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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Story Telling Part One: Essential Components of Storytelling

Anthony Bloome, Peace Corps Information Communications and Technology Specialist, interviews Peace Corps Deputy Director Jody Olsen about the essential components of story telling, speaking in classrooms, using different medias in story telling, and reflection on the impact of the volunteer experience.

Anthony Bloome
Hi. I'm Anthony Bloome, and welcome back for our ICT Tech podcast series. We're delighted to have with us today one of Peace Corps's master storytellers, Deputy Director Jody Olsen. Jody, you were a volunteer?
Jody Olsen
Yes, I was a volunteer in Tunisia.
Anthony Bloome
In Tunisia. But also has played an incredibly important role in helping tell Peace Corps's story. But beyond that, we thought we'd take a few moments to get Jody's suggestions about what it means to be an effective storyteller, both in terms of currently serving volunteers but also returned Peace Corps Volunteers. So, Jody, let me just start by welcoming you. Thank you so much for being a part of this.
Jody Olsen
Well, thank you. I'm pleased to be here.
Anthony Bloome
And maybe just starting off with, what do you think are the essential components of effective storytelling, Jody?
Jody Olsen
Okay, like many returned volunteers, as many of you know, you come home, and you start your story, and the eyes glaze over, and someone serves you the mashed potatoes, and tells you about Aunt Nellie, and you hadn't even gotten to the point of chewing the chicken bones like you used to do in Togo, and you say, "Why is my story not going well?" Well, I've learned the hard way, at least some of the ways that you try to make a story interesting. Two or three elements that I think about with good story telling is one: be very specific. That, a story works when it can come to life in the person's mind. And, an odd example is that I often tell the story about visiting a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, in a village—well, not a village, actually a town—that's near the Russian border. And, the story is about how Travis really integrated into the community. But, I begin the story by saying, "This town was the pencil capital of the former Soviet Union." Now, that has absolutely nothing to do with the story I'm going to tell, but mentioning it that it was "the pencil capital of the former Soviet Union" and every kid that took a test throughout the Soviet Union got a pencil from this town; it makes the town a real town. It's something that the listener can relate to even though it doesn't quite have anything to do with the story. So you look for a few of those specifics that have a lot of images that go with them so that people can fill in the spaces and be with you in the story. Second, I think good stories have an element of surprise in them, and in order to encourage a surprise and communicate through a surprise, I tend to build a story from the back to the front. That, I think about, "What is the point I want to make?" And, in that point, I write the point out, and I think, "How do I build the story to make it to that point so that there's an 'a-ha!' moment at the point that you get to the last line of the story?" And you can make the story long or short, as long as you save that it's the equivalent of a punch line in a joke. But it's that moment that you've got that well-crafted sentence at the end that people go, "Wow, okay. I get that!" And then, third, keep the story very short. I try very hard to keep it to four or five sentences, so that the potatoes haven't passed me too many times before I finally get to talk about those chicken bones that I used to eat in Togo. So, keep the story short; keep them very specific. But, specific and detailed does not mean a lot of detail or too much detail. You're finding those one or two points that really bring it all to life, and then make sure that you have a point to it.
Anthony Bloome
That's terrific, Jody, in terms of some suggestions about effective story telling. Now, in your years with Peace Corps as a volunteer and as staff and in other areas as well, can you talk about the importance of effective storytelling across the three goals of Peace Corps, because it seems storytelling is not just an abstract in terms of telling a good story; it's also an important part of the Peace Corps experience.
Jody Olsen
Well, I have a particular bias, Tony, as you probably know, namely that not only is storytelling an important part of Peace Corps, it's the only part of Peace Corps. That we love to say, often many of us, that there are 190,000 experiences in Peace Corps and that each one of us that has had a two-year—or whatever amount of time we spend overseas—whatever that experience is, that's ours. We own it. Nobody else owns it. It belongs to us. We have rights to it, and we have rights to tell it. What the other part of why a story is so important to the Peace Corps experience is that we're not about quantifiable measures. We're not about numbers of chickens that we helped feed or the numbers of gardens that the volunteers in Togo planted. And when I ask a volunteer in Togo about the garden experience, he goes to that one student who got it and the student who came to his house and asked for the seeds and took them back and had them planted and had the headmaster go, "Wow, you actually planted those seeds." That's what he says; that's what his impact is; that's what the outcome is. And so, we are about sharing that impact, and because of the three goals, the impact is about a human-to-human interaction. And that human-to-human interaction is best communicated through a story. And the, you know, whether, I tell many stories about trying to teach fourteen-year-old Tunisian boys English when it's their fourth language, and they're not sure why they're in that class. But it's not "this is what I was trying to do;" it's a story about how I tried to do it, unsuccessfully. And yet, when people say, "And what was the other part of your experience?" I talk about, you know, breaking the fast at Ramadan every day with the family that I ate with for two years. And, but in that, it's not "well, I broke the fast with them," because people can't relate to that very well. It's the gong that I hear, that I'm in the classroom; I run down the hill; the family's sitting around the table; they've got their forks ready to eat, and they were waiting for me to come through the door before breaking the fast to start to eat. And then you can talk about, with a certain amount of detail, what each dish looked like as it came out. That's what connects, in that case, goal two with people who were listening. And obviously you come home, and goal three is critical through stories because that's how you connect what the experience in another country is; the culture of another country is linked with experiences of Americans. And, you know, I can say that I taught forty fourteen-year-old boys in five different classes for a year, but that doesn't tell anybody what it was to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. It's finding the story so that the person who's listening can connect with the experience.