by Emi Kolawole & Erik Olesund
The moment is unmistakeable. You are in the garage, you've long since shut off the engine and you're just sitting there listening. Maybe you're in a dark theater and you've forgotten how much time has passed. Perhaps your sitting across the dinner table and all you can hear is that sound -- the sound of a great story being told.
So, what makes those moments happen? What makes stories stick?
You may be tempted to say that it's the element of surprise, artful tropes, a strong opening. But something underlies all of these structural elements: empathy.
We wrapped the pop-up class (a short-form course offered at the d.school) "Sticky Stories" last week. The class was proposed by Erik Olesund, a teaching fellow at the d.school and a graduate of Stanford's Management Science and Engineering master's program. Erik invited me and Jonah Willihnganz to join the teaching team.
Jonah is the Bruce Braden Lecturer in Narrative Studies at Stanford and the director of The Stanford Storytelling Project. Will Rogers was also invited to join the team. Will is the co-managing editor of the Stanford Storytelling Project and one of four producers of the True Story podcast which has nearly 700,000 followers on SoundCloud.
Erik conceived of the class because he's found that listening closely to someone else's story and then retelling it helps him connect better to the people he interacts with. It also allows him to fully see the world from their perspective, or step into their shoes. The skills needed to listen for the vivid details, strong emotional turns, and underlying meaning of a story are the same skills that designers need to empathize with the people they design for. Creating the class was also a great reason for us to involve Jonah, a faculty member from another part of the university to collaborate with us at the d.school.
The class lasted four days, with each session meeting for three hours. We had sixteen students in the class who were split into teams of four -- A, B, C and D -- and then, within those teams, paired off. The goal was to provide students four skills:
- How to tell a story in a way that your audience remembers it.
- How to detect the elements of a story that makes it stick: vivid details, emotions, and strong characters.
- How to show settings, images and details to convey meaning, rather than explaining how one felt or what the story is about.
- How to arrange a story in a way that keeps the audience asking for more and guides them toward the moral at the end.
Students were asked to tell their partner of a time when they had an encounter with a public institution that they still hadn't made sense of yet. They told the stories again and again and again and again ... and again to their partners. The partners duties: listen carefully, ask questions, memorize the story and prepare to tell it in their own style and their own words.
We provided the students with tools throughout the class with Jonah offering the bulk of the lectures, introducing students to a variety of elements of storytelling. Prior to each telling, students would be given a mini lecture on an aspect of storytelling, examples of strong stories or tools to help them memorize or tell their stories better.
Throughout the class we listened to, and analyzed, three stories: Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tough Newsroom”, Richard Price's "Bicycle Safety on Essex" and Sarah Vowell’s “You Can Have Your Cave and Eat It Too”.
Students continued to practice telling their partner's story until they were given the chance to tell it in front of their teams. A select group of students, all of whom volunteered, were given the chance to tell their stories to the entire class.
Our goal was to test whether empathy, in fact, lay at the heart of stories that stick. Based on what I had seen in class, I think our assumption was correct. A story that sticks is one that creates a strong bond with between the reader, listener, viewer, etc. and the subject almost to the point whey they know the subject intimately. Creating that bond requires an understanding of the construction of great stories as well as the elements necessary for strong delivery.
Editor's note: The nature of our system does not allow for co-bylines yet, unfortunately. I just want to draw special attention to Erik's contribution to this piece and to my personal learning in this class. Thanks, Erik.