Unleash Your Students’ Voices: The Power of Storytelling

You can also check out the post on using digital storytelling to empower your students’ voices.

The Power of Storytelling

After watching that video you may be feeling several things, not the least of which may be confusion. What was the point of that? Hopefully, if the title of this post hasn’t already revealed it, I will illuminate you. I shared that true story of my formative years to personalize this, so you may have more insight into my background and know where I’m coming from. Perhaps that will help you trust more of what I have to say and also make you feel more comfortable with sharing and taking a risk yourself. Also, I hope it showed the impact a story can have (even with one as weird and awkwardly told as mine.

You see stories can help forge connections more powerfully than nearly anything else. In fact, the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences can be more powerful than the experiences themselves. We relate the cause and effect of stories to our previous experiences to make connections and to gain understanding. Great stories bring out emotions, imagination, and connections. The story I told was about bridging gaps through shared experience. Stories are incredibly effective at that.

Cognitive Dissonance

hpcogdisfudgeunpleasanttruths-300x224People (like 2 teenage boys) only talk to people they like and hear information they like. That confirmation bias fuels our thoughts until we are confronted with conflicting information and experience cognitive dissonance. When that challenge happens people are faced with three choices:

  1. Dispute or reduce the importance of the challenge. “That’s just fake news.” “I can’t believe them, because, they’re just ignorant.”
  2. Find other new info to outweigh the challenge. “Well, I read this other thing online from another source (regardless of reliability) that says I’m right, so…”
  3. Alter your belief or behavior. “You know, I was mistaken and I’m glad to learn more.”

6315857220_3126f45e81_bThe third option rarely occurs, because, according to a study by Jonas Kaplan, our brains are wired to defend our ideas. Facts and bullet points will not change belief systems. The less you know about a subject the more likely you are to maintain your wrongly held ideas according to Dunning and Kruger. You will argue intensely in the face of opposing facts, and, even if you do ultimately change your mind, your brain is likely to convince you that you believed the new thing all along. How crazy is that? Now I know why we’re all so stubborn. We are always right and even when we accepted we were wrong, we were still right. There’s a reason fake news (on whatever end of the spectrum) is hard to ignore. That’s why story more than fact can determine who wins and argument or political race? Anyone up for a debate now? No?

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

John Adams

Though facts may be stubborn, it would appear our ignorance is often moresoInterestingly stories have the power to push through cognitive dissonance 22 times more powerfully than facts. In fact, the stories remain powerful even if the reader/listener is told in advance that the story is false or fictional. There are a number of reasons for that that are cognitive and cultural, but just know that the next time you are trying to convince someone, don’t give them a reason but rather spin them a yarn.

Impact On the Brain

I’m about to do something counter-intuitive to all that I’ve just said and give you a bunch of facts and bullet points about the impact of storytelling on the brain. Forgive my lack of creativity and exhaustion for not relaying the information through some wonderfully elaborate story akin to Inside Out. These are interesting facts supported by research showing how stories can activate 7 areas and 3 chemicals in your brain.

story brain.jpg

  • The brain is made to hear stories-not bullet points.
    • Stories make our brains more active.
    • Reading words like “perfume” and “coffee” activate the primary olfactory cortex.
    • Visualizing and hearing elements in a story activate our visual and auditory cortexes.
    • Language is processed in multiple areas of the brain in Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas thus making literacy both more complicated and engaging.
    • Our insular cortex relates stories to our past experiences.
    • Hearing action sequences in stories lights up areas in our insular and motor cortex.
    • Listeners experience similar brain activity to each other and to the speaker.
    • Cortisol is released during the story’s rising arc prompting an emotional response even in fictional stories.
    • Dopamine is released during an emotionally charged event making it more memorable.
    • When you listen to character-driven stories your brain floods with oxytocin, the love hormone.
  • Stories create connection and are more memorable more than facts.
    • Humans are inclined to see narrative in an effort to determine the meaning.
    • Stories transport us to another place and we tend to view the protagonist more favorably and embrace their beliefs and worldview.
    • Listeners experience similar brain activity to each other and to the speaker.
    • When you listen to character-driven stories your brain floods with oxytocin, the love hormone.
    • Stories are more powerful when they are based on personal emotional experiences.
    • Stories are the way we determine our sense of self.
    • Frequent fiction readers exhibit greater empathy.
    • Our brain is programmed to ignore clichéd words & phrases.
    • The “hero’s journey” story model is the foundation for ½ of Hollywood movies & the most popular TED talks.

The Art of Storytelling

download.jpgWhile stories are powerful, it takes a certain level of skill to tell a good one. We can, however, take some of what we learned about the brain’s reaction and create a quality narrative. We should choose topics that emotionally resonate with our audience’s experiences. Another key is to continually increase the tension of the story to help maintain attention. We attend because we are seeking to resolve our own struggles just like the story’s protagonist. As the story moves forward our heart beats faster, our breathing increases, hormones are released and we feel as though we are living the experience. For that reason, we feel emotionally bonded to the story and it can change what we think and feel.


Ira Glass


To maintain that rising tension simple stories can follow the dramatic structure of Freytag’s arc/pyramid pictured here. The story can begin somewhat slowly as the basic environment and characters are introduced, but quickly there has to be an event that triggers action. This action culminates in the moment of highest interest or climax. This is now the turning point which changes our hero’s fate. In comedies, the protagonist will now find success where previously the failed. In tragedies, things will then take a darker turn. During the falling action, everything begins to unravel until the dénouement where the knot is at last untied.

Freytag’s pyramid was originally intended forGreek and Shakespearean dramas, so modern stories have a different throughline that often aligns with Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth which is sometimes broken down into the Hero’s Journey. Most movies follow this plotline which is similar to the origins of many major world religions. Based on the cognitive dissonance discussion above, you will take that information to mean one inspired another or perhaps that there is a greater truth each is looking to resolve. Either way, this journey is embedded deeply in western culture and even in our own personal narratives about who we are.Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 6.40.58 PM.png

The Challenge & Solution

Storytelling Tips.pngRegardless of age, ability, or language, everybody has something to say. Empowering your students to share their voices and their stories is one of the most impactful things you can do even more. The challenge comes in that many students’ literacy or academic skills prevent them from telling the story they are desperate to get out. As I’ve shown storytelling is innate, but it also involves complex interaction in the brain that can be difficult even for adept adult learners. Here are some tips to improve student storytelling.

  1. Tell stories regularly. This may sound obvious, but have students tell their stories often in whatever form they need to take.
  2. Read stories regularly. How do students know what good stories look like if they aren’t hearing any?
  3. Think like authors. Let your students know you believe in them and their stories and how interested you are to hear it. That will empower them to trust in what they have to say.
  4. Have high expectations. Set goals for students that are barely reachable. They should struggle to get there if they are really growing and learning. Continue to adjust and raise those goals.
  5. Give ongoing & specific feedback. When you give feedback, saying ‘good job’ is worthless. Give actionable tips to students that they can immediately use to take the next step.but They can always improve
  6. Broaden the concept of a story. Do stories need words? The Red Balloon and graphic novels seem to need less of them. What if they can’t write? There are a number of adaptive technologies from Apple, Google, Microsoft and other companies that allow ‘writing’ to be done through non-traditional means.

One of the best ways to help struggling and resistant students to tell their story is by making it digital. For that reason, I am writing a post all about empowering students through digital storytelling to make authorship both more engaging and accessible.

Inside each of us is a natural born storyteller just waiting to be released.

– Robin Moore