Monday, September 5, 2011

The Power of Stories

“So this duck walks into a bar . . .”

When you hear a phrase like this, you know instinctively that a joke or story is heading your way. It could be a hysterical one that makes your drink come out of your nose from laughing so hard or it could rely on a corny pun that makes you groan and shake your head.

Why do so many stories or jokes begin with someone walking into a bar? It’s probably because the pub, saloon, or tavern in a community has always been a focal point for interpersonal communication. The bar was the original chat room where stories were the stock in trade and they were “shared” and “liked” before there was an Internet. Good story-telling doesn’t always fit into the cadence of 21st Century social media communication. Now, thin-sliced communication comes at you at the speed of light while a compelling story takes time to unravel, usually over a cold beer.

I have known some great story tellers in my life. Most came from a generation before there was Twitter or Facebook or YouTube. They came of age in a simpler time before we tried to convey our stories in 140 characters or less. These 20th Century raconteurs relied on the power of verbal stories, told and re-told to share their experiences and reflections on the ups and downs of life.

My family tree is rife with a long line of fascinating story tellers (BS artists if you will). Three come to mind immediately: my late father-in-law Donald Parker and my two uncles – Bill and Don. It may come as no surprise that they all were sailors who served on ships in wars dating back to WWII, Korea or Vietnam. As an impressionable young man, I can remember shooting the breeze with each of them for hours on end as they regaled me with stories that to this day still make me laugh. Their stories are a reflection of them, their times, and their lives.

We don’t remember facts and figures, but we do remember the stories that have touched our lives. We remember stories because they can be riveting, funny, poignant, and chock full of common sense and homespun wisdom. Information by itself is not compelling, but add to the facts the visual image of the case study or anecdote and data can come to life. A picture is definitely worth a thousand words, but a story is worth a 1,000 pictures because it embeds the message with mental images as we personally relate to the story and to the story teller.

As public relations professionals our job is to translate numbers into words. We decipher financial or assessment hieroglyphics into understandable and meaningful prose. But the story teller takes that to a higher level. He or she paints a vivid picture of what the prose means and how it makes us feel. They put us into the picture emotionally and intellectually.

My late friend Charlie Binderup was a masterful story teller. Charlie was superintendent in a very small school district in Northern California. He often joked with pride that the Tulelake Basin schools had the first wood burning fax machine. He also had the same delivery as the veterans mentioned above. He would reel you into the tale with an “aw shucks” style so you couldn’t be quite sure if he was telling the truth or making the whole thing up. But it didn’t matter because the story was so endearing or funny. Great story tellers also have a shared affinity for laughing along with their own jokes and reminiscences. They often crack themselves up as the words come out. I’m convinced that the best part of story-telling is when you get caught up in the telling and it reminds you all over again of how you felt the first time you heard it or experienced it.

[By the way; the punch line to the duck walking into the bar joke is: So the duck says, “I can’t take a job like that . . . I’m an engineer!”]

One of the best things about attending the annual seminar of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) each summer is that I get to swap stories with some of the best BS artists in the country. Guys like Steve Knagg and Jim Cummings are keeping the fine art of story-telling alive and well.

Their tall tales use the same formula for success: their reflections are based in reality, the events are plausible but maybe not believable, just a hint of mischief is added like seasoning, and they linger with a slight pause before delivering the punch line with a wry smile and a laugh as they crack themselves up telling it. They enjoy the story as much as you do. Stories are infectious.

We have some very powerful stories in public education. Everyday miracles, snapshots of success, touching tributes to the human spirit, and the indisputable evidence that education is the cornerstone of our society and the rock upon which our freedom and democracy are built. Now, that is a story worth telling!

The public desperately wants to still believe in public education. So my advice is to be more than a public information officer; be a public story teller. Be the chronicler and conveyor of the story of your schools. Story telling is one of the oldest and most effective teaching tools. Use your arsenal of social media and digital tools to point people to the stories of success and triumph in your classrooms, playgrounds, and school buses. Make the complexity of teaching and learning come to life by adding a few choice stories to your communication repertoire. Great stories make for memorable messages.

“So this little boy walks into school one day . . .”


Jimmy said...

Great stuff!

Jim said...

Tom: It's always great to read or heard what you have to say. You're right - Charlie was one of the best.