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Transformative Storytelling: An Improvisational Approach To Developing Stories That Educate, Motivate and Inspire Workshop Handout

Workshop designed and facilitated by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP. MT
 “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” Robert McKee

On the intersection of improv - where we do not know what is going to happen and can only experience/create by giving up the need to know - and storytelling, where we know what has happened and seek to find meaning in it:
"Life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forward." Soren Kierkagaard

"Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense - they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on how just stories change our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.Why Your Brain Loves A Good Story, Harvard Business Review, Oct. 28, 2014

There have never been so many competing demands for attention at the same time there is so much essential knowledge to communicate to clients, colleagues and the communities we serve. The ability to craft and deliver a compelling story is one of the most empowering tools we can possess to impart ideas, information or inspiration.  Research into the way our brains pay and process attention provides important and effective guidelines for doing just that. Thanks science!

    Well-crafted stories can frame and explain important concepts as well as engage listeners in ways that add color, imagination and emotional significance to important information and in this way make the content memorable and meaningful. "The story is actually just a delivery system for the teller’s agenda," writes Jonathan Gotschall in Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon. "A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind. Research shows that our attitudes, values, hopes and fears are strongly influenced by story...The more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them." 

"Stories frame and even construct social experience," writes the NeuroHumanities Research Group, a collaboration between neuroscientists at Princeton and Duke Universities. Their work - specifically research led by Dr. Uri Hasson of Princeton University produced scientific evidence for the appeal of stories but more importantly for their social, emotional and psychological impact. Through neuroimaging, researchers found a "synching up" between the brains of listeners and storytellers when there is deep engagement in the story. The neuroimaging allows them to "see" cognitive reception of the story. According to this evidence, the effect occurs only when communication is achieved. If the story is not engaging the listener - as when there is a barrier to communication, or the story does not emotionally connect to the listener - this effect is lost. When a story "lands" on a listener and has genuine impact, it can motivate and inspire without any prompting by the storyteller. According to Dr. Hasson, "a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience."

Researcher Paul Zak has spent the last several years searching for the reasons stories "can move us to tears, change our attitudes, opinions and behaviors, and even inspire us—and how stories change our brains, often for the better."
Watch this video of Dr. Paul Zak talking about the neurochemistry behind the impact of story on behavior in this talk from The Future Of Storytelling 2012

Dr Know-It-All 
Experience the fundamental moment-to-moment experience of improvising with others;
Participate in a simple, collaborative creative process;
Practice receiving and building on what is given without thinking ahead;
Break out of over-thinking and enter into a state of play with others;

Five players stand and link arms. Together they make up a character called Dr. Know It all, who just happens to be the smartest being in the universe. Dr. Know It All has 5 brains but each of them can only say one word at a time. The first group practices by introducing Dr. Know It All one word at a time, e.g. "My. Name. Is. Dr. Know. It All." Then a group member asks a question and the group responds one word at a time until one player completes the sentence by saying '"period" at which point all 5 players simultaneously take a bow. Play continues with each group of 5 asked several questions, then another 5 become Dr. Know It All until everyone in the group has participated. The idea is to complete a sentence without worrying whether the response is an actual answer to the question. It can be ludicrous, it can be weird. The important thing is to respond to what players have contributed and add to it in a way that completes a thought.

The Danish Clap
Warm up the group to a state of play;
Connect with a partner by making direct contact;
Stimulate the brain chemistry of reward that comes with small "wins" and promotes group safety;
Get out of cognitive thinking which increases spontaneity;

Participants pair up, and stand facing each other.They then establish a rhythm by alternately slapping their thighs with both hands and then doing 1 of 3 movements: arms straight up over head, arms straight to the right, arms straight to the left. If both partners choose the same movement (e.g. both partners raise arms straight up overhead at the same moment) they slap thighs and then high-five, making eye contact. It is important to establish a rhythm and increase the pace. After a few rounds, participants pick a new partner and have another go.

Research into the science of storytelling and the brain One would think that because stories are expressed through language that they engage the parts of the brain that process it, but neuroscience shows us something more. Research published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience showed that when the brain hears an action word, it responds as if the listener is engaged in that action. So when a storyteller says “I waltz to the door,” the motor cortex lights up. “I straighten the collar of my velvety silk blouse” ignites the sensory cortex. “My heart races with a mix of wild excitement and anxiety as I open the door” triggers these emotions in the listener. 
When a storyteller steps into the character of raging father, reassuring mother, high school crush, or any of the other characters that populate a story, the listener can experience the rush of fear an abused child endures, but from the safety of an observer’s role. When the brain experiences rich imagery and emotionally compelling moments the story has the greatest impact and is more likely to be remembered. (from my article "When Stories Kill: Its The Brain Science That Did It" on

The elements of a story that engage the whole brain are 

  • Sensory details;
  • Emotional details and energy;
  • Story structure;
  • Narrative sections mixed with in-the-moment scenes;

3 Things
Practice radical positive energy and acceptance from the group;
Experience group support for any response, which drives improvisation;
Practice thinking under pressure;
Focus on sensory details in preparation for storytelling;

The group stands in a circle. Group leader gives a category of some sensory-oriented thing to a player, who then has to name 3 things in that category. After the first is stated, the group says "1!" with a lot of energy. After the 2nd thing is stated, the group says "2!' with a lot of energy. After the 3rd thing is stated, the group says "3!" with a lot of energy and then applause. Group leader then gives a completely different category to the next player and so on. Sensory-focused suggestions are things like: Things that are sweet. Things that are hot. Things are sour. Things are dark. Things that are pink. etc. The emphasis is on things that have a strong sensory experience: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. 

EXERCISE: Enhanced Monologue - Sensory Focus
This improv exercise is a skill-builder for both active listening (useful with couples and in groups to strengthen interpersonal skills), receiving what others contribute and focusing on sensory details.

Experience trying to share from one's own thoughts and experience without editing;
Experience being heard;
Experience active listening to another person;
Practice infusing a monologue with sensory details;
Collaborate on a simple creative process with a partner;

Participants pair up, sit facing each other and decide who will be Player A and who will Player B. Player A will talk for 1 minute on a topic given by the trainer with no particular agenda, while Player B listens. When the trainer calls time, Player B repeats everything he/she can recall that was said by Player A, enriching it with as much sensory detail as possible. Example: The topic is "houseplant."
Player A: I kill every houseplant even though I really try to keep them going. I think I'm doing it right but the lily my daughter sent me when I was sick just didn't respond to everything I did. So I actually feel bad for the houseplants because its like my house is where they come to die. 

Player B: "My daughter gave me a gorgeous, green-leafed lily. The white flowers with their wisps of yellow inside lasted a few days. Then they went from looking vibrant to saggy and brown, just hanging off the stems that went from shooting straight up to leaning over. After 2 weeks I saw brown, withered stalks." 
Then the players swap position. Player B does the unedited monologue on a topic given by the trainer, then when the trainer calls time, repeats it with embellished sensory detail.
Topics might be anything, here are some suggestions:
Autumn                                        Green
Bridges                                         Apartment
Mountain                                      Window
Key                                               Night
Breakfast                                      Rain
Produce section                            Morning
Road                                            Red
Garden                                         Games

Listening/Retelling Exercise - Emotion-Focused
Objectives: as above, with the addition of infusing a partner's monologue with heightened emotions;

The 5-beat story structure is shown to command attention, generate empathy and impact behavior change:

Set-Up: What is the main character's situation or perspective with regard to this story. Set a story with important details that place the main character in a time, place and emotional state. Use sensory and emotional details to bring the audience into that emotional and physical space as much as possible. 
Inciting Incident: something happens that impacts the main character's situation or perspective, and he/she must respond. A game-changing moment, an upset to the status quo, an unexpected turn of events. Bring immediacy - using imagery and sensory details to this part of the story as much as possible.
Rising Action: as a result of the inciting incident, the main character makes some choices, which have consequences, and impact the main character.
Climax: The rising action leads to a turning point - the emotional tension rises to a heightened intensity, possibly a breakthrough moment, a low point that forces a redirection or a high point that lights the way.
Transformation: Where this emotional journey takes the main character. What is changed as a result of having gone through this process? A shift in perspective, a letting go of an old role or belief, taking up a new approach or behavior.

“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each others’ memory. This is how people care for themselves.” Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel

Three types of stories used in professional presentation:
  • Communicate a vision. Use vision stories to empower listeners to connect with a larger reality than their own, to imagine a different kind of future for themselves.
  • Success – should emphasize the obstacles, the adversity, the reason that this success was, at one time, unlikely or unforeseeable;
  • Failures – emphasizes the "want," the dream and the journey toward a goal, what inspired and went into achieving it, and the obstacles, mistakes, or adversity that blocked it. Failure stories are about lessons learned, revelations that come through tough experiences, and resilience.
  • Transcendent – something that is beyond normal experience, e.g. stories about important life-changing figures like Nelson Mandela or Harriet Tubman, what it takes to climb Mt. Everest, surviving a trauma;
MOTIVATIONAL STORIESpull people toward a change. They are a call to action. The tension is in the stakes involved. These stories link actions to a specific, valuable, and worthy outcome. Motivation-oriented stories focus on the things that prompt people to act:
  • Reward – if you do this, you will get that
  • Fear – if you do this, you can avoid a bad thing that will otherwise happen
  • Competency – achievement – if you do this
  • Recognition – getting it or not getting it and carrying on
  • Desire to grow
  • Power – ways to gain influence and greater control over events
  • Social factors – desire to contribute to the lives of others, desire to make a difference

EDUCATIONAL STORIES – the story is used to frame information, a concept, facts, data, or research, e.g. “There are 15000 more gun shops in the United States than there are grocery stores. My home town in Kentucky, population 5, 450 had 5 gun shops, 12 bars and 8 churches. It was easier to create an arsenal than to buy groceries.” TED talksare ideal examples of ways to use stories to frame facts. A fact gets into a person’s head more efficiently when embedded in a narrativeOur role model for this might be physicist Brian Greene who uses stories, music and imagery to express complex, difficult-to-comprehend scientific concepts. Listen to an interview with Brian Greene about his story Icarus On The Edge Of Time, which deals with the Theory of Relativity and the way gravity stretches time.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc - an approved provider of Continuing Education for social workers in NYS (Provide #0270) - and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a live show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds. Follow her on twitter @JuTrWolff


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