22 July 2024

Future-proofing yourself via storytelling

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By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nahrizul Adib Kadri

“Storytelling is not just a nice thing to do for entertainment. It’s the foundational skill of the future. It is the currency of leadership and the currency of innovation.” – Shawn Achor, an author and speaker.

“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” – Robert McKee, author and screenwriting instructor.

Achor and McKee are not the first ones to note the importance of storytelling in many parts of our lives. Our global popular culture is basically built on the foundations of good storytelling; from William Shakespeare’s plays to Pixar’s latest animated films.

But what exactly is storytelling?

It is basically the act of sharing a story, either through written or oral means. It can involve narrating a sequence of events, characters, and settings, often with the aim of entertaining or informing an audience. Storytelling has been a part of human culture for thousands of years and is used in various contexts, including literature, film, theatre, and oral traditions such as folktales and myths. It can be a powerful way to engage an audience, convey ideas, and transmit cultural values and traditions.

Even in Malay culture, storytelling played an integral part in the transmission of cultural values and traditions from one generation to the next. One form of storytelling that is important in Malay culture is the pantun, which is a traditional Malay poem that is often used to convey moral lessons or to express emotions. Pantuns are often recited or sung, and they often have a rhyming structure and a repetitive pattern. Another form of storytelling that is important in Malay culture is the dongeng, which is a traditional folktale that is passed down from generation to generation. Dongengs often feature fantastical elements such as magical creatures and supernatural beings, and they are often used to teach moral lessons or to provide explanations for natural phenomena.

photo of library with turned on lights
Stories are only as good as its storytelling. Pic by Unsplash.

With such an important role, surely it is a required skill for any generation in any given culture to have it nurtured, to ensure the said society’s longevity and sustainability. So, can the skills be learned and passed on?

Fortunately, storytelling is a skill that can be learned and developed over time. While some people may be naturally gifted at telling stories, anyone can learn the techniques and skills needed to become a good storyteller.

There are various techniques and strategies that can be used to improve storytelling skills. These can include using descriptive language, using gestures and facial expressions to convey emotion, using a variety of tones and inflections in the voice, and using imagery and symbolism to engage the audience.

To become a good storyteller, it is also important to practice and develop one’s storytelling skills. This can be done by telling stories to a variety of audiences, such as friends and family, and by seeking feedback and guidance from others. Reading stories and watching other skilled storytellers can also be a helpful way to learn and improve storytelling skills.

There are a few key indicators to tell that you are a good storyteller. One is that you are able to hold your audience’s attention and engage them in the story. Another indicator of good storytelling is the ability to convey a clear and well-structured story; or the ability to connect with your audience emotionally. Telling an original story can also be a good measure of good storytelling, as it demonstrates the ability to create and structure a story effectively. However, it is also possible to be a good storyteller by retelling or adapting existing stories in a creative and engaging way.

One endearing storytelling technique that can be adaptable in so many ways and formats is the Shakespeare’s Three-Act structure. The structure, which is also known as the “Hero’s Journey,” is a narrative structure that is commonly used in storytelling. It consists of three main parts: the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. You might even notice it in the form of similarities of narratives found in various popular films, from the Star Wars franchise to the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In the setup, the story introduces the main characters, establishes the setting, and presents the conflict or problem that will be the focus of the story. In the confrontation, the main character(s) face challenges and obstacles as they try to solve the conflict or problem. In the resolution, the main character(s) either succeed or fail in their efforts to solve the conflict or problem, and the story concludes with a resolution.

There are a number of reasons why the three-act structure is enduring. First, it is highly flexible and can be adapted to fit a variety of stories and genres. Secondly, it follows a familiar and intuitive pattern that resonates with audiences, thus making the story more engaging and easier for the audience to follow. Thirdly, because it allows for the development of complex and well-rounded characters, which can make the story more engaging and meaningful to the audience.

Yes, the example storytelling technique presented here might be more suitable for entertainment purposes; but do not forget that in every part of our lives, we are living in a world built upon languages. From business transactions to our personal beliefs, every part of our lives is governed by some form of written texts; from the various laws to the sacred books. And effective ways and methods of transmitting these, especially through good storytelling, will forever become an important part of our lives.

In short, storytelling is definitely a powerful and meaningful way to preserve and understand humanity. By hook or by crook, equip yourself with it; for it is the only way to future-proofing ourselves.

The author is the Director of Corporate Communications Centre, Universiti Malaya. He may be reached at nahrizuladib@um.edu.my