9 Prompts for the Storytelling Challenged

"Story prompts" are a great way to generate story ideas

“Story prompts” are a great way to generate story ideas

In my yearlong exploration of science communication, I came across some great advice for ways to generate stories when you’re stuck. One of the best tips was to use a “storytelling prompt.” I found this useful as I prepared for a keynote to honors students at a local high school. Below are tips from three of my favorite experts that might help you to identify a long-forgotten story that might help connect you with your audience.

From Nancy Duarte:

Prompt #1: Think about items you own. Think about why these items are valuable to you and identify what underlies their meaning.

Duarte found one example in a teacup. “This seemingly valueless trinket would be worthless at a yard sale, yet it was precious. Not because of the craftsmanship or design but because of how and when it was used. I could visit Gram for hours, sipping from that cup as she told stories…..”

Prompt #2: Reflect on a timeline of your life. You can go year by year or cluster the years into phases like early childhood, middle/high school, college, career, parenting….

Prompt #3: Break the chronological pattern. According to Duarte, this “can help recall a deeper—and possibly dormant—set of stories.” As you explore, draw sketches of what you see to better classify and recall stories from the right side (or imaginative part of) the brain. Instead of thinking about a series of events, think about:

People: Create a list of people you’ve known. Think about things you did together and places you’ve been.

Places: Think about spaces where you’ve spent time such as homes, schools, offices, neighborhoods, sporting facilities, vacation spots, etc. Use your memories to sketch these locations out and move from point to point, drawing as many details as you can remember. You’re likely to “see” things you’d forgotten as you trigger scenes and even long-disregarded scents and sounds.

I once needed a story for a talk on presentation skills. I wanted to draw from a personal experience that led me to the point I was in my career. Instead of creating a timeline of my youth, I outlined my experiences in school. While other memories evade me, I have a vivid recollection of my childhood teachers, classrooms and the subject matter taught.  I identified a pattern of positive encouragement that began with the recital of a poem in third grade… which over time led me to be overconfident. In the tenth grade this “natural” gave a disastrous presentation on the Ottoman Empire (I got up in front of the class, froze, and said absolutely nothing). I drew from this experience to explain how “natural” ability can be taught with practice but thwarted by overconfidence.

From Annette Simmons:

Go on a daily scavenger hunt for stories. You can find stories anywhere…..

Prompt #4: Look for Lessons. Remember a setback or failure in your life and articulate the lesson you learned; recall the biggest mistake you ever made; a time you were glad you listened to your parents (or didn’t); look back and consider the things you might have done differently.

Prompt #5: Look for Vulnerability. Tell about the last time you cried; the last time you were so happy you wanted to dance a little jig of joy; an embarrassing moment; a time when you wanted to crawl under the table and hide; or touching family stories.

Prompt #6: Look for Story Recollections. Find a story that stuck with you and mine it for meaning, structure, and content. Recall your favorite movie or book and identify why it is your favorite.

From Jeremey Donovan:

Prompt 7: One Lesson. If you could go back in time and give yourself one lesson, what would it be? What lesson would you give to your professional self?

Prompt 8: Defining Moment. What was a defining moment that most dramatically changed the course of your life?

Prompt 9: Overcoming Weakness. What early weakness led you to find your passion?

Try these out with friends and family members. You’ll be surprised at how much they can add to your stories and how many dormant memories they can recall… Or try them in a workshop with your students, labs, or faculty. Leave a comment about how they worked for you.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

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