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.

Applying My 5 Secrets of Captivating Stories

A story from my son's Field Day helped me connect with high school students

A story from my son’s Field Day helped me connect with high school students

I may be an open-book extrovert, but I still find stories hard to tell. They bring me back to elementary school days when my nerves got the best of me: voice cracking, knees shaking, sweaty palms….

For the practice year following my Leopold training, I set a goal of getting comfortable with storytelling by practicing the storytelling skills I read about over this year. I decided to use stories regularly in my class lectures and include at least one in every presentation I made on and off campus.

My best opportunity for practice came with an invitation to give a talk at an honors society induction for a large preparatory school in my area. My charge was to motivate the students to continue along their positive academic path, go to college, and succeed in life. Clearly, they were already highly motivated. How could I inspire them further? I thought about advising them to study hard, reach out to faculty when they don’t understand, and get extra help when they need it. But this didn’t seem very inspirational.

I decided on a story about my son, Solomon, that illustrated the message that in life it’s ok to fail  — it’s just not ok not to learn from failure. I set the stage by citing statics on college graduation that are pretty bleak: only 40% of undergraduates complete their degrees in 4 years; and this only increases to 60% by 6 years. I emphasized that these statistics hold for honors students at the best colleges in the country. I then juxtaposed this negative message with one of hope. I gave them a hook: that I knew the secret to college success. I led up to the “reveal” of this secret by using the story about my son to illustrate how failure, even failure in a kindergarten race, could be an opportunity to learn and succeed another day.

I practiced the story enough times that on the day of the talk I spoke without my notes and was able to act out my son’s stubbornness, his clenched fists when he lost, and my reactions. I was able to make eye contact and see that most audience members were sitting on the edge of their seats, eyes wide open. I used three well-positioned pauses to emphasize my main points: the first right after my story (to let listeners absorb the lesson of the story), the second after a quote by Michael Jordan, and the third right before the big “reveal” of my secret. A week later I received a letter from the headmaster that I think speaks to the power of storytelling. According to him, the students were “effusive in their praise and especially appreciated the delivery of ideas that were sprinkled with generous doses of humor. They really listened.”

Have you tried adding stories to your presentations or writing? What has been the most difficult part of this process?  If it is simply creating them, you’re not alone.  See my next post for ideas on prompts that can help with this process. Leave a comment.

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.

5 Secrets of Captivating Stories



credit: Salisbury University publications

Notice what happens the next time you tell a group that you want to tell them a story. People will perk up, get comfortable, and prepare to listen. Storytelling is a powerful way to connect, communicate, and convince. Annette Simmons (The Story Factor) sums it up: “Other methods of influence—persuasion, bribery, or charismatic appeals—are push strategies. Story is a pull strategy. If your story is good enough, people—of their own free will—come to the conclusion they can trust you and the message you bring.”

Communicating facts can trap listeners into supporting one idea or another. If an explanation runs counter to their beliefs and understanding, they don’t hear the message. Facts don’t have the power to change people’s minds, but stories do. This is because in story, there is room for non-linearity, room for messages to seep in, and room for both sides to be true. As Stephen Denning says in The Springboard, people listen to stories with little effort. Once digested, a good story can replay itself and continue to have impact long after its telling.

Stories generally have a specific structure (a beginning, middle, and end), but storytelling involves elements of style that are more difficult to list and number. When developing a story, a good place to start is with prompts. Here are a few from Jeremey Donovan (“How to Deliver a TED Talk”): “If you could go back in time and give yourself one lesson, what would it be? “What was a defining moment that changed the course of your life? “What early weakness led you to find your passion?” Simmons suggests looking for stories in everyday life: any event that creates emotion or is memorable can become a story.

Here are 5 key elements of captivating stories:

1. Keep the specifics out and the details in: The details of the story are important. They set the scene, invite the listener in, and allow for emotion to seep through. The specifics are not important. It doesn’t matter that 55% of the invertebrates in your story were impacted, but rather what they looked like, how they smelled, and what the day was like. Like maps, stories communicate complexities with simple, incomplete views of reality.

2. Make your story positive: Science, critical thinking, and scientists are often seen as negative. Action is never born of frustration, depression, or ignorance. Hope, joy, and fulfillment motivate. Keep it positive.

3. Make your stories come to life: Remember that body language matters. You want to re-experience your story as you tell it. You want your listener to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the elements of your narrative. Nancy Duarte (HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations) states that you want to create conflict by emphasizing the contrast between what is and what could be. Remember that even the most compelling stories lose their power if they’re not told well. Practice your delivery.

4. Embrace silence: Silence can amplify the sensory and emotional aspects of your story. Don’t be afraid to pause to make a point or use silence to enhance your words.

5. Connect with your audience: Tone is important because it overrides or reinforces every message your gestures, body, and words relay. Tone cannot be faked. You must respect your audience and believe that they have an essential role in your message. Only then can you connect with them through humor, emotion, and passion. Audience members will almost never contact you weeks later about a presentation to say that they loved point 2, but you will find that they want to tell you how and why your story resonated.

In his fabulous TED talk the filmmaker Andrew Stanton says, “There isn’t anyone that you can’t learn to love once you have heard their story.” This likeability element is essential to getting your audience on board with your message, especially if you want to motivate change. Likeability can also break through the negativity of critical thinking. Science, and the advancement of scientific knowledge, is inherently negative. Think about it… hypotheses are wrong until proved otherwise, new ideas are spurred by recognition that prior knowledge was incomplete. As Randy Olson (Don’t Be Such a Scientist) observes, critical thinking is admired within academia but can be “horrifying” elsewhere in a world that thrives on positivity and affirmation. Stories help bridge this rift between scientists and the rest of the world. Stories make us care.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I used these tips to overcome my fear of storytelling and to embrace the secret sauce of science communication. What helps you tell captivating stories? Leave a comment.

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.

Using the “… and …but …. therefore…” narrative technique in the classroom

I learned about the “….and… but……..therefore …” narrative technique from keynote speaker Dr. Randy Olson, scientist, filmmaker and expert in scientific communication, who was speaking in a plenary session on “Sea Level Rise: New, Certain, & Everywhere” at the 22nd biennial conference of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation in San Diego in November, 2013. (Video of the three-speaker presentation can be seen here.

The idea is that the “and, but, therefore” narrative structure almost always works. It provides a “hey you know this,” but then there’s this hook, a catch, followed by a “so this is what should happen now.” Dr. Olson talked about using it in all forms of story telling. Here’s a cute example I found in pop music: “Hey, I just met you, AND this is crazy, BUT here’s my number, SO call me maybe.” In a scientific format, you can present two pieces of status-quo knowledge “this and that,” then you provide a “but,” which would be some evidence that goes against the prevailing wisdom. You then conclude with the so. “Therefore you should fund my team to investigate this alternative approach.” Here’s a rather dry example that I used in my talk last week at the AGU/ASLO Ocean Sciences meeting: “Continental shelf sediment transport studies have traditionally focused on the seafloor and events are thought to be dominated by surface swell. But internal wave motions transcend bottom boundary layer scales and can easily lift particle 10 to 40 meters above the seafloor. Therefore this study set out to determine how internal waves move sediment in the middle of the water column over the mid-shelf mud belt.” You get the idea.

How are we using this in the classroom? Dr. Ivano Aiello and I are currently co-teaching a graduate seminar on climate change at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. The students are assigned papers from the original literature and tasked with presenting them back to the class, usually giving a short presentation with powerpoint. This can be scary for the students, since the papers are challenging and usually deal with science far outside of their comfort zone. Since we watched the plenary talk and learned as a class about the “and, but, therefore” technique, several of the students took it upon themselves to represent an entire paper with one full “A B T” phrase. Usually the phrase is a few sentences, sometimes it’s one run-on sentence. Although we are not requiring it, the students challenged each other, and we are finding that those who are able to boil down the essence of a whole publication into one “and, but, therefore” statement are the ones who really get it. And they are best capable of teaching others. We have been so impressed by their work.

I used to challenge my students to turn their own thesis research into a haiku. But I like this better. For one thing, it’s just easier. You don’t have to be quite as elegant, but you still have to do the thinking work of getting at the essence of a publication.

Has anyone else tried any similar approaches?

A slide from MLM L student Ashley Wheeler. Her “and … but… therefore” for Levitus et al., 291. “Anthropogenic Warming of the Earth’s Climate System” Science, vol 292.

A slide from MLM L student Ashley Wheeler. Her “and … but… therefore” for Levitus et al., 2001. “Anthropogenic Warming of the Earth’s Climate System” Science, vol 292.


Erika McPhee-Shaw, a coastal geographer, is an Associate Professor at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, San Jose State University and a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow.


Six Words: The Leopold Leadership Effect


Legend has it that when asked to write a full story in six words, novelist Ernest Hemingway responded: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” After coming across this quote in 2006, the online magazine Smith began the tradition of six-word memoirs to communicate stories. Several projects and books resulted, including Not Quite What I Was Planning. These in turn inspired National Public Radio to call for listeners’ comments on current issues using this concise form.

Six-word stories can make profound statements. NPR’s Race Card Project has many powerful examples, including “Ask who I am, not what” from Jessica Hong and “I ate pasta, family ate rice” from Melanie Vanderlipe RamilSmith magazine’s Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak range from romantic (“He sees the me I don’t”) to heartbreaking (“For the children, I remain his”). The newspaper Forward’s call for six-word memoirs about mothers yielded similarly profound statements such as Jennifer Glick’s (“Mother, our lady of perpetual dissatisfaction”) and Ari VanderWalde’s (“Strong, independent rethinker of tuna casserole”). And the poignant memoir by Jane Eisner, Forward‘s editor-in-chief, who had recently lost her mother: “I didn’t slip on the leaves.” Her story fills in the gaps: “I have this very strong memory of going to school in the morning and my mom exhorting me and my sister not to slip on the leaves. For many decades I thought that was kind of ridiculous, until of course I became a mother myself.”

In the spirit of succinct yet profound brevity and the desire to create a messages that are impactful, what follows are the six-word memoirs of the 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows with the call to explain how their training has changed them or their approach in communicating science.

“Building confidence and competence, cooperative capacity” – Max Boykoff

“Short tweetable thoughts increase science impact” – Trevor Branch

“Looking for answers? Just add water.” – Rich Camilli

“Effecting change? Leading, by always learning” – Kai Chan

“Rekindled passion for work and hope” – Jennifer Cherrier

“Complicated is easy, simple is hard” – Claudio Gratton

“Effective science leadership: some assembly required.” – Rees Kassen

“Exhilarating exhausting succinct and strategic metaphor” – Kevin Krizek

“Shift, reach, grow, new path forward” – Josh Lawler

“Speak to be heard. Not ignored.” – Stephen Porder

“Working on this; painstaking, plainspeaking relevance! – John Sabo

“Believe you can lead; others do.” – Lisa Schulte-Moore

“Doing policy-relevant science? Hard. Leopold helps.” – Noelle Selin

“Weaving stories of ocean and ice” – Fiamma Straneo

“Now I understand ‘service above self’.” – Jennifer Tank

“Amazing things happen in gear four.” – Laura Taylor

“Intense communication experience, eyes opened wide.” – David Valentine

And my six-word memoir? After finally gaining back lost confidence: “Crushed relentless trepidation, intimidated no more.”

What insights would you capture in six words? As you contemplate this, here are some “anonymous” entries I received: “Holy shit, what was I thinking?” “WHAT did I sign up for?” “I didn’t know there was homework” and “Never a dull moment with leopoldites.”

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Professor of Economics in the Economics and Finance Department in the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business and the Environmental Studies Department in the Fulton School of Liberal Arts at Salisbury University.