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Workshop helps Stanford students hone their storytelling skills

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Students sitting in a circle talking.
During a workshop with storytellers from the nationwide association The Moth, Stanford students were coached in the art of storytelling.
Photo Credit: 
Christy Hartman
Now a graduate student in the School of Education, Michaela Karis was a young girl when her family took a road trip through the Arizona desert. It was the family’s first trip with three young kids. The trip was going pretty well until they took a wrong turn down an unmarked desert road and got their car stuck in the sand. The family outing suddenly turned into a life-threatening situation. 
 
That was the beginning of the story Karis told in front of a group of classmates and professional storytellers at a recent Stanford event. Karis was one of about 30 students to participate in an oral storytelling workshop in which members of The Moth, a nationwide storytelling organization, coached Stanford students in the art of storytelling.
 
The Moth includes a radio show, podcast, and live events that all feature true stories told live and without notes. The night before the workshop, five storytellers from The Moth shared personal tales about the “learning curve” of life with a packed house in Dinkelspiel Auditorium.
 
Story coaches from The Moth returned to Stanford the day after the public event for a storytelling workshop With Stanford students from two creative writing courses. Some students are currently in “Narrative Design,” a course taught by Jonah Willihnganz that focuses on how stories are designed differently in different media forms, while the others are enrolled in “Storycraft,” a class taught by Dan Klein and Michelle Darby that focuses specifically on telling personal stories to a live audience. 
 
Karis is currently enrolled in both classes. She is not just interested in being able to tell a good story, she also believes that storytelling is vital to her work as a graduate student in the school of education. 
 
“Humans tell stories because they are a really effective way to communicate information. Our brains are hardwired to remember, and appreciate, and be excited about stories,” she said.
 
Karis believes that we often miss out on harnessing the power of stories in education.
 
“You tell a kid a boring list of ‘this happened in this year,’ they are not going to remember it, but if you tell a kid a really cool story, now they are excited and want to learn,” she added. 
 
The workshop was sponsored by the Stanford Storytelling Project, a Stanford arts program dedicated to exploring the power of storytelling. 
 
Willihnganz, who directs the Storytelling Project, said the workshop “gave students an extended opportunity to dig deep into some incident from their own lives, apply some craft to it, and create a story that helps others understand that experience and identify with some value that came out of it.”
 

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Stanford students developed their storytelling skills during the workshop sponsored by the Stanford Storytelling Project.
Photo Credit: 
Christy Hartman
Making sense of our lives
During the workshop Karis told her story to four other Stanford students and Jessica Lee Williamson, one of the Moth storytellers who presented the night before. 
 
Karis recounted to the rapt group how her family was rescued after her father flagged down a group of hunters who were improbably hunting quail nearby. When her father and the hunters showed up to rescue the family they found Karis, her two siblings, and her mother roasting marshmallows. 
 
Workshop participants offered their impressions of Karis’ story based on a set of storytelling guidelines that The Moth performers use to shape their stories. 
 
Williamson praised Karis for the strong plot structure of moving from the safe world of the road trip to the real danger and isolation of being stranded in the desert. The students also liked the detail that she couldn’t even eat Oreos because her mouth was too dry.  But people also agreed that they wanted to know more about how she felt at certain moments in the story and what the story meant to her. 
 
Afterward Karis was excited to have new ways of looking at stories, but was also encouraged to recognize fundamental principles of stories similar to those she has been learning in her classes. 
 
“In Storycraft we call it ‘the platform and the tilt,’ in Narrative Design we call it the inciting incident and the rising action, in here it was the inciting incident and the raising stakes,” she explained, adding that “it’s really interesting to see that all around the same structure works and is recognized over and over again.” 
 
Karis might end up telling this story again, to a larger audience, as a final project for the Storycraft class. If so, she knows what she will do differently. 
 
“I tend to tell stories just as a cool event, and sometimes I feel like ‘Okay, that was fun, but what is the point of the story?’ I think that honing in on a theme will give my story an extra kick,” Karis said.
 
At the end of the small-group workshops the members of The Moth asked for a volunteer to tell a story to the whole class. Only senior Renee Donovan volunteered, sharing her story about the end of her professional ballet career. Her story received high praise from The Moth storytellers. 
 
Moth producer Kirsty Bennett liked the use of humor and how relatable she made the story. She encouraged Donovan to try the story out at a Moth story slam in San Francisco. To improve the story she suggested that Donovan strengthen the transitions between the different scenes and ideas. 
 
After the event Donovan said that the advice she received during the workshop allowed her to tell her story so successfully. 
 
“Usually the structure in stories is really hidden but the facilitators [of the workshop] brought out the structure,” she said.
 
“When you are telling the story later, it becomes intuitive. I don’t think that would have been the case if I hadn’t done this workshop,” Donovan added.
 
For Willihnganz the Moth storytellers’ skills demonstrate “how one can combine who you are with a bit of craft to create an impactful story.”
 
For all the time he spends thinking about and teaching the craft of storytelling, Willihnganz’s focus remains on the liberating use of stories. He says that telling stories can achieve two powerful things.
 
“First, the act of formulating and delivering a story is a vehicle for discovering the self,” he said. 
 
“Second, sharing stories is a form of community building and often healing since so much of life is loss and suffering and so much of storytelling ... is a form of grappling with and making sense of our lives.”
 
 
Media Contact
Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.ed