Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I am not a good storyteller.  I never have been.  Ask my brothers.  I'm the worst storyteller in the bunch.  Ask my friends.  I can pass along information with the best of them, but ask me to tell you a story and I'll likely leave you disappointed.  It hasn't stopped me from trying, though.

Storytelling is an important part of the human experience, anthropologists tell us.  Oral tradition played a huge role in the forming and defining of cultures.  Only recently have we seen a decline in the importance of oral tradition in terms of defining a culture (due to the rampant increase in literacy and the availability of reading material).  So while storytellers in the traditional sense are declining in popularity, we are still drawn as a people to stories.  It’s why the Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the Narnia franchises are running strong and why the Transformers movies have become a bit of a joke.  It’s why soap operas have lasted so long.  It’s why M. Night evoked first praise and the later revulsion.  It explains why Rick Reilly can write great features and terrible features.  It’s even why we watch reality television (compelling characters and the excitement of the unpredictable).

Important note here: Proper storytelling must involve a strong grasp on the storytelling medium.  It’s why movie adaptations of novels are radically different.  Thus, while the basics of good storytelling are important across the board, the best storytellers know the strength and limitations of the medium they use.

So why am I telling you that I am a terrible storyteller?  It’s because in the past weeks, I’ve noticed that my colleagues exhibit varying degrees of storytelling ability.  In the summer, fellow graduate students give half-hour Power Point talks about their research.  You may think that, as a scientist, I should be exited and enthralled to listen to new findings, techniques, etc.  And I was.  However, after years of listening to talks, the excitement wears off.  I find that I now pay closer attention (read: stay awake and alert) to talks that either deal directly with my research OR are well-told stories.  I also suspect that this phenomenon holds true in most, if not all, professions.

The reason I say all of this is to encourage everyone reading to become a better storyteller.  Find a way to practice, whether it is making up a story to tell your kids before bedtime, making videos or podcasts, writing a blog, or just practicing presenting something you read.  Great storytellers are not only more likely to be successful, but enrich the lives of the people around them.

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