February 17, 2017

Telling True Stories

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Story telling is not just about fiction and fabrication. Good scholars are gifted at telling compelling true stories using data from research findings.

If you think about a book or article that you have read or a class you have taken that made a big impact, chances are good that the author or instructor had a knack for telling a story that you were interested in hearing. They draw you in, convincing you that their story is important, and encourage you to stick with them to learn what they have learned.

Sociology at its best is good storytelling: researchers who are skilled at convincing us why the issues they investigate are important, how their findings can inform us more about this issue and walk us through the complexities and even contradictions of their research produce work that is exciting to read. They bring to life the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction, or at least more interesting.

What are some markers of good storytelling? And what can we learn from storytellers to write better papers—both as students and scholars? How can those of us who are instructors learn from good storytellers to improve our courses?

I am constantly striving to be a better storyteller, so note that by writing this blog post I am in no way suggesting that I have mastered the art of storytelling. Here are some things I have observed, and I try to put them into practice in my writing and teaching:

  1. Have a hook

Whether you are writing a paper for a class, submitting to a journal, or giving a lecture, don’t assume your audience is interested. Yes, this is even true of your professor who might have assigned the paper that you wrote. And as instructors, we know from the myriad of yawns and generally bored expressions that just because students may be tested on information, they aren’t automatically interested.

A good hook can be an intriguing question or riddle, something that might seem obvious that actually isn’t. It may be a twist on some generally agreed upon conventional wisdom. It could be an anecdote or a video clip about something seemingly unrelated but interesting. For instance, in one class I sometimes ask students about what they recall about the university’s student orientation to get them thinking about how one becomes a member of a new group. They generally like sharing their opinions about this experience—the more your reader or audience can relate something you are sharing to their own lives, the more interested they will get.

We should think about this from the time that we conceptualize a course or a paper to understand why we want someone to pay attention to our ideas. And we have to follow through on the promise implied in the hook.

  1. Know your audience

In order to craft a good hook, you have to know your audience. Here’s where a lot of us stumble in the classroom: we teach to the students we once were rather than to the students we have in front of us. Or we don’t even try to draw the audience’s attention. We presume that they have to pay attention because there will be a test. Sometimes we want to prove to our audience that we deserve to be there and work hard to impress them with how much we know, but can end up boring them in the process.

Likewise, when students write papers for a course they don’t think much about telling a story their reader will find interesting, but are also trying to impress them. Both students and instructors can appeal to their readers through good storytelling, not by using four-syllable SAT words just for the sake of appearing smart. Why should the reader want to read your paper? Yes, they have to, but a paper that is interesting will be much better received from any reader.

  1. What story—or stories—do the data reveal?

Social scientists have the benefit of data; unlike novelists, we don’t have to make things up, we just have to explore what our findings mean and discuss them in a way that responds to the promise of our hook.

If you are writing a paper, you need to do more than just report the findings, you need to explain what they mean and why they matter. One of the most common uses of data that I see in students’ papers is a dry report: “Here are the numbers I found. Here are some quotes from interviews.”

Tell the story of the data: is there a long-term trend that we can observe? A change from an expected pattern? If so, what does this mean? And most importantly, why does any of this matter? Why should the reader/listener be interested?

Sometimes as professors we forget that we need to do more than just ask students to learn that particular patterns exist and ask them to repeat these patterns for a test. As students, it’s easy to presume that your professor or teaching assistant know what research findings mean, so there is no need to explain why they matter.

When we remember the importance of story telling, we are likely to write better papers and provide more engaging classroom experiences. Students and professors: what do you think make stories more interesting as readers and listeners?


I think that stories can make more interesting as readers and listeners more fun is to read to them and to know what is stories is about and what topic you are going to talked about too.

I think a little fabrication is important in keeping someone interested in a story you are telling if the story happens to be long. Not saying someone should exaggerate the truth so much, but make the story interesting.

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