Theme 1 – Defining Storytelling

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In the following chapters participants are referred to by sets of initials. These bear no relation to their real names but I have provided some background in Table 1 in the Methods section.

Each of the interviews began with an open question asking the participants to define what they thought stories actually were, what differentiated them from other forms of communication. It was important to establish people’s understanding of storytelling to set the context for the rest of the discussion and determine how closely Netskills’ activities were to the definitions of stories that are outlined in the Literature Review. I found that there was little contradiction in their responses and much shared understanding.

Structure and content

Most of the participants identified that stories have an identifiable form; that they are as EP put it “more than a random collection of thoughts.” Stories were seen to share a common structure. At its simplest this form was described by RY as being time constrained with a clear start and end point. SH alluded to the common idea of stories having a “beginning-middle-end” structure and of having a connected sequence of events which he defined as a “plot”. CF saw this sequence as something that could be played with, rather than something absolutely fixed. Referring to a discussion that had happened during one workshop he said:

“Lots of people say a story is a beginning-middle-end – but if you mix that up a bit, start with the new normal, then jump back to the beginning…” CF

The general feeling was, however, a simple sequence wasn’t enough and that stories had numerous other defining features. Most subjects talked about stories as describing some form of transition from one state to another. For some this was best described as a “journey” but several discussed stories as descriptions of overcoming “obstacles” (RY) or how a “difficult situation [was] made better” (KV).

Nature of stories

A richer description of stories emerged beyond basic structure and content. Mirroring Lambert’s perspective (2013) the personal nature of storytelling was seen as particularly important by the group. Stories recounted events or experiences but it was important that these were seen from the viewpoint of an individual, not left in the abstract. CF pointed out that this viewpoint was something “…wrapped up in their own identity, background, gender, class, experience [and] knowledge” and that the way that stories are told can reveal these aspects of personality, especially if “delivered in [their] true voice; authentic to that person.”

Connected to that was the idea that stories were implicitly emotional. This was stated as matter of fact by both KV and SH but they also hinted early on the interviews that this was likely to be a troublesome nature of stories when seen in the context they were working. Emotion wasn’t just a feature of stories; the manipulation of emotion in the audience was expected and desired.

As well as conveying the personality of the storyteller, much emphasis was put on the fact that stories are also told in order to communicate some meaning. This was for EP what made them more than “a random collection of thoughts”. He explained that a story is ultimately leading the audience towards a message. BD expressed it as talking about the “how and why” of a situation “…not just what we did.”

Effect on the audience

The idea that a fundamental aspect of stories is the effect they have on the audience was developed more in the discussions around the benefits of storytelling approaches which I’ll elaborate below. But it’s worth a mention here too, given that several participants referred to it when asked to discuss their general understanding.

“People are interested in feelings, side effects, journeys etc which they can identify with. It pulls them into the topic. If you go straight for the [simple] message…there’s no hook for them…unless you say “free stuff”.” BD

BD’s point here is that an audience will have little to engage them with a message unless they are motivated to pay attention. It’s the emotional, affective aspects of a story that are what causes people to pay attention. Without that, you have to find other, simpler ways of grabbing their attention, such as his last tongue-in-cheek suggestion of free offers!

CF said that stories are…”for the listener, potentially powerful. They find it believable when people are true to themselves”. It was this idea of authenticity and truthfulness in stories that became an important part of the later discussions.

Next page: Theme 2 – Benefits of a storytelling approach