The Science of Storytelling and Listening
Although I’ve spent one semester as a seventh and eighth grade science teacher, I don’t claim to be a scientist.
In fact, in high school and college, it was the subject I avoided the most. Years later, I started to take seriously my role as a communicator and discovered the significance of science in relation to my understanding of how best to engage listeners with the Story of God.
It turns out that learning more about the science of listening can actually change the way you and I teach kids in our ministries.
Listening is central to the growth and development of everyone who can hear. Studies show that 53% of class time for a U.S. college student is spent listening. 1 For the same demographic, nearly 12 hours out of a 24-hour day are spent in some form of listening activity. 2 The often unspoken reality is that listening does not necessarily constitute learning, content retention or a willingness to believe information. In contrast, some studies show that we remember a mere 25% of the content we are presented. 3
Why so little? Students tend to listen for facts, but get easily distracted. Their listening is sidetracked by noise, daydreaming, or chasing another topic altogether. And often, students listen without being interested in the subject at hand in the first place. 4
With all this being said, the task of an effective communicator is not to be taken lightly. Some argue that offering convincing statistics engages the listener and creates lasting impact, but experts also tell us that people quickly dismiss statistics that are inconsistent with their beliefs. 5
On the other hand, fictional stories—which often can be processed very efficiently with minimal effort and high recall—engage a phenomenon called “suspension of disbelief,” which can lead to tangible change. 6 Employing the art of storytelling, I once wrote and told a story to my teenagers whose main character, Chloe, dealt with depression, loneliness and cutting. I shared it over the course of a few weeks at our mid-week gathering, but I could see that one teenager was especially impacted. During my second week of telling the story, this teenager stood up and quickly walked out of the room in distress. One of our youth workers followed close behind and found out that this teenager also struggled with cutting and could no longer walk alone in the struggle.
This student suspended disbelief and chose to be engaged by story. This ancient form of storytelling—Jewish Agada (Rabbinical Storytelling)—had become so real to her that she began wrestling with some of the biggest issues she’d ever faced in her young life. She heard Chloe’s story and realized that it was her story. For this reason, some in the medical field have implemented storytelling as a mode of healthcare communication, bringing attention to issues ranging from suicide to AIDS prevention.
Communication expert Dr. Brian Leggett says, “A story is a narrative which actively engages the listener’s sense-making faculties. It helps the listener to make sense of what is being said and to make the right associations. It helps the listener to think widely by stimulating his or her imagination.” [Leggett, Brian. "The Power of Storytelling." IESE Alumni Magazine April 2005: n. pag. Web. 29 Jul 2011.]
We’ve discovered that storytelling can break down walls of cynicism and mental distraction and lead listeners toward engagement. The art, then, is in assimilating fiction into belief. In order to practice that art of assimilation, we need to create intentional dialog and discussion.
Less Preaching, More Conversation
As youth workers who are passionate about inviting our students into the Story of God, it is important that we follow in the footsteps of our Rabbi, Jesus. Jesus was the master storyteller, and true to Rabbinic tradition, one-third of his teaching was done through the art of storytelling. Similar to Jesus’ parables, modern day storytelling is a method that might provoke more questions than answers. The story becomes a conversation starter, not a conversation finisher. This isn’t always true, of course. As youth listen and engage in the story, they can process some of the answers because the story meets every teenager in a different spot of their faith experience.
Where the story is the conversation starter, the follow-up discussion and dialogue is the conversation continuer. (I would say “finisher,” but most often that’s not the case.) It’s paramount that we communicators open up times of honest dialogue and questioning. Just like a rousing conversation after a good movie, most of the impact and application will occur after we tell the story. It’s like spending a large amount of time setting the table and displaying a beautiful meal, and now it’s time to call our guests to sit around the table and take it all in. We communicators become not simply the primary medium for communication but hosts of a feast of questions and conversation.
Does this mean we simply offer up our opinions and spiritual insights through our stories and then let them all be cast out into a sea of subjectivity? Absolutely not. It’s very important that we keep the group centered on the topic while still leaving room for honest conversation and questions. [In my book Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling: Creating Fictional Stories that Illuminate the Message of Jesus, I offer some insights and discuss the tangible applications of this process in more detail in chapters 6 and 8.]
However, we must keep in mind that our teenagers are told conflicting stories and “truths” all the time, whether they’re at school, on the sports field, at home, or in some form of relationship. Let’s allow our teaching to give way to guided, thoughtful, and Spirit-led conversation in the hopes of inspiring them to begin the process of entering into a living, active, and very real relationship with Jesus.
If Only I Had a Guitar in My Hands
I have a friend named Robbie. He’s been a part of our high school community for the last three years or so. For the most part, he attends our gatherings and is well liked and respected by his peers and adult leaders.
Robbie is a guitar freak. He plays it, listens to others play it, and flat-out lives it. And I have no doubt that he’d be proud of that description. He has the long curly locks of most “good” rockers, a penchant for tie-dyed shirts, and an endless supply of Converse shoes. When I ask Robbie what his favorite activity is at any given point in the day, he puts his index finger over his closed mouth and ponders his response. Fitting to his character, he responds, “I would have to say either listening to guitar riffs of my favorite artists on CD or playing my guitar without distraction.” This kid would eat his guitar if such a feat wouldn’t scratch it.
Robbie also is a very intellectual and thoughtful student of the Christian life. He’s not afraid to ask hard questions, and he’s a model to many regarding how to live a life of honest transparency and openness to accountability. I respect him very much. That said, Robbie has a hard time focusing during any kind of teaching because he self-admittedly drifts off into guitar world within about two minutes of the start of the talk. He recently told me (during a time when I was not teaching through story, incidentally) that he was really interested in what I had to say and would like to know more. But he just couldn’t pull himself away from pondering how to “play that A-minor with a harmonic that the Allman Brothers nail every time” in one of his favorite two hundred songs of theirs. (I felt so affirmed and self-assured in regard to my teaching abilities after hearing that—defeated by an A-minor with a harmonic. Awesome!)
As a result, while Robbie would often come to our weekly gatherings on Thursday nights, during the talk he’d either play his guitar (outside) or do his best to listen for at least a few minutes.
Then we started a new story.
I don’t remember the topic exactly, but there was something about it that caught Robbie’s attention. And not the two-minute span I was used to seeing, but twenty minutes of attention followed by thirty minutes of dialogue attention. At this point I began wrestling with some of the ideas articulated above. Scientifically, what was it about storytelling that allowed an otherwise hard-to-capture mind like Robbie’s to actively participate in what I was saying? There had to be something to it.
And apparently there is.
I’m not proposing you scratch all your future teaching and permanently teach through story. I don’t! But teaching through the art of storytelling is a great communication tool to add to our communication toolbox as we seek to engage and invite our teenagers into the dynamic Story of God.
- Consider teaching your next topic series through story (i.e. sex & dating, forgiveness, etc…)
- Instead of preparing a three point propositional teaching, begin to build an outline of your story as a modern day parable, while taking into close consideration your audience and context. As a 1st century Rabbi in the Roman Empire, Jesus was exceptional at this.
- Create characters, a setting and plot that integrate Scripture and illuminates your topic. Try to develop characters and setting that your teenagers can relate to and have fun with it!
- Prepare follow-up discussion questions that unpack your story, which ground it in the everyday realities of your teenagers.
- Tell your story with confidence and conviction! You can tell your whole story in one night or you can tell it over the course of a few weeks and build momentum by ending each session on a cliffhanger. Your teenagers will hardly be able to wait to come back and hear the rest of the story!
- Follow up with group conversation, questions and dialog that allow the main points of your story to take root in the hearts and minds of your teenagers.
Check out Jon's book and website: Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling: Creating Fictional Stories that Illuminate the Message of Jesus