Communication and storytelling have been gaining a lot of attention lately, especially their role in the classroom. This makes sense as effective communication is the foundation of human interaction. Many view communication as the most important skill for success as students enter the workforce and there is considerable evidence that the best communicators have greater professional success. So, it’s important that we continually support students in developing their skills and confidence as communicators and storytellers.
Think back to a time when you were mesmerized and engaged by an excellent speaker. Can you remember how seamlessly they transitioned between topics and the power of the stories they told? Recall how they naturally captured your attention, the strength of the emotions they elicited in you, and what you wanted to do as a result. When we feel something, we’re more likely to take action. Effective communication has the power to change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
How then can we help students become more effective communicators? From the classroom to the stage, I’ve spoken to hundreds of audiences and learned many lessons along the way. Based on these experiences and learnings, I’ve created five strategies intended to help educators develop the communication skills of their students.
Place events, facts, and concepts in the context of a personal story
I’ve learned through my experience as a public speaker that my most engaging presentations are those where I am primarily sharing stories with the audience. When I share my life experiences, I feel more like myself. I don’t have to rely on notes or feel pressure to memorize bullet points. Best of all, the act of sharing makes the audience a part of my experience.
Static strategies, data, and facts have a place too, but the key is for speakers to reposition those concepts inside their personal narrative. We can help students go beyond rote “just the facts” by challenging them to develop context. Ask students questions such as how do these facts relate to each other, can you relate this fact to something you've experienced in your life, and, how does this fact impact your big idea? When you ask students to reflect on their experiences, encourage them to tease out what they learned, their successes and the impacts. When you ask students to share experiences, you create opportunities for them to connect with their audience more deeply. This process further gives listeners an active role in the storytelling, creating space for them to imagine themselves in the teller’s story. Maybe the audience will think about a concept in a new and fresh way after seeing it through the speakers’ lens. This is a powerful means for speakers to capture attention, creating a feedback loop between themselves and the audience that provides motivation.
Build a powerful narrative
Not all stories are inspiring on the surface. Students sense that and it may make them hesitant to share or less confident in their material. We need to help them find the potential, which often just requires the addition of a few elements. How can we help our students identify and develop effective stories to share?
Start with some guidance. Narratives should include the who (characters), what (descriptive and vivid imagery to capture emotion), why (why did you feel compelled to solve the problem? What is your purpose?) and how (how did you solve the problem?). As you’re helping your students build narratives, here are a few examples of prompts that can help them to dig into their personal trove of stories:
- Something that happened early in their childhood
- Their first memory
- A time they discovered something that changed their perception
- An interesting person they know
Remind them that as they relate their narrative, it’s important that they circle back to the main idea of their communication. Help them recognize that their audience is not only connecting to them, but also connecting the story to the bigger picture--their own experiences and insights. Sometimes a graphic organizer like this one can help students outline their ideas while having their main idea and audience in mind.
Ask what can be learned from the audience
When telling a story, creating a video narrative or presenting a concept, we often prepare as if it’s a one-way delivery; what does the audience have to learn from me? But it’s equally important for students to consider what they want to learn from their audience. Empathy is important for us as social beings because it allows us to understand how someone sees the world and therefore helps us better connect with others. Empathy isn’t created by listeners guessing the speaker’s intent or imagining what it's like to be in someone else's shoes. In fact, empathy starts when speakers stop guessing at what’s on the mind of the audience, and instead learn to actively listen. Help your students to think about their audience. The audience’s response gives the storyteller valuable insight into how others would have reacted differently. A student’s story can even be strengthened by recording the reflections, reactions, and thoughts of others. I’m just touching the surface on the topic of empathy. If you want to dive deeper, check out my article on building empathy among students through active listening.
Make the audience express itself too
Effective communication is a two-way process, even if only one participant is telling the story. Pushing audience members to express themselves--a chuckle, a tear, a gasp--increases engagement. As the old saying goes, open with a joke. More broadly, the advice is to encourage students to drive emotional responses from the audience. Laughter is a great example. Not only will laughter help keep the audience’s attention, but it also helps create a bond as an audience or group and as a result we lower our inhibitions. When we lower our guard, we’re more open, free to express ourselves creatively. A study conducted by professors John Kounios and Mark Beeman revealed that laughing (even at a short clip) was shown to increase puzzle-solving by 20%. Beeman and Kounios say this laughter-linked lack of focus appears to allow our minds to juggle and connect concepts in a way that rigid concentration does not. So how can our students make use of this? Make fun of themselves, tell an embarrassing story, or say something surprising. After a presenter gets the group laughing (or crying) once, it’s much easier to continue the trend throughout the rest of the story.
What do you want people to do after they listen to you?
While experiencing a story, listeners experience emotions, learn something about the speaker, learn something about themselves and are inspired. That response is wonderful, but remind students that their goals should be even more long-lasting. Have students think about what they want the audience to do with the experience? Did their listeners feel compelled and empowered to do something new, to take action, to solve a problem they’ve been mulling over, to start a movement, or just to make a small step towards a lofty goal? Effective communicators help their listeners consider what they will do next by providing tips, “how to’s,” examples, strategies, etc. This helps listeners leverage the speaker’s experiences to enrich their own.
Effective communication is one of the most highly sought-after skills in our world today. It has proven more important than work experience, accolades, test scores, etc. From being interviewed, to delivering a presentation or pitch, to sharing a story with a friend, storytelling is at the core of the human experience. It’s an area we must help our students strengthen, and which we should strive to enhance in ourselves as well.
So, how are you helping your students become more effective communicators? How are you being a more effective communicator? Share your ideas in the comments.