STORYTELLING is a powerful method to share knowledge, but the art of storytelling has been lost in training.
In times gone by, particularly in primitive cultures, it was its only means: cultures were preserved this way. This has continued in popular culture: in religion, novels, cartoons, news, theatre, music, dance, film and television.
Imagine, for instance, the Bible without story, and instead just a list of dot points advising a person how to live one’s life, spiritually and morally. Christianity would not have survived, because it’s the stories (parables) that are the container of wisdom. We might not remember what Moses wrote, for example, but we surely remember that he climbed a mountain and etched his commandments in a block of stone.
In our everyday lives when we meet our friends, we share what we have been doing recently and tell this in story form. And most likely, the story is retold to others (embellished no doubt) constructing a story chain containing many moral tales.
Media news is always told in story form, although the structure is formalised (inverted pyramid). But at its core is a well told story.
In training, information and knowledge is deliberately abstracted from the story. This is particularly so in written text content.
It’s done so that the knowledge conveyed appears objective. The narrative behind the discovery, idea, concept or understanding is erased, and people, the actors in the story, are redacted.
At a most mundane level, eg basic training, knowledge is conveyed in a deified form of language, losing its personal edge, dissociating experience from the its content. It ends up as impenetrable language, full of cliche and jargon, scattered with numerous dot points of do’s and don’ts with no narrative structure to hold it together. It’s in a form difficult for the person reading the material to remember it and apply it.
In her paper, Knowledge Sharing – the Value of Storytelling, Helen Mitchell says that people link ideas, concepts, objects, and relationships and make them up into stories that will stimulate interest and motivation. She identifies the following characteristics for a story as:
• Agents—the people who figure in the story
• Predicament—the problem the agents are trying to solve
• Intentions—what the agents plan to do
• Actions—what the agents do to achieve their intentions
• Objects—the tools the agents will use
• Causality—the effects (both intended and unintended) of carrying out actions
• Context—the many details surrounding the agents and actions
• Surprises—the unexpected things that happen in the story.
Sometimes the training text is supplemented by “Case studies”. These may be real or fictional, but they are presented as a side-bar to the main information, used to illustrate and embellish the points being made in the main text.
In a series of Case studies I recently wrote for the national e-assessment guidelines, I adopted this story telling approach.
Often in vocational education and training, case studies are told in an abstract way. The story is broken up by a series of subheadings (background, methodology, findings, outcomes, etc.) and the many personal experiences are amalgamated into one composite picture. This is done to give it an authoritative voice over and above the actual experiences.
In developing my case studies, I made the people in the story central. Their story was based on a series of interviews conducted with them over the telephone. I then wrote the story in the present tense, as if the person was using assessment technologies in the present. No subheadings to break the narrative flow, and I built the ‘theoretical’ implications around the narrative as footnotes. I wanted the reader to visualise the person using it, better to understand the context and complexity.
Often case studies are not much more than a publicity tool, so avoid exposing and making transparent the issues that arise in the actual situation. Nothing ever works out as it should: problems arise, they are discussed and solutions found. This is the story of discovery and innovation. It’s the story in the case study that allows for complexity and contradiction, which makes them interesting and useful.