How do you learn to tell stories worth experiencing?

Today I just have a single question: how do people who work in museums learn to tell good stories?

Below is an excerpt from Seb Chan’s breathtaking interview with Mike Jones (if you haven’t yet read it yet, you should – and also check out Jasper Visser’s latest post on digital storytelling). Mike says:

A story is not just a collection of things or a sequence of events. In this I think breaking down some distinctions between Story, Plot and Narration is very useful.

The framework I like to use, borrowed form numerous scholars in the field over centuries, is that Plot is a sequence of Events, Narration is how those events are Told and Story is what the Viewer experiences through the combination of the Plot being Told in a certain way… or in other words Plot + Narration = a Story Experience in the mind of the Audience.

Once we engage with this idea we can get away from the vacuous notion that ‘everything is a story’ and actually focus on bringing to bear the mechanics and craft to generate an engaging story experience – dramatic questions, a cause and effect chain, a distinct voice in the ‘telling’ of the story, clear point-of-view, characters who are flawed and have desires and obstacles – a story that’s worth experiencing.

How do people who work in museums (curators, exhibit designers, marketers, digital content creators, everyone) learn to tell good stories? Where do they learn that art? Is it taught in school? If you took museum studies, was there a course on story development like a filmmaker or writer might take? Or is the craft handed down, curator to curator? If it isn’t taught formally, should it be?

What do you think? Where do museum story-tellers learn the mechanics and craft of story-telling to tell worthwhile and compelling stories in museums?

12 thoughts on “How do you learn to tell stories worth experiencing?

  1. It might be worth contrasting storytelling with academic writing – because we all learned academic writing during our university days. And there’s a suspicion of ‘storytelling’ that comes with that. Remember the scientists who got branded as second-class researchers by their peers for being good ‘science communicators’?

    It is probably less an issue of learning to be a better storyteller, and more that storytelling – and effective public communication – be valued as being as important as the research the stories are based upon. There’s misconceptions of ‘Disneyfication’ and ‘dumbing down’ that need to be dealt with too.

    I expect Ed Rodley will chime in here.

  2. You learn by doing. You learn all of the basics, all the ingredients, any number of ways – books, watching others, attending classes, etc. But the only real way to become good is by doing.

    You practice over and over, and more importantly, you listen and watch to see how your audience responds and you adapt over time.

  3. The key in storytelling is incorporating an element of motivation. In other words, getting the listeners attention and maintaining it. Also, answering the question “whats in it for the listener” needs to be answered while formulating the story. Nothing better than a good story.

  4. “How do people who work in museums (curators, exhibit designers, marketers, digital content creators, everyone) learn to tell good stories? ”

    In this list, ‘Interpreters’ are conspicuous by their absence. Interpretation *should* be where that storytelling craft sits. There is a body of interpretive theory and practice out there and this can be taught (but of course, much can only be learned through practice, as Bruce Wyman wisely points out above).

    I think Interpretation gets forgotten about in a lot of standard museological discourse. I think it’s partly because it arose from outside the traditional museum sector (Tilden was in Parks). And within museums, interpretation often gets conflated with education (not the same thing) or object labelling (not the same thing but there is a metonymic relationship).

    Interpretation is a bridge between content specialism and the visitor experience. It’s telling that it often exists nowhere in particular within museum organisational charts.

  5. Last week at the Museum Congress in the Netherlands I had the privilege to see Redmond O’Hanlon, storyteller pur sang. I think storytelling is a skill, an art, and not something everybody can learn. O’Hanlon definitely is a special person, and we might want to start hiring people like them. (Maybe they are Regan’s ‘interpreters’).

    That said, like any skill, many people can be great storytellers, but are not necessarily aware that they are. In a presentation I saw by Sara Barron of The Moth I was surprised to see how easily ordinary people can become great storytellers, if they are given a stage, some time and some basic rules for a good story.

    I’ve been thinking about hosting a The Moth-like session ever since I discovered them: a small group of people, a bottle of wine each and 15 minutes to tell a story about whatever (no slides, obviously!). Maybe we can do such a session as fringe event at Intercom this November?

  6. Jasper, you raise some interesting points. I’ve been a little dissatisfied by Bruce W’s answer since I read it this morning. It’s not that I disagreed with it per se. The way you get better at anything is by studying it, and iterating, trying things out and paying attention, so practice and adaption are definitely key. But it’s been nagging at me all day, and I wonder if it’s because a) it relies on a real self-driven motivation to learn how to master the art of story-telling (which, as to Seb’s response, is not necessarily intrinsic or even always valued as greatly as more academic research), and b) because mastering those basics, getting that early scaffolding upon which to iterate might be what’s missing. How to learn those basics?

    Regan, your comment was spot on. It didn’t even occur to me to include “interpreters”, probably because I don’t really have a great sense of what defines a museum interpreter or where they sit. I’d love to know more about where interpretation sits within museological discourse, and how museum interpreters learn to tell stories – since it sounds like there is a real emphasis on that in this space. Do you have any recommended reading as a starting place?

    (And Jasper, yes, I think we should hold a guerrilla The Moth-like session at Intercom! Great idea.)

    1. Regan took the words right out of mouth. i have recently joined Interpretation Australia and am hopefully becoming better skilled in telling the story in a way that educates and engages.

    2. Sure, let me clarify a bit further. We haven’t talked about what *kinds* of stories you’re trying to tell. As I sit here, there are a number of different formats and media in which I tell stories and each, while sharing some commonalities, are also different because of the medium. When I do exhibit work, I think about space and presence and physicality as part of how the experience is presented. When I give a talk, it’s a different kind of story and I care less about the room, but more how the audience reacts and how they respond. And, when I developed interactive media, I think more about what the minimal bits of story that I can provide that trigger a common ground with the invisible participant that I may never see and how do I ensure that the story stays consistent over thousands of repeat tellings. The specializations certainly aren’t exclusive, but once you get past the foundations, the specializations for different formats become unique not only to the medium but also the presenter.

      Personally, I try to be a minimalist storyteller (and this is somewhat inspired by Tufte’s approach to visual design learned early in my career). What are the minimal bits of information that I can give to someone to tell what I want to tell. As part of that, though, I try to make sure that I tell the story in a way that my listener is able to add to the story themselves. I’m planting a seed, they’re completing the growth, and part of the story process is the faith that it’ll grow as I hope.

      So, an exhibit example: while I was at the Denver Art Museum, we did an interactive tale that had the goal of humanizing a set of artists. While people like the tangible object interface (and it’s a nice piece of kit), the core good stuff is the content. At the basic level, we knew that each artist would answer the same question and visitors would watch the comparisons, but that’s just the basic of the story. We considered the space — the Hamilton Building is richly angular, and we shot all of the video at somewhat odd angles to fit in the unique contours of the building (the implication being that the video and the artists are *part* of the building and experience, they’re an extension of the building and so seem like a natural fit). But, to the point of making artists human, we also filmed a lot of the in-between moments of the interviews, where artists are chuckling, or fidgeting with their brushes and paints, or trying to sit comfortably. And those moments became a central part of the final experience while they’re talking.

      Because the story wasn’t just what was being told but how our visitors could relate to the artists. The fidgeting and other moments were things that anyone could relate to. It reinforced the content that each artist was vocalizing and every curator and the artists themselves (and visitors, based on testing) loved the videos and found them deeply engaging. We did another half-dozen or so following the same format based on the original success.

      So, the story was the easy part. All of the other parts that make the story engaging — choice of technology, format of the video, extra bits to film, the setting in the museum itself — were learned from years of practical iterative work and a constant questioning and comparison against other stories in the last twenty years that I felt were better and more successful.

  7. Hi again,

    I’ve been thinking about what I’d put forward as a definitive introductory text to museum interpretation. I’m sure there is one but my mind is a bit blank – I can’t say there is a particular text that has been my ‘bible’ on this subject – for me it’s been more of a self-created jigsaw. I note Jasper’s point about storytelling being an art that cannot be taught. I actually think interpretation is a combination of art, craft and science (see more here

    One reference that did come to mind was “Exhibit Labels – an interpretive approach” by Beverly Serrell (1996). While it focuses on label writing (obviously), the first few chapters explains the role of interpretive themes (or as she describes it, the Big Idea) . It also refers back to Tilden who is the ‘father’ of heritage interpretation.

    Confession time – I’ve never actually read the original “Interpreting our Heritage” by Freeman Tilden (1959) in full, although I’m aware of the principles described therein. Also Tilden was coming from a Parks perspective as I said previously. Because of this, his work is not often cited in the museological literature.

    So I’m still wondering why I’m struggling to be able to give you a canon of (museum) interpretation literature. As it happens I’m hosting an “Interpreters book club” at the Interpretation Australia conference in November, as a way of us sharing the works that have inspired us, whether they come from interpretation or from elsewhere (will be interesting to see what comes up). On that note, I’m also presenting a paper at the IA conference on Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Made to Stick”. This book describes the key ingredients of what makes an idea “sticky” and I think a lot of those principles could be applied to interpretation (hence the paper).

    Perhaps I’m suffering from what the Heath brothers call the “curse of knowledge” – I can think of so many resources that I’m struggling to think of the key defining works with clarity. Perhaps another commenter can suggest one and I can slap my forehead and say “OF COURSE!!”

  8. I’m late to this conversation, but I’ve been thinking about storytelling myself lately as I’m taking on a new project working with a travel company, to help make their city tours more compelling for clients (and not surprisingly, one concern is too many facts, not enough story.) I gently disagree with Jasper, because I think storytelling can be learned–and the Moth is a great example of that–many of those storytellers don’t start out as great storytellers and the Moth’s workshops seem to imply that it is a skill that can be developed. Also worth watching, if you haven’t yet, are Ira Glass’s Youtube videos on telling a story At the AASLH conference recently, folks from the Atlanta Historical Society talked about a shift in their hiring of interpreters, from people who loved history to people who were good communicators–good storytellers. But I do see a big curatorial/expert fear that good stories are bad history (“but what about the truth?” I’ve had said to me.) So that said, for history museums in particular, I think stories are an incredibly important part of what we do and our lack of attention to them, in whatever form, is part of what leads people to think we’re pretty boring sometimes. Regan, I’ve read Tilden, and actually think he’s pretty useful, still–and I agree, that Serrell’s book is also really useful, in a very practical way, as we think about stories. But a single text on interpretation–one doesn’t come to mind for me either.

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