by Judy Graner, Ph.D.
“Pleeese, tell us another story.” Their eyes widened in anticipation, sandwiches forgotten on their luncheon plates. A couple of them searched for a kleenex to wipe away a tear. The stories had touched their hearts. These were not my nieces and nephews sitting around Aunt Judy´s dining room table. These were ten sharp, university students, pumping me with questions at the ChiAlpha Summit in Dallas a couple of years ago. I had simply stated, “Every trial is a marvelous opportunity for God to prove His faithfulness,” and then illustrated it. It was not hard to find another missionary story and then another, that captivated my small audience and nailed the principle into their hearts and minds.
Yes, storytelling is the key to a successful content strategy; that is, a valuable educational tool that helps ensure content is remembered, felt and applied. Whether teaching in the traditional classroom or taking advantage of the latest cutting edge technology for online instruction, basic teaching principles do not change. The orchestration of great content, skillful delivery, perfectly timed keynote or ppt slides will take the educator a long way. But, if you want a spellbinding presentation and desire your main point be remembered, touch the heart of your student through a powerful and relevant story.
Why is storytelling so compelling? It captivates the audience. It takes the intellectual content and moves it from head knowledge to heart emotion. Stories make us feel.(1) When the heart is touched, the principle becomes personalized, doable, and applicable. It takes an artist, a skillful painter of words; a weaver who carefully chooses sequence strands to tell a good story. Yet, with practice, as educators, we must develop this powerful craft. Eighty percent of Jesu´ teachings touched the emotions of his listeners. He did so using illustrations, down-home stories and visual metaphors. Jesus used various storytelling styles that will work for us today.
1. The power of a surprise. The unexpected drives home a point. This is “Jesus-style” storytelling par excellence. What? A child will show the way? What? The Father does what no Jewish father would do! He gives away his inheritance, just so the half-hearted, backslidden prodigal will come home wholeheartedly to receive ALL of Father’s love? What? Spiritual sheep are not to be milked, fleeced and eaten? The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep? Surprise. Surprise.
It takes practice. Don´t give away the punchline too soon. The power of a surprise lies in the tension of the unexpected and the emotional release of an “a-ha!” moment as the realization of the truth presented sinks in.
2. A call to the hero inside. We all love a hero — even the “underdog anti-hero”. There is something in us that identifies with the Good Samaritan even though he lacked conventional heroic attributes (at least as far as the Jewish listeners were concerned). Yet, it was he who showed the most compassion. In spite of impossible cultural and relational obstacles, this “anti-hero” risks his life, binds the wounds, provides care and even pays the bill! Jesus painted portraits of other heroes and heroines. The Shepherd braves the wilderness, perseveres and finds the lost sheep. The woman searches carefully, never giving up until the lost coin is found. The…
Our students want to triumph. They want to overcome struggles and difficulties. Let’s challenge them to be heroes in our Father’s book! We all want to be more than conquerors, through Him! Tell a story that shows your students how.
3. The graphic metaphor. How do we explain difficult concepts or principles? We take advantage of pictures or artifacts or circumstances around us to make the content relatable. Simple faith? The beauty and power of Jesus placing a little child in the midst of his disciples and saying, “unless you become like this little one . . .” That is an illustration never forgotten. Or, humility? Mary of Bethany in the house ofSimon, “You did not wash my feet, but this woman has bathed them with her tears.” Or, giving? “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all.” Or, trusting? “The lily of the field…”
Even a boring presentation of next year´s budget can be humanized! Intersperse the graphs with a humorous slide or two. Consider your personal struggles, remember the many who contributed and worked long hours to make this report possible. Surely there is a pithy, relevant human-interest story that will personalize the most tedious content.
Graphics and drawings are great “storytelling” tools. These illustrations “say” what words cannot. They make difficult concepts easier to understand. See the following example of a teaching illustration:
Illustrations tell stories that make teaching clearer. The above figure was drawn for missionaries in a new culture. It illustrates their journey entering and adapting to their host country. We see available choices while facing culture shock.(2) Explanations are more easily understood as we visualize how our choices at each stage influence our final destiny.
So, we hear the buzzwords, “Successful Content Strategy”. Their primary meaning is: ¨make your content effective by using the strategy of telling a good story”. “Google” the words and you will find sites promoting the latest marketing techniques, business and management seminars, promotion for successful social media sites and more. Invariably, these sites tout the art of storytelling as foremost among important “success strategy” keys to promote their “content” or product. Even today’s powerful Internet search engines say the original, engaging stories always win a prioritized place in search results. In fact Google says that a story is the first, second, third, fourth and fifth most important key to successful SEO(3) results.(4)
Would you like all that amazing content and those pertinent details you´ve discovered through arduous research to stick in your student´s minds? Would you like the hermeneutically correct principles and hidden truths from the original languages to be practiced and preached by the pastors you teach? Apply them to real life. Tell stories. It may not come naturally. It may not be your “style”. It may require finding a guinea-pig to practice on. But you can do it! Accept the challenge, hone the talent, touch your students’ feelings and drive home God´s eternal truths through the power of storytelling.
In the words of famed poetess and author, Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
1 Of course, other indispensable tools are inductive questions and providing space for the students to share their stories, too. These drive the principle from the heart to the hands and make it applicable.
2 This copyrighted figure is from Faith and Action Series, Cross-Cultural Communications textbook to be released in 2015.
3 Search Engine Optimization