The Role of Surprises in Teaching Storytelling

Have you ever seen someone learning to walk again after an injury? This skill that we take for granted turns out to be much more difficult than we realized. 

Contrary to what most successful walkers think, you don’t just step from one leg to the other. Instead, you begin by shifting much of your weight to one foot while you counterbalance with your torso. Then you lean forward, creating a controlled fall. You land on your forward foot, adjusting your muscular tension to absorb your weight and to continue the forward movement onto your other foot.

If we "taught" walking to toddlers by describing all this, we'd just confuse them. Fortunately, we don't try to help children walk by describing the process!

Storytelling Skills

The skills of storytelling—much like the skills of walking—involve many unaware adaptations that we have learned only after years of speaking to people. We imagine. We use our unconscious abilities to communicate what we imagine—using complex oral language skills such as delicately shading our tone, posture, facial expression and more, to convey nuances of attitude and meaning. 

With so many of the skills of storytelling based on intricate, unconscious learning, explanations of the skills are usually not useful until you’ve already developed them! 

So there’s no obvious way to get students to experience success simply by giving instructions. What activities, then, do we set up? What behaviors do we encourage?

The Role of Surprise

I suspect that much of what we’ve learned about helping people tell well, we’ve hit upon by chance—or at least by trying something, noticing the results, revising the attempt, and trying again.

In short, we’re more like scientists running experiments than like assembly-line workers following specific instructions in a specific order.

Peter Drucker, the revered management theorist, said that you learn the most from 1) unexpected failures and 2) unexpected successes. In either case, he said, you have learned that your understanding of the world was flawed. Those are the openings in your sense of certainty that allow vital new information to enter.

So perhaps we learn the most as teachers when we, too, are surprised.

My Recent Surprise

Recently, for the first time in many years, I taught a course specifically for college-age students. I asked each student to find a folktale they liked and then tell it to the class.

When the first teller told her folktale, she shared what was obviously a memorized text. Her story, although smoothly told, felt like a recitation of words rather than the communication of a story. I found it difficult to imagine what she was saying and almost impossible to connect either to her or to the folktale. 

After about a minute or so, I interrupted. I said, 

Thank you so much. It’s clear that you know the story and have worked hard to memorize it. But you’re reciting it, not telling us what you’re imagining in a way that helps us imagine it. You’re not sharing your experience of this story with us.

The teller looked confused. 

So I said, “Don’t tell me the story. Just tell me what happens in it.”

The teller said, “Well, it’s this story about a girl who…” Within seconds, she settled into telling the story naturally. When she finished (to applause from the other students) several students and I each gave enthusiastic appreciations. She had told the story naturally, with great results.

Bring on the Next Teller

Now it was time for the next teller, who also began by “reciting." After a minute or so, I interrupted him and tried the same technique that had succeeded with the first teller: “Just tell me what happened in the story.”

But this second student only recited a brief outline: “They were poor. The king’s contest; everyone heard about it. One person failed. The next failed…” 

So the technique that had succeeded so well with the first student didn’t help this second student at all.

I thanked him, then said, “Is there any part of what you just told me, that you care about or are interested in?”

He thought a moment, then said, “Yeah. I really like it when the third son steps up to the king and….” From there on, he told the story with engagement and expressiveness.

Things Began to Change…

To my pleasant surprise, the next five people who told that day told completely naturally. 

Why did they tell so well, after the first two tellers did not? Evidently, these five had learned from the first two. So did the next week’s tellers.  Seven more students told their folktales, but I only had to coax one of them into telling more naturally. 

In the third and final class, every teller told naturally and effectively. In fact, two of them told with such clarity of purpose that I would happily hire them to perform their stories at a festival!

I had succeeded in coaching three students to abandon their flat recitations. But the wonderful surprise was that all the others had learned from the successful tellings of those who told before them.