May 21, 2015

The Making of a Story

At Ei, storytelling is one of five main components within our curriculum.

We hold it in such high regard because it serves as a tool for reflection in all aspects of work and life. For the year at Ei, storytelling is a kind of synthesis by which we distill our learnings into a shareable and relatable way.

Since creating the Ei curriculum in early 2013, our storytelling framework has continued to be shaped and influenced by friends from Stanford’s and the work of a senior lecturer at Harvard University named Marshall Ganz.

Though you may have never heard Ganz’ name before, you have undoubtedly been impacted by his storytelling framework. His “story of me, story of us, story of now”* approach has been employed to organize recent social movements that aided in the election of Barack Obama in 2008. You can witness this framework in action during Obama’s keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

Though none of our students are currently running for public office (yet), they use the framework when interviewing for an apprenticeship, pitching a project idea to a host company and/or updating their professional portfolios.

Why start with “Me”?

By beginning with the “story of me,” we make ourselves relatable, allowing listeners to contextualize who we are, what we value and what we might do next. Consider how we naturally do this already when getting to know someone by asking them questions like, “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “What do you do?”

  • The “story of me” provides the audience with foundational facts that provide context for the rest of the story.

You, me and everyone we know (aka: Us)

After making ourselves known (and relatable), we can then determine how we might work together. This is where we move into the “story of us.” In this stage we begin to shape a shared narrative. Do we connect on the same values? Do we take pride in the same things? Are we bonded by similar dislikes? Then this is our story. We do this as political groups, nations, allegiance to certain sports teams and religious affiliations.

  • The “story of us” is a powerful tool for uniting people of diversity through a shared narrative.

So, now what do we do?

Once we are bound together by a common story, we are ready to mobilize, which leads to “the story of now.” As believers in the transformative power of experiential education, Ei students are united in hope that hands-on projects and apprenticeship opportunities present as credible forms of higher education. With this shared narrative, they are now ready to take action and offer up their skillsets to companies and/or individual projects.

  • The “story of now” is where our shared narrative meets reality. A truly compelling story will always lead to some form of action we can take together.

Paired with Ganz’s framework, we’ve also bolstered our storytelling curriculum with contributions from our friends at Stanford.

Give your story a spine:

During our last meetup, Erik Olesund, a Stanford teaching fellow, met up with our current class at a retreat house beside Lake Michigan to lead us through a day-long storytelling workshop. He referred to the story's spine; the skeletal structure that all of the details can hang upon. Here's the pattern:

  • Once upon a time..(gives the listener a sense of space and time)
  • And everyday..(sets the scene and allows the character(s) to be known)
  • But one day..(this is where the story tilts, the character is faced with a challenge or choice)
  • Because of that…(this is the choice that needs to be made)
  • Because of that…(this is the outcome of the choice)
  • Because of that…(this is the new scene, or reality, in which the character now lives)
  • Until finally…(the tension has built to its climactic point here and a new choice or outcome is presented)
  • Ever since that day…(the long-term effects of the choice and its outcome are stated here)
  • The moral of the story is…(what’s the point of the story? what was it all about? what are readers/listeners walking away with?)

As a form of practice, our students were given the opportunity to apply this framework to fictional stories that they shared with each other. Then, after internalizing the framework, they were ready to add some colorful details to the story spine.

Every tasty dish is composed of delicious ingredients. A story is no different. Here are necessary ingredients to create a good story:

(TOP: Details: engage all five senses, give a sense of space and time. RIGHT: Drama: suspense, surprise and mystery. LEFT: Meaning: About. About. About. Share a lesson, an insight, or a moral.)

So, how does any good story end?

It ends with a moral or a lesson. Think of this as the point...the thing that begs remembrance.

What’s the moral of this blog about storytelling? Let me allow Ganz to answer that question in his own words:

Storytelling is how we interact with each other about values; how we share experiences with each other, counsel each other, comfort each other, and inspire each other to action.”

As our students continue to learn and grow this year, they are becoming great storytellers. It’s in the stories we share – after the lessons are learned – that lessons continue to live, spread, and help others. In a world that requires continuous learning in order to navigate toward success, we’re going to need frameworks for synthesizing lessons as we go.

PS: After each term, the students write a story from their recent experiences using a platform called Exposure. Click below to read their stories:

Chevy Williams, Pushing Past Thwarted Plans

Toph Carter, IKEA, Revolutions, Language

Nicole McCabe, I'm so tired, guys

Jonathan Lazatin, What I Learned in School

Olenka Hand, You're Gonna Wanna Hold Me

Lance Henderstein, 3 Months of Copywriting at SapientNitro

Zak Tracy, Leaning on a Builder's Mindset

Stephanie Kang, The Power of Relationships

Zeke Bogusky, Lyft, The Video Term

*Marshall Ganz, (2008), “What is Public Narrative?”

Photos by Justin Eisner

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