Why Your First Assignment of the Semester Should Be a Narrative

An interesting shift has happened over the last couple decades in the world of business. The spreadsheet loving, dollars and cents world of business has fallen head over heels for the decidedly unspreadsheet world of storytelling. This can be best seen in the evolution of advertising. Even during the 1990s, commercials were largely information/tagline dissemination vehicles (see below). For example, car commercials at the time spent most of their time giving numbers concerning the price, reliability, gas mileage, and longevity or showing random montages of Americana followed by vague taglines like Chevy’s “Like a rock” or  “The longest lasting, most reliable trucks on the road.”

Compare that to Chevy’s 2014 Super Bowl Ad (below), which shows a young woman’s coming of age with her dog, Maddie. This ad gives no information about the car whatsoever and every frame is connected to a story. Even the tagline at the end, “A best friend for life’s journey” signals a shift towards story.

The results of this shift have been in many ways swift and striking. The Maddie ad has nearly five million Youtube views, which means five million people sought out an advertisement to watch in their own free time. And it’s not just the marketing branch of business where this shift can be felt. A number of business schools now offer storytelling classes, business pitches are often now framed using a story structure, and the power of story is one of the favorite topics in publications like Forbes, Fast Company, and The Harvard Business Review. The reason for this is very well put by the Harvard Business Review in its article “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool” when it says:

A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.

The ironic part about this romance between business and story is that while it has been blossoming, the opposite has been going on across in the education world, which has in many ways been getting a divorce from story. In far too many classrooms, particularly in high schools, story writing has been paired down or outright removed and replaced with more argumentative and expositional writing because that is what students will find on big state/college entrance exams. The thought process seems to be that while storytelling is a nice, it is not “real world” enough to justify it taking up much, if any, of the classroom time.

I firmly believe the exact opposite to be true. In the real world, few skills are more important than storytelling. This is exactly why business has become enamored with story. They aren’t focusing on it because it’s cute or fun; they are doing it because stories are powerful. Studies have found stories to be twice as effective as direct persuasion in changing people’s opinions and that we remember 22x more from stories than we do from the standard textbook. Further, stories are often asked of us during the defining moments of our lives, including, but definitely not limited to, college essays, job interviews, networking events, wedding toasts, first dates, and big presentations.

Alongside their value, stories are also the ultimate Trojan horse for teaching grammar/rhetorical devices/topics on standardized tests. It has become pretty clear that teaching grammar/rhetoric in context is far more effective than teaching grammar/rhetoric through stand alone worksheets, but it can be very difficult for many students to learn about these topics in the context of an analytical essay, as essays are often already a genre in which many students struggle. When these lessons are taught in context of their stories, not only can students focus on them more because the task of storytelling is generally more comfortable than essay writing, but they are also far more likely to grow interested and/or excited to learn the lessons because they want to tell their stories as well as possible.

Lastly, narratives are also the single most effective way to get to know the students quickly, which aides tremendously in building fast and strong relationships with them (I talk about the importance of this in my last post). Students often talk about the topics that are on their minds and tell you about the people/things in their lives that matter, which makes student narratives a set of SparkNotes of sorts for the students and what they are thinking about.

When one considers the value of being able to tell a story, story’s effectiveness as a pedagogical tool, and the relationship-building gold that is a narrative, to me it becomes clear that personal narratives should be the first order of business (pardon the pun) when we are facing a class full of new faces. So what are you waiting for? As the second semester gets underway, get those students telling stories, and for those teachers looking for resources on how to do that, here is a short digital compilation of Three Key Narrative Lessons (on the story arc, using techniques like imagery or indirect characterization to get the reader connected, and how to effectively use and format dialogue) along with two of my favorite videos about storytelling (watch for the joke at the start of Andrew Stanton’s brilliant TED Talk if showing to a class) to get you started. I’ll follow up with more details about these and other resources along with additional thoughts on narrative soon as well.

Yours in teaching,

Matt


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2 thoughts on “Why Your First Assignment of the Semester Should Be a Narrative

  1. GREAT post! Our immediate family consists of a corporate sales manager, a financial planner, a Sport & Exercise Psychologist and a poet/ writer (me.) However . . . as your piece makes abundantly clear, success and longevity in any of the these fields require the ability to tell stories that move people and create the opportunity for growth and change. When I taught Freshman Writing at our local university, I threw out the suggested text and instead brought into class short essays, articles and profiles from then-popular magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and Philadelphia. We read poetry by Sharon Olds, Gary Soto, Yusef Kumanyaaka and Sherman Alexie. I took them to the nearby art Museum and we wrote about the (very narrative) paintings of the illustrator N.C. Wyeth. The students thrived on these types of assignments, and many of those who professed to being non-writers became prolific ones by the end of the course. All of this is to say that I’m a firm believer in the power of story, no matter what the context. Thanks for this insightful piece–and I’ll be watching the Super Bowl ads with a keen eye this year:)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, and you are right on about professed non-writers suddenly becoming prolific when they get a chance to tell the stories that they want to tell. We humans are built for stories–both telling and hearing them–and when that is tapped into, the results can be amazing!

      Liked by 1 person

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