Just imagine if we were better storytellers

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Sept. 1, 2009

When I was young, my family went downhill skiing almost every weekend. It was fun and great exercise, but truth be told, some days were long. And cold. So to entertain myself, I made up a soap opera called On the Slopes.

I created several plot lines with different characters, even different accents, and told the stories aloud to my imaginary audience as I barrelled down the ski run. I recall many dramatic scenes in the emergency room involving doctors with gratuitous British accents.

The soap opera format was perfect, because I could just pick up the plot when next on the slopes.

Perhaps this imaginative storytelling propelled me toward a career in broadcasting, in which oral stories are so central. As a journalist, I’ve listened to many people speak — at all levels of government, at conferences, in churches, at rallies, at funerals. I’ve laughed. I’ve cried. But often, I’ve sighed. I wish more people knew how to tell good stories.

It turns out that good storytellers may be made in childhood. The key? Imaginary friends. Research shows that anywhere from a quarter to half of young children have played with them.

Now, a study has found that imaginary friends — whether they’re named Emily or Giant Strongman, whether young or old, male or female — help children become better storytellers. And that in turn, helps boost their reading comprehension and overall language skills.

Storytelling starts young

In the July/August issue of the journal Child Development, researchers investigated the language skills of 48 boys and girls aged 5½, about half of whom had imaginary friends.

Associate professor Elaine Reese of the University of Otago in New Zealand and her former student Gabriel Trionfi first assessed the children’s language skills by measuring their vocabulary.

Then they asked the children to tell two types of stories: fictional and realistic. In the fictional storytelling activity, the children were read a story rich with dialogue and then asked to retell the story to a puppet. In the realistic storytelling activity, they were asked to tell a story about a real-life event such as a trip to the beach.

While the children didn’t differ in their vocabulary skills, the children with imaginary friends used more dialogue and characters in retelling the fictional story, and gave more information about time and place in the realistic story.

One child described going to an A&P show — an agricultural exhibition — with heaps of horses jumping and winning ribbons, and cows going around in a big circle in a paddock. Not bad for a five-year-old.

The researchers say the children with imaginary friends told higher-quality stories than the others; they simply get more practice telling stories both to their friend and to other interested folks.

Trionfi says it’s a gift: “Understanding how to tell a story to someone who wasn’t there, or doesn’t know what you know, all takes abstract thinking skills.”

We don’t develop our storytelling skills

So if that many children are telling stories — and telling them well — why are so many of us so bad at it later in life? As I see it, we don’t carry storytelling with us into our professional lives, unless we actually work in a story-reliant industry such as journalism.

Ottawa-based communications expert Barry McLoughlin says many of us don’t exercise the storytelling muscle enough, so it atrophies. And somewhere along the line, it becomes more difficult to talk about emotions in public. To be a good storyteller, you need to put yourself on the line.

“With the oral storytelling tradition, you’re telling an anecdote, you’re revealing something of yourself,” says McLoughlin. “Revealing yourself is highly uncomfortable. It’s off script. It means taking a risk.”

The other reason for diminished story telling, according to McLoughlin, is technology: “Oral storytelling is a lost art that has been superseded by the screen. Now it’s the visual tradition. Now it’s show me.”

More important than ever

But show me doesn’t guarantee we’re getting information that helps us actually understand the world.

“We need someone to tell us a story to make sense of it all. There’s so many competing claims out there. The recession for example; the economy is up, it’s down,” says McLoughlin. “We have information overload. What we want is knowledge.”

The finest stories combine information with colourful images. That’s the best way to ensure that people remember our message.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton: A natural storyteller. (Mike Wintroath/Associated Press)

It’s rare to see in person a former U.S. president known for his compelling speaking style. Several years ago, I had the fortune of seeing Bill Clinton when he was in Winnipeg.

One of his points was that giving poorer countries more economic help encourages peace and prosperity. He wove a tale about a Ghanaian woman who ran after him on the airport tarmac to give him a shirt made possible through the Africa trade bill. It was one of many stories filled with both vivid images and relevant statistics.

About 1,600 people sat in the theatre that night, but you could have heard a pin drop. And last week in Toronto, he wooed audiences once again.

A good, focused story can relay information so much more effectively and memorably than dry statistics and gobbledygook.

We need to drop the paradigms and consultative processes, the passive constructions, the subjunctive clauses.

When we tell a story, we’re more conversational. Our message is clearer. More interesting. More emotional. More powerful.

I say tell stories and tell them often, even if it means getting yourself an imaginary friend. In the meantime, I’m going to work on a summer version of On the Slopes.

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