Once Upon A Time...



Luke Hanson, Academic Advisor and postbac at University of Alabama at Birmingham


Stories aren't just for kids. Storytelling is a critical, key element of continued learning, development, productivity and, ultimately, achievement. Yes, adults, even and especially for you.


One concept I've always loved is that of being the hero of your own story. Approaching goal achievement as a series of staid, black-and-white tasks isn't nearly as fun or effective as considering the process a journey and a goal the endpoint/treasure/gateway to the next level.


Capsule's second mission is about authoring our own stories. It focuses on the hero's journey, overlaying it atop our personal quests to become stronger through achieving goals and evolving as humans. It also provides guidance on how to frame our stories as redemptive, beginning at a tough or otherwise unfulfilling spot and working upwards with purpose.


This approach works because stories activate and otherwise involve parts of our brain typically dormant in more rote learning activities, such as reading, hearing bullet points presented or watching how-to videos. They also form bonds, as brain activation in both teller and listener begin to align as a story is exchanged.


In the classroom, storytelling can help improve general literacy and help students connect on more and deeper levels with their learning. Especially on college campuses, as students become increasingly diverse and professors look for new and effective ways to reach them, storytelling promotes and improves engagement, critical thinking and concept retention.


I teach freshman experience. At a conference a few years ago I attended a session on improving that course for students. One statement that still sticks in my brain from the presenter was, "We all know they listen to each other more than they do us." And for my students, he was absolutely right. We don't focus on calculus or organic chemistry; we focus on skills that will benefit them in their first semester of college and beyond.


The first few semesters I taught the class I tried multiple approaches to delivering material to reach everyone. Following the presentation I flipped the script and tried to figure out the most minimal, effective amount of lecture I could do to prepare and facilitate students teaching each other on concepts like time management and procrastination. It's a small sample size, but grades and class reviews have since gone up.


The benefits of storytelling aren't exclusive to the classroom. Professional leadership can use stories to develop all types of employees, regardless of role or learning style. Stories forge connections between employees, corporate values and company history. They help highlight and improve upon past mistakes.


And now, I leave you with (shocker) a story.


Our college is in the process of hiring a new dean. We've hosted five candidates, and I've had the opportunity to hear all of them present and field questions. In total, I've committed five hours. One instance stands out.


One candidate was lauded by the search committee for his experience and success with fundraising and development. Riveting stuff, right? Nothing like being politely asked to philanthropically fund something to make you uncomfortable.


But it's a necessary component of higher education and myriad other elements of society. His approach likely isn't unique, but I hadn't heard it outlined in such a way. I'm paraphrasing the quotes, but his response was:


"I tell a story," he answered earnestly. There was unanimous crowd laughter, and he smiled in response.


"I know," he said. "I know how that sounds, but truly. Put yourself in a potential donor's shoes. If you're asked for money to fund an arts program at some gala, you may have all these preconceived notions about what that means. They factor so heavily into your decision, making it easier to fill in your own blanks with negatives and politely say 'no.'"


He paused, then spoke about a specific fundraising event.


"We were at a gorgeous, lakefront house. Everyone was dressed up. The food was fantastic. And we had our choral ensemble perform. We had student art on display. We had students present to speak with potential donors."


He continued, "So instead of asking for money to fund the arts, we could say, 'This is what it goes toward.' Beyond that, we gave students the opportunity to tell their stories, about how philanthropic donations afforded them the opportunity not only to create this art, but to attend college in general. They provided their full narrative, a direct example of exactly where this money had and could go, and how impactful it could be. They made the donors part of that story."


Ultimately, we want to be the heroes of our own stories. The process of storytelling allows us to participate in those of others, form new ones together and create our own. If we factor in our personal experiences and values, and craft these stories as drivers for where we want to go, we inherently take more - knowledge, relationships, empathy, skills - from these journeys as they get us there, and are more in touch with our goals and the "whys" behind them once achieved.

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