How to Write (and Teach): Tell a Story

A Lifehacker post by Leo Widrich said you should tell a story instead of giving a Powerpoint presentation with bullet points. Widrich did not make his point using stories. He made the written equivalent of a Powerpoint presentation. He wasn’t trying to be funny — at least, not that I could tell.

This semester I’m teaching a class on Academic Writing. Yesterday’s class marked the switch from personal statements to other sorts of writing. I decided to mark the transition with a lecture. I had just one piece of advice for my students: tell a story. For fun, and to avoid the oddity of Widrich’s presentation, I decided to make my point two ways: without and with stories.

The without-stories presentation was obvious. I wrote “Tell a Story” on the board and gave several reasons why it was a good idea.

The with-stories presentation was not obvious. I told several stories:

1. The morning of the class, I was listening to a C-SPAN podcast — an interview of S. Lochlann Jain, a Stanford professor of anthropology who had written a book about cancer. She herself had had cancer. The interviewer asked: When you got the diagnosis, what did you need? It was a good question. But Jain did not answer it. Instead, she pontificated for a few minutes. It was unfortunate. That answer was like the rest of the interview (she pontificated a lot) and I soon turned it off. She could have told a story, I told my students, but she didn’t. And she lost me. 

2. I came to understand the power of stories while teaching introductory psychology. My classes were large, hundreds of students. I discovered that to get their attention all I needed to do was tell a story. Within seconds, they would start to pay attention. The lecture hall would become quiet. If I stopped telling a story, I would start to lose them. I could see their eyes wander. That’s how I came to teach all my classes: tell one story after another. One of my students told me I was “the professor who tells stories”.

3. One day I was in the biology building on the Berkeley campus. It contains many small classrooms. From the outside, you can hear what the instructor is saying. I listened to five classes. In none of them was the teacher telling a story. Apparently most Berkeley professors hadn’t figured out this basic principle.

4. I attended a high school graduation in Los Angeles. Very expensive private school. There were six speakers, four students, a teacher, and the headmaster. No one told any stories. I was astonished. It’s really hard to be a graduation speaker. This simple rule (tell stories) makes it much easier. None of them knew it. I was especially surprised that the headmaster, who speaks at graduation every year, failed to understand this. Failing to tell stories in this situation is like choosing to crawl when you could walk.

5. A remarkable thing about stories is that anyone can tell one — or not tell one. The weakest person can tell a story, the most powerful person can fail to tell one. When President Obama was elected, it was very uncertain whether he would be a good President. He had so little experience. I used his inauguration speech to guess how good he would be. If he understood politics, he would tell stories; if he didn’t, he wouldn’t. In fact, he didn’t. Five years later, my low expectations have been borne out. Chinese politicians, as far as I can tell, are not clearly better than President Obama. At the beginning of a student talent show at Tsinghua, a Tsinghua administrator gave a short and boring speech. He too failed to tell stories.

I said it made sense that we pay attention to stories much more than to other things. Stories are fundamentally honest. They contain evidence. If you draw a conclusion, fine — your evidence for that conclusion is clear. You are not overstating your case. Without evidence, anyone can say anything. I also said it is to your benefit to tell a story rather than argue or reason or pontificate. You will appear modest and considerate.

I asked my students to compare the two ways (without and with stories) I had made the same point. There were three possible answers: 1. without stories better. 2. equal. 3. with stories better. Their votes:

without stories better: 1 vote

equal: 2 votes

with stories better: 6 votes.

My students said they had not been taught this. Their teachers — in high school and at Tsinghua — did/do not teach this way nor had they made the general point I was making.

Thanks to Dave Lull.

16 Replies to “How to Write (and Teach): Tell a Story”

  1. In the last years of her life, my mother told stories, but I always considered it a mark of her mental decline. For example, I wanted her to get to the point and tell me, “John called and invited us to eat out with them.”

    Instead she told a story: “The phone rang, and when I answered it, John said Hello, and I said, Well we haven’t heard from you in a long time, and he said he was sorry, but they had been very busy. Anyway, he said that when they got home today, the dog … [shortened here for your patience] … and so they were going to eat out. Wow I said, that was awful. Well, he said, would you folks like to come with us? It’s our treat.”

    Maybe I could say this was a bad story, bad storytelling. But I always thought this was the way her mind worked then, that she could not logically sum up a point, but had to reconstruct every moment, starting at an early time, and proceeding blow by blow chronologically until finally reaching the point – the reason why she was telling us this.

  2. I once started a seminar with “I want to tell you a story”. Many of the research students in the audience stirred uncomfortably. Golly, research students en masse are a woefully conservative, unimaginative lot.

    To generalise: among the brightest undergraduates, those who do not go on to research tend to be a more impressive mob. Is that your experience?

    Seth: I don’t know. At Berkeley almost none of my students went on to do research. At Tsinghua, almost all the students do. It’s also true that my Tsinghua students are more impressive than my Berkeley students but there are a hundred other differences between them.

  3. Seth, could you give an example of how you taught technical material (as in your introductory psychology classes) by telling stories? I get the principle but not the practice.

    1. “Seth, could you give an example of how you taught technical material (as in your introductory psychology classes) by telling stories? I get the principle but not the practice.”

      I teach technical material, I suppose you would say, when I teach statistics. I tell stories about data analyses I have done. The situation, the question, the data, the analysis, the conclusion. In introductory psychology, I might tell the story of how the researcher came to do a certain piece of research, then describe the research. Or a story that illustrates the broad point made by the research.

  4. Wow, that’s a helpful insight. In order to make good choices about my mini-me kid’s homeschool education, I’ve been examining what I know and how I learned it, versus the stuff I forgot right after finals. I studied computer science, but almost everything I learned for my major came from the textbooks and projects. The class lectures added so little. I also got a minor in philosophy, for the hell of it. I remember far more of the lectures in philosophy classes, though the subject was intrinsically less interesting to me than computer science. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I think you just nailed it. Philosophy class lectures were often built on stories. Computer science lectures tended to be bullet-point presentations of textbook content.

    I’d figured out on my own that I should emphasize hands-on projects over repetitive drills. But you’ve added two valuable insights to my teaching: walk instead of sitting, and tell stories. Thanks!

    Seth: hands-on projects need to be built on something else, I think. I tell my students stories before I assign hands-on projects.

  5. My kids attend a Waldorf school. The pedagogy is incredibly story-centric. (I’ve been calling it narrative-based.) Even basic math is introduced as a narrative where each operator given a name for a character corresponding to what the operator does: gather/add, give-away/subtract, share/divide. I forget what multiply does.

    I do remember place value is introduced as a narrative of a boy picking up stones on a river bank. The stones are picked up one-by-one, but he can only hold nine stones in his hands. No matter how careful the boy is, whenever he picks up a tenth stone he drops one. So he puts the nine, plus one more, into a pouch. But he only has room for nine pouches on his belt. So when his belt gets full, he takes all the pouches from his belt, plus one more, and puts them into a basket. In turn the baskets get very heavy. So heavy that he can only hold nine of them at a time. So nine baskets, plus one more, all go into a cart.

    Teachers also light a candle before telling the stories. That really focuses the children’s attention. You can hear a pin drop in a classroom of 25 first graders. I’ve heard from my wife that on days she is picking up my daughter from 1/2 day kindergarten, my 3 y.o. son insists on stopping and listening to the first grade’s story if when they walk by the door is left open and the candle is lit. He just stops and quietly listens in from the hallway. Seth, you might want to give the candle thing a try. 😉

    Seth: That’s great! I agree, how can I try the candle idea? Somehow the whole story thing is missing from Teach Like a Champion, a distillation of the best teaching techniques from schools across America. Even though Waldorf schools do it, which I didn’t know. I will say, however, that I believe in telling true stories. Maybe that is much harder with young children.

  6. BTW, which do you remember better: that the arithmetic operators are anthropomorphized, or that place value is introduced through a story about a boy picking up stones? 🙂

  7. MBA courses typically use a lot of stories (called “cases”) . Typically, the cases describe some real-life quandary that was faced by a business organization in the past. The students have to analyze the material in the case and come up with a recommended course of action. Harvard publishes a lot of these cases.

  8. There’s a yarn about a young academic saying to an experienced hand “the students want me to illustrate my lectures with practical examples. What would you do in my shoes?”

    Answer: “I’d show them some.”

    The original point of the joke was that young academics often lack any store of practical examples. But I’ll add to it that I used often to tell stories as my way of presenting practical examples. Of course a dim, earnest student may demand to know whether this story will help him pass his exam: only near retirement is it wise to punch him on the snoot.

    1. “”I hear and I forget. I see and I believe. I do and I understand.”

      Yeah, how come stories aren’t in there? The old saying really misses something. You do not hear a story and forget. Quite the opposite.

  9. [H]ow can I try the candle idea?

    I think the point of the candle is to help with the signal to noise ratio in elementary classrooms. And by noise, I’m not talking about cacophony, 😉 rather instructional noise.

    When the teacher lights the candle she is emphasizing that the next 10-20 minutes are going to be nothing but signal. The sub-text is “pay attention, because this is new and it’s going to be on the final.” Obviously if she lit a candelabra every morning and let it burn through the day it would not have the same effect.

    As for trying it out, I think you could light a candle at some point in your lecture. Perhaps 1/2 the time at the beginning, and half the time at 1/2 way point. Then measure if students show more interest, either through follow-up discussion questions or project work or answering test questions correctly on candle topics vs. non-candle topics. If specific points within a lecture is too arbitrary, you could also try it on completely different days.

    I think, though, for it to work, you can’t let on that you’re doing it arbitrarily as a way to “trick” the students into paying extra attention. The point of the candle is you are out-of-band communicating to them the impending presence of an atypical SNR.

    Well, that’s my hypothesis anyway. I could be wrong. 🙂

    Seth: The notion of signalling stuff so that the body or brain can get ready to receive it is a good one. It is the whole idea behind classical (Pavlovian) conditioning. I completely agree this is a good way to teach young children. Yet it is still unclear to me how this would work in a college class.

  10. I was interested in your story telling – and then realised that the economics book I was reading – “Bet the Farm” was being told as a story. Brilliant – it enabled me to a) finish it and b) remember a lot of it. If it had been told as dry economics, I doubt if I would have got through it.

  11. Re K’ung Fu-tzu, if you can ‘do’, it is even better. The Shetland fiddler, Tom Anderson used to teach kids to play tunes. But he would play them tunes to dance to for several days – and then teach them the tune (by ear) which they could then easily play because they ‘knew’ the tune.

  12. People seem to be less resistant towards examples and arguments if they are presented in a 3rd person perspective rather in a 1st or 2nd person, like if somebody does xy versus if I / you do xy. The words I and you seem to turn on an emotional resistance in people and they don’t think about what is said. I think story telling uses the 3rd person perspective.

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