In C205 Business Writing Honors, we focus on developing audience-centered, persuasive, concise, and precise messages—mostly in writing but often in presentation and team meeting contexts, as well. Students learn to organize simple and more complex messages into stories that appeal to the needs, values, and communication styles of their audiences and readers. In this ungraded exercise, roughly mid-way through the semester, we begin to use “story as evidence”—to recognize the power of emotional evidence to connect and persuade. In previous semesters, the students told a story “of a time when you felt your life change.” In 2020, in response to the need for open discussions about critical DEIJ issues, I adapted this exercise to meet the changing needs of our community. Before the storytelling day, we include “story” as an organizing tool for arguments primarily based on logical evidence; after the storytelling day, the students include stories as evidence within their most complex assignment of the semester—a detailed and visually appealing report offering a real client a concrete, doable recommendation to help the client ethically grow its business. This exercise would not need to be included within a business communication course to be effective, however. In any course in which story is either an organizing principle or a form of evidence, the practice of students sharing their own stories will help them learn the powerful tool of storytelling.
- Canvas Message: Explain the exercise in advance on Canvas to help students prepare well for the exercise (rather than only announcing it aloud and/or announcing it on the day of the discussion). I wrote this explanation on Canvas:
- In Thursday's class next week, you'll tell a story in class that reveals a time when you experienced or witnessed racism or other discrimination or inequality. In your 2-minute story, please try to connect personally as you tell your story at your team’s table (or online: in your team's breakout room) through use of your nonverbals (eye contact, face, gestures, posture, and voice), emotional sincerity, and sensitive, clear language choices. As with all stories, you will impact an audience with what you say and how you say it. Your story should include “a point” for the audience that you can share at the beginning or end of the story for a complete argument (claim + evidence). I'll share a sample story and we can talk about the goals of the exercise in Tuesday’s class before our storytelling day. I’m open to answering all questions!
- Write First: When the students are in the room on the story day, I ask them to write briefly in their own notes the topic/setting/characters of their personal story, the main point of the story for their classmates, and the emotion they hope to reveal when they tell the story. This request ensures everyone is ready and reduces the likelihood that they change their story to match another students’ story after the stories begin.
- Arrange Room: For small classes, the students could arrange their chairs into a large circle to tell their stories OR they could come to the front of the room one at a time to tell their story. For larger classes, the students could tell their stories in small groups at team tables (my students work all semester in 6-person teams and know each other well before this exercise). I ask them to arrange their chairs in an even circle so they can look in each other’s eyes as they talk and listen.
- Tell Stories: While the teams tell stories in person, I roll a chair over to listen in and continue moving so that I rarely hear an entire story. I warn the students I will do this so they don’t feel like I lost interest in their story—and I tell them I hope to catch a little of each story. In truth, I’m hoping to catch or discourage a harmful story through my continued presence (or online: I rotate quickly through the Breakout Rooms for the same reason). I have not yet caught an inappropriate or harmful story, but I recognize it is always possible.
- Select One Story: When the students finish (usually one team at a time), if time remains, I check in and ask each team to talk briefly to decide together which student should retell their story to the entire class. In my class, four students typically retell their stories, and usually these stories ARE the most impactful—the teams choose well.
- Debrief the Experience: After the four students tell their stories to the entire class, we debrief the experience: I ask the students to write in their notes one takeaway they could also share with the entire class in a moment and later might share with their friends or family over the weekend. Then I cold call several students often based on facial expressions that reveal they have ideas to share.
- Past takeaways were as general as “Racism is more common than I thought” to more specifically “One comment meant as a joke can hurt a person for the rest of their life,” and of course dozens of other takeaways. Many of the students shared their personal identities with each other, including that some who appear “white” do not identify that way (two students with light skin and European features told childhood stories of strangers trying to “save them” from their non-white-identifying parents) and many told stories of overt and more subtle racism from their classmates, families, teachers, coaches, coworkers, and community members.
Debrief the Power of Storytelling: In the final moments of class, I ask the students to consider what makes a great story based on our shared experience today in class. I often need to call on students to answer this question, and I add in a few items they might miss (e.g. audience-centered language, clear organization, brevity, personal tone, sincere emotion, clear characters and setting, action, results of action, and a takeaway for the audience).
In addition to the takeaways from the stories themselves, students use and reflect on the basics of effective storytelling (see #7 above). Of course, these stories/discussions are “uncomfortable,” but that is also by design, and the students recognize that and embrace it. In most classes, students commented that the only way we can end systemic racism is to see it and address it. I feel comfortable that none of the stories or our subsequent discussion appeared to harm a student, and many students expressed their gratitude for a meaningful way to grow closer to their classmates and to talk through issues they see and rarely discuss.
- I would suggest that ALL students be required to tell a story to ensure the learning goals for storytelling are met; however, you might excuse a student from telling a personal story if they request it, to ensure the students feel safe in your classroom.
- You might need to tell your students “no video recording allowed.” That’s a standard rule in my classroom, so I did not say it again with this exercise.
- Depending on your students, your teaching style, and the environment of your course, you might need to offer even more flexibility with this exercise—perhaps you could have students write about their personal observation or experience (instead of telling the story aloud), then share their writing anonymously with another student, and finally ask them to respond anonymously to this student. You would need to read all items before sharing them with students—both the stories and the responses—which could be time consuming and would also leave permanent artifacts (which can make some students more uncomfortable then telling stories aloud).