Storytelling: Not Just for Youth Librarians

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on May 5, 2016.

This semester I decided to do something that terrifies me: I enrolled in a storytelling course. As an anxious public speaker, I challenged myself by taking a class in which I’d have to present without notes, slides, or group members to assist me.

Storytelling often appeals to students specializing in youth or school media because, obviously, leading storytime is part of the job description. After speaking with some peers from my program, I found out that this class is not only beneficial for those working with children. In fact, storytelling is actually recommended to people from every specialization, from academic librarianship to archives.

Truth is, telling stories is useful in many different settings. Stories are one of the most effective ways of conveying information regardless of the audience. For those of us who will be responsible for instruction or giving presentations (so, pretty much everyone), stories provide a way to engage audiences and to help them retain information. Some examples:

  • Say you’re in a job interview and the search committee asks you about a time you overcame a challenge: this is a great opportunity to share a story!
  • You are teaching a class on building a website when someone asks you how this skill is useful. An anecdote can make a great answer.
  • In a meeting with community stakeholders, you have to have to give a presentation about the value your library provides to the community. Your response may very well be a story.

In my class we are required to tell three stories that are three to ten minutes long. The focus is oral storytelling; we tell stories from memory rather than reading them. We also collect 20-30 stories in a “future file” that we can use later in our careers. For our final project we are encouraged to create our own digital story, a skill I know will be useful in my future career.

An integral part of the course is listening and giving feedback to others: it’s very much a course in listening as much as telling. This is especially important because it’s an online class. Since we can’t see physical clues such as body language, we really have to rely on the teller’s voice and tone to grasp the meaning of the story.

Storytelling was scary for me at first. Knowing that people were hearing my every word and critiquing me was certainly stressful. However, over the course of the class I realized a few important things:

  1. People want you to succeed. Nobody wants to hear a teller get nervous and make mistakes; they want you to do well.
  2. Everyone gets nervous when they present. When we discussed everyone’s story after they were done, nearly every single person asked if the audience could tell how nervous they were. Most of the time, the answer was no.
  3. Storytelling is a skill that requires practice. There are countless techniques you can use to make your story successful and you’ll need a lot of practice to find out what they are. Our textbook gave me a lot of ideas for improving my style.

Everyone has a different process for developing a story. Personally, I will read or listen to my chosen story multiple times, writing down the key plot points in chronological order. Then I’ll tell it to myself, checking my notes as needed, until I have things down. Finally, I practice with a friend or family member. Other people create storyboards or record themselves as part of the process. My advice: don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re going to have to get goofy and walk around talking to yourself in different voices. Don’t limit yourself to one kind of story. Play around with different genres and styles to find out what works for you. The three stories I told in class included a Norwegian folktale, a children’s fantasy story, and a horror story.

When you’re ready to start working on a story, try creating a storyboard to help you practice. If you’re interested in creating a digital story, try using software such as Windows Movie Maker or iMovie.

For storytelling inspiration, I recommend The Moth and Snap Judgment.

Have you taken a similar course? Has storytelling helped you in your career?

Cover photo from Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC 2.0

2 replies

  1. I agree, there are many opportunities for telling stories in our lives, not just to children, and not just for library programs. It sounds like this was an excellent course. I am amazed that there is an online storytelling course!

    Liked by 1 person

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