect better with? People need a eudemonic myth. For me, this is ‘reducing teacher workload’ and bringing people together to tackle the status-quo.

This week, I attended a training day with Will Storr who offered a mixture of theoretical talk and practical exercises, where people attending could build up a captivating scene using principles from psychology and neuroscience. Speaking with 3,000+ teachers over the past 3 months, I now feel it’s time to refine my story to better those I aim to inspire.

These are my notes from the day.

Effects of Transportation

Storr starts by explaining his original thinking, inspired by the book, The Heretics in which an individual believes they are the hero of the plot – similar to how we live our lives day-to-day. If you are not communicating with story, you are not communicating. Communication is storytelling and stories are a powerful driver of emotion.

An example of the below effects of transportation happened to me on the morning of this course, although I was unaware of it. I was 5 minutes late to the start of this training. As Storr explains, what happened in my psyche when I realised I was going to be late, was that I entered ‘David and Goliath mode’. I started to experience ‘transportation’. A term coined by psychologists about a state of mind. Research has demonstrated that the transported ‘traveler’ can return changed by the journey. Here are the 5 stages:

  • Emotional response
  • Critical thought
  • Belief
  • Attitude
  • Intention.

Five Elements of Storytelling

  1. Surprise (and its ramifications)
  2. Structure (cause and effect, not without each other)
  3. Simplicity
  4. Specificity
  5. Subtext (beneath the story).

Surprise

Our model of the world is inaccurate. Our senses aren’t that good. We are ‘fact-checkers’ and our brain creates a narrative, particularly through language. One simple example: if I write or say “New York”, all of a sudden the listener/reader starts to build up an image of ‘what New York is’. Now, if I keep going with that thought and all of a bring in a blue car, whose engine backfires outside the room in which you are reading this, you will be distracted and influenced by the above inner-monologue of your image of ‘New York’.

We are obsessed with change – or specifically the threat of change – and storytellers are brilliant at doing this.

This is called orienting response (OR), also called orienting reflex, is an individual’s immediate response to a change in their environment, when that change is not sudden enough to elicit the startle reflex. We also may think we don’t like ‘information gaps’ in stories and presentations, but actually we do like unexpected – particularly when pitching ideas and talking to others.

Therefore, take ‘New York’ again and let’s redo the scenario with the ‘car’s engine backfiring’. This time, let’s put you back in New York and have the car engine backfiring actually happening on a street in New York. You are standing in front of Times Square taking a selfie. How does the story change?

The story has begun and the picture can start to become real/vivid.

Structure

As humans, we create elaborate stories and theories and construct the world around us. But, we need to share our ‘because’ (our why) in between what we say and share with others. The cause and effect. Don’t just share the facts, build upon your story with ‘and then …’

We detect change and our brain tries to tell us what’s happening.

What happens when you nod off? Do you recall those moments when your body ‘jerks’ and wakes you back up? These are called myoclonic jerk – a sudden, involuntary jerking of a muscle or group of muscles – signalled by sudden muscle contractions or muscle relaxation.

Take a look at this short story based upon research by Heider and Simmel (1944):

What is happening in this video? How does your neocortex – the cauliflower looking part of the brain – build up a story?

Three geometrical figures (a large triangle, a small triangle and a disc) are shown moving in various directions and at various speeds. The only other figure in the field was a rectangle, a section of which could be opened and closed as a door is. When asked to interpret the moving objects, subjects were found to interpret the animation in terms of animated beings, attributing motives and personality.

For me, when I first watched this, I associated the characters of the film with teachers and students in school. At one point, I imagined the teacher – the large triangle – chasing two students. Why? Because this is the narrative in my mind.

Storr shares the Pixar Formula as a good basis for building a persuasive story structure. It goes something like this:

  • Once there was …
  • Every day …
  • Until one day … (crisis)
  • Because of that …
  • because of that …
  • Until finally … (resolution)
  • Ever since then …

You can see me trialling this technique in a video after the training day. Here is another simple and emotional advert. Authenticity seems to be the overarching theme, even for businesses and marketing. People want ‘believe-ability’.

Simplicity

Simple is hard – even writing a summary of this training into an easy-to-read post. Simple is a story skill and storytellers need to get across lots of information in as short a space as possible. So, here is my attempt to sum up this entire blog post and training in one sentence below.

Storytelling is powerful. We all have a story to tell, we just need to learn how to structure it, then share it.

What is your story in one sentence? What is your mission statement? For me writing as Teacher Toolkit, it’s this: to share resources  and opinion for teachers, parents and students that reduce workload and make an impact on learning. Does that work? If you’ve read this far, prove it. Leave a comment below and describe to us what Teacher Toolkit means to you.

Will Storr summarises simplicity as this: simple is memorable. It’s clarity packed with information with a core message. Simplicity transmits your purpose, your values and it’s a fabulous way to sell an idea and attack your enemies.

Specificity

Our attention is limited. We like specific things – even in the classroom. Details allows people to transport one’s thoughts into any story itself. Take a look at this example. It works because it takes a global issue and makes it specific.

Subtext

All the above – the ingredients for a good story – is underpinned by subtext.

Nobody ever tells a story about staying the same. We are always learning, always growing, even when we are not in school. We have an episodic memory – it is autobiographical – and yet, we often believe we are better than we actually are. Fundamentally, heroism is eudemonic: the hero’s journey in any story, is all about change or overcoming an obstacle. Although people tend to think they are correct and morally better than everyone else.

With subtext within good stories, it is vital that ‘the fight’ is shown within the journey – the struggle – or in the context of the Pixar Formula, ‘until one day …’ linked to ‘until finally’. The training day was so fascinating, I even wrote this post during the training day with my mind bombarded with personal stories I need to share from my life in education.

If you like to apply the same principles to teaching, speaking in school assemblies or conferences, then get in touch.

@TeacherToolkit

In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account in which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated for '500 Most Influential People in Britain' in The Sunday Times as one of the most influential in the field of education - he remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing online as @TeacherToolkit, he rebuilt this website (c2008) into what you are now reading, as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the number one spot at the UK Blog Awards (2018). Today, he is currently a PGCE tutor and is researching 'social media and its influence on education policy' for his EdD at Cambridge University. In 1993, he started teaching and is an experienced school leader working in some of the toughest schools in London. He is also a former Teaching Awards winner for 'Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School, London' (2004) and has written several books on teaching (2013-2018). Read more...

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