What do we mean when we talk about ‘storytelling’?

By Posted in - Higher Education & Storytelling on April 5th, 2018 0 Comments

“To hell with facts. We need stories!”

This quote, commonly attributed to Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, is becoming the rallying cry in university marketing departments up and down the country. Gone are the days of dry information-based documents, we tell each other. This is the era of authentic, emotive, user-generated stories.

The major social networks are partly behind this lexical move. Snapchat, Instagram and, (less successfully) Facebook have all encouraged us to start sharing content in terms of ‘stories’. They’ve each picked up within a single platform what Storify tried to do across platforms, pulling together individual statements, clips and images to form a narrative. The days of the 140-character broadcast blast are fading, as we seek content that is more connected and that keeps us engaged for longer.

Of course, universities must never give up on facts. Nor should we be blinded by the fad for ‘stories’ at the expense of all other types of content. But there are some lessons we can learn from classic storytelling techniques to help us deliver dynamic, relatable content.

Take these three examples of university storytelling in action: a refugee with a troubled past who thrives in the lecture hall, a student so determined to graduate that she attends ceremony on a stretcher, and a busy mum who manages to return to education.

What can we learn from them about how to construct a good story?

1. Choose the right hero

Every good story starts with compelling characters. You don’t necessarily need a villain, but you certainly need a hero that the audience is rooting for.

The mistake too many universities make is casting themselves in this role.

All of your stories do not need to be about you. Perhaps in some of your best stories, you are not the star, nor the hero. Maybe you, as the university, are the enabling factor that helps your hero achieve their goal. Or perhaps you are the setting, providing the backdrop against which the action takes place.

Detailed research can help you to understand what your audience’s goal, motivations and barriers are, helping you to think more clearly about who your story should focus on.


 2. Don’t lose the plot

Storytelling is not just another way to describe the static Q&A format case studies you’ve been publishing since 2005, nor can it necessarily be applied to the shiny new video you’ve made. It requires a genuine story – a plot with tension and a resolution.

Freytag’s Pyramid describes how narratives should move through difficulty towards a climax, and from there to resolution. Have you plotted your content in these terms? Where is the conflict? What obstacle needs to be overcome? How will the character achieve this?

These emotive examples listed above follow a standard format: a potential student overcomes the obstacles to get a place at university, obtain a degree and secure themselves a new future. Maybe you have your own version of this narrative? Or maybe you have a less conventional story to tell?


3. Beginning, middle and…

The examples above end with the hero either enrolled at, or having graduated from, university. It’s a neat, satisfying conclusion. It fits Freytag’s Pyramid. It provokes emotion. But does it prompt action?

Perhaps we need to tell stories that don’t have a neat end, but that invite the audience members to become part of the story. By asking them to join the cast and help write the ending, we’ll go beyond catharsis and inspire real-world engagement.


These three suggestions are just the beginning. If you want to develop your storytelling skills further, think about what stories captivate you. We all have an intuitive sense of what makes a good story. So here’s your excuse to watch some great films and read some great books – all in the name of work of course – and get inspired to tell your institutional story even better.


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