Sea shanties and tall tales. The storytelling tradition in learning and communication.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a man…

We live our lives in stories. We learn them, we share them, we recognise them, laugh and cry at them and, sometimes, find that we are in them.

The narrative form of the story is one that is very familiar to us. From our earliest memories, we are surrounded and nurtured by them. Children’s stories often use anthropomorphic characters, animals, trains and so on, to represent specific traits or stereotypes, and we are shaped by what these stories tell us. Thomas the Tank Engine is helpful, a hard worker, whilst Gordon is a little bit above himself. The Fat Controller is the authority figure, the headmaster, the Prime Minister. As we grow, we tell our own stories, stories of what we did at school today, stories about how someone was mean to us, or even stories that we make up because we think it will get us something.

Communication is rooted in stories. When you meet someone for the first time, we establish commonality through short, typically experience based, stories. ‘oh I had a terrible journey here, got stuck in Waterloo and had to walk right across town’, which would typically invite a reciprocal story from the other player.

In society, stories are deeply embedded into popular culture and the oral history inheritance, captured in nursery rhymes, sea shanties and folk songs, epic poetry and, latterly, blogs, Flickr galleries and podcasts.

It’s important for us to understand and recognise the importance and prevalence of stories, not least because failing to do so can leave much of what we write sterile, artificial and devalued.

If we are creating an introductory video for an e-learning piece, it’s often the case that we use a sponsor to present it. But simply scripting the messages is far less efficient than getting them to disclose some stories, to create a foundation of personal experience, disclosure and familiarity that can support more formal messages.

When we are scripting videos, showing social situations, we need to include both ‘essential’ learning, but also the fluff that surrounds it, the fluff that makes it ‘real’. (see “Hasn’t the weather been lovely? The concepts of ‘phatic’ and ‘ideational’ communication and why not everything has to be informative when we write learning materials.) (

Stories are important to people, not just in their personal and social lives, but in a work context. People define themselves by what they do (as well as by what they wear and what they drive), so their ‘work’ story is equally important, and it’s important to understand how change can challenge these stories that people value. For example, when organisations merge, you see the coming together of conflicting stories, which then need to be rewritten into a new tale. Some of this rewriting can be the ‘official’ story, but much of it is a personal journey, as people reconcile one with the other.

These are not trivial matters, our stories, be they personal or corporate, define us. We share them carefully and tell them proudly.

Training is, by it’s nature, the telling of carefully crafted an curated sagas. Media like films and television tend also (although not exclusively) to be well polished narratives, due largely to the vast amounts of time and effort spent polishing them. Other stories are emergent, improvised or flustered, but all share common traits.

Understanding stories is essential to great communication. See how many you come across today, and maybe share a few of the better ones. That’s how we learn.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
This entry was posted in Communication, Stories, Storytelling and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sea shanties and tall tales. The storytelling tradition in learning and communication.

  1. Pingback: Sense making in the Social Age | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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