Storytelling for academics

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In 2012 I gave a short presentation on a few elements of giving a conference presentation, using images from Pixar movies (see bottom of post). I wanted to convey the idea that sharing academic research needn’t be boring, a problem that I think is rife among academics. That’s why I was delighted to come across Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling, some of which I think can be adapted for academics to use when sharing their work.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Here is the presentation I gave:

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-09-12

  • @ryantracey they’re passages I highlight using diigo, they get pulled into the blog post so I can find them later #
  • @amcunningham Often use personal experience in class, never thought of them as stories. Maybe it’s the “telling” of the story that matters #
  • We learn from stories and experience http://t.co/zJP85x9. Been thinking how to integrate stories into my teaching but haven’t managed yet #
  • Study Highlights Superficiality of Digital Native Concept http://t.co/SqdCaLJ. Socio-economic background impacts digital sophistication #
  • Revisiting the Purpose of Higher Education http://t.co/N7Kx90G. There needs to be a shift away from knowledge and skills #
  • Are we missing reflection in learning? http://t.co/r42MuL5. We need to create formal space for reflection within the curriculum #
  • TED video: a next generation digital book http://t.co/fzHeqmw #
  • 5 Myths About Collaboration http://t.co/wviyQEU #
  • The Sad State of Educational Research http://t.co/MBazWuY. Educational researchers also responsible for spreading poorly developed ideas? #
  • @amcunningham nice…didn’t know about some of those tools. Been meaning to have a look at scoop.it but haven’t had the chance yet #
  • @amcunningham pretty cool…is it a list of all your tweets, or just those related to a specific theme? #
  • Video: Hands-on with Inkling 2.0, the iPad textbook — Tech News and Analysis http://t.co/ElaSztV #
  • The real cost of academic publishing http://t.co/P1S1HKo via @guardian #
  • So when does academic publishing get disrupted? http://t.co/lQD34Q9 #
  • Why the Impossible Happens More Often http://t.co/zn7cQMf #
  • Achieving substrate-independent minds: no, we cannot ‘copy’ brains http://t.co/TWKB6SE #

Posted to Diigo 09/11/2011

    • To experience something has a far more profound effect on your ability to remember and influence you than if you simply read it in a book
    • You’ve cast a learner into the world. And that’s the most powerful thing you can do as a teacher
    • The enthusiastic teacher is fundamental to igniting flames of interest in any student in any subject
    • a totally different way of thinking about “teaching” one where “instead of controlling a classroom, a teacher now influences or shapes a network.”
    • apprenticeship for every student in our classrooms these days is not so much grounded in a trade or a profession as much as it is grounded in the process of becoming a learner
    • we teach kids to learn
    • we don’t teach subjects, we teach kids
    • We can’t teach kids to learn unless we are learners ourselves, and our understanding of learning has to encompass the rich, passion-based interactions that take place in these social learning spaces online
    • seeing the purpose of higher education as going beyond the acquisition of knowledge and skills
    • Only this will provide flexibility in applying knowledge, skills, and understanding that will suffice at a time of rapid change and ‘super-complexity’ in dealing with emerging issues and new problems.
    • encourages the development of courses “that set a broad agenda from the start, highlighting the ways of thinking and practicing that are required, and introducing broad questions as ‘throughlines’ that keep students focused on the importance of reaching understanding for themselves.”
    • That doesn’t mean students get to interpret the material as they see fit. It’s more about them making the material their own, storing it where they can find it, and configuring it so that it usefully connects with what else they know
    • convinced that most of our courses need to be reconstructed, if not destructed and rebuilt
    • Entwistle, N. (2010). Taking stock: An overview of key research findings. In J. C. Hughes and J. Mighty, eds., Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Kingston, Ontario, Canada: School of Policy Studies, Queens University

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-07-19

TEDx Johanessburg (session 1) – Iain Thomas

The first session at TEDx Johannesburg began with Iain Thomas, the author of ambiguous micro stories at I wrote this for you. Here’s the site tagline, which is great:
“I need you to understand something. I wrote this for you. I wrote this for you and only you. Everyone else who reads it, doesn’t get it. They may think they get it, but they don’t. This is the sign you’ve been looking for. You were meant to read these words.” Apparently there is a whole ecosystem of micro-story writers, this is the first I’ve heard of it.  I love the idea.

“We are a generation that consumes media in smaller and smaller chunks.”  I think of Twitter and the effect it has on my own concentration / focus / reflection?  It’s difficult to identify relevant data from an endless stream, focus on it, extract meaningful information and make use of that.  Should I slow down?  How?  Why?  Can I afford to?

Iain creates very short stories by leaving out the small details (e.g. age, gender, etc.) and having the reader fill in the gaps.  “There’s no story I can tell you that’s more powerful than the one you tell yourself”.

“We are not the unique snowflakes we are told we are, we are all of us the same.”  I love this sentence.  It makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger, but at the same time I think that each of us is unique.  But the aggregation of the whole “flattens” us out and makes the sum of the parts seem more uniform.  I like the idea of simplicity (the group) through complexity (the individual).

“This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time” (from Fight club).  Inspiring quote to motivate one to get on with it.

“I don’t care how many fish there are in the sea, I don’t want fish, I want you.”  I came across a variation of this a few years ago (I forget where)…I don’t care how many fish there are in the sea, if I’m a mackerel and you’re a herring, it won’t help either of us.

Iain Thomas at TEDx Johannesburg

Iain got me thinking about stories and the important role of stories in our lives.  We all learned through stories when we were younger, and then for some reason, most of us stop telling them.  Maybe it has something to do with the creativity that’s “educated” out of us (Sir Ken Robinson).  I remember growing up fascinated with fables, myths and science fiction, yet most of what I read now is either academic or non-fiction.   I just finished reading Randy Pausch’sThe last lecture“, based on his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon, where he also talks about the importance of stories in our lives.

I like the idea of using stories as vehicles that we can use to carry concepts and principles.  Kind of like sneaking the idea in there, or learning without realising that you’re learning.  I often tell my students that their patient documentation can be thought of as a story…the story of this patient and their condition/injury.  Just like a story has a logical sequence and structure (beginning, middle and end), so too should an assessment have structure.  What are the logical patterns we can use to best convey the story of this patient and our role as physiotherapists in that story?

For the past few months I’ve been trying to get my head around the idea of complexity through simplicity, and this concept of ambiguous micro-stories seems to resonate with that idea.  It’s something that I worked hard on for my doctoral proposal, although I based it on a variation of one of Einstein’s quotes that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.  For me, Iain’s stories fall into this category of creating stories that can be incredibly complex, but only through incredible simplification.