Saturday, July 19, 2014

Lead with a story

Paul Smith is a wonderful storyteller. His book, Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, is a threefold good read. First, it is an engaging read. Over one hundred stories are presented, some inspiring, some more like fables. Second, the stories are about people dealing with business related challenges and describe good business practices. Third, the book details elements of good storytelling. Taking this book intended for the business market and applying its lessons to education made me think of the good and not so good things I know about teaching, teachers and my boss.

One of the story strands was about matching the corporate stories to corporate policy. He told about a CEO who arrived at a door with other upper management and was not allowed in by a young security person.  One of the accompanying managers tried to get the guard to let the CEO in because he was the CEO. The CEO said, "No, he is doing his job," and sent someone to go get his badge so that he would be let in. This story would certainly discourage others from letting people into the building without their badges. Do the stories of your organization talk of special privileges for some people or of everyone following the rules? I had a boss who did not agree with our new punching in policy but explained that she had to do it as well. For someone who often did not start in her primary location, it meant many extra notations because we were only allowed to punch in at our primary location. On the flip side our professional office staff often leave the building and take longer lunches or extra breaks at restaurants that clerical or teaching staff are never allowed to do. As an itinerant teacher, I am booked so tightly that if I were to stop for a drink between locations, I would be late. How demoralizing when my boss comes in to observe me with a fresh coffee from the Tim Horton's on the corner. Her behavior is counter to policy, she gave herself an extra break, but was OK because she was able to leave extra time to get wherever she wanted to go. As an itinerant teacher, I am in the community all the time. Teachers want to be treated as professionals. How professionally should we be taken when my colleagues in the department show up in jeans and flip flops? Professionals do not need to wear suits, but they do need to dress at least as well as the private school dress code for students.

The storytelling advice was useful. The idea of using surprises to capture attention and memory was insightful. One interesting thing he pointed out was a style element. In our age of Common Core we are being asked to teach students to learn to write for college and career. Often this means we teach writing that eliminates parallelism in favor of rich vocabulary and descriptions. While the idea of writing for different audiences is presented, guidelines for some audiences is difficult to locate. For communication that will be shared amongst a group of people, especially, but not exclusively, if it is oral, Smith advocates short sentences with less than 15% of the words being greater than two syllables, writing in active voice, getting to the point quickly and omitting needless words. The average reading level of statements should be about 8th grade. Instead of using powerpoint bulleted slides to make a point, use stories to demonstrate a point. He argues in favor in running written statements through a readability test. Alternatively he presents a clarity test from Effective Writing for Army Leaders: calculate the average number of words per sentence and the average number of words with three or more syllables, add the two numbers together. The target is 30, 20 is too abrupt and 40 too complex (p. 123-4). If we are preparing students for career where presentation skills are important, this is certainly a style of writing we need students to master. They should be able to get the basics down in middle school.

The book is a rich resource of stories that can be used to illustrate points and motivate in times of challenge. Smith encourages us to use and modify his stories to the situations in which we find ourselves. In teaching we sometimes use stories to do this. We should probably do it more often. Good storytelling is inspirational. It can answer the perennial "Why should we learn this?" question. I was working with a seventh grade girl, introducing the concept of volume of a cylinder. I started the lesson this way: I want to bake a cake. The recipe calls for a 9 inch circle pan that is one inch high. I do not have this pan. I do have an 8 inch circle pan that is 1 and 1/2 inches high. Is it big enough to hold the batter? This story seemed like one she might encounter in her life, left her curious and put purpose behind an often seemingly meaningless activity.

Stories can also explain complex ideas in ways that are simpler to our students or make seemingly abstract ideas memorable. I am reminded of my middle school English teacher trying to teach us the helping verbs. She told us of the king AmIsAre WasWere BeBeingBeen and his wife, ShallWill BeBeingBeen who lived in the land of CouldShouldWould. They had children HaveHasHad, DoDoesDid and MayMustMight. They solved problems with words. She said the names quickly really linking them together. I still remember the story and the verbs- 35 years later. I make up the problems because they are lost in my brain but the story made the verbs memorable. It is a way of adding novelty to the information and helps create a foundation for learning- we have structures for learning stories in our brain. If we structure our learning like stories, it is easier to recall.

We do not have to be the best at writing or creating stories. They are all around us. The internet is a resource that can provide unparalleled ideas. Give credit where credit is due and tell stories.

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