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The Value of Storytelling Leslie Sinclair

In the last week of August of both 2018 and 2019, a small group of Ryerson students who had previously participated in Thriving in Action, a resilience and study skills program, embarked on a four-night guided canoe trip (Portage) in Algonquin Provincial Park. Most of the participants had little or no camping or portaging experience, and many did not know each other prior to their trips. During these trips, intense bonds formed between the paddlers as they challenged themselves mentally and physically, worked together to manage camp, and slept in intimate proximity to one another. Following Portage, the paddlers participated in a group storytelling exercise facilitated by Student Affairs staff. This research explored the processes and effects of storytelling following those shared experiences.

Research Questions

  • How did individuals experience the storytelling project?
  • What value is there in conducting storytelling projects after a shared experience?
  • Could this type of storytelling project serve in a workplace setting as a method of team building or conflict resolution?

Method

I conducted an arts-based phenomenological study of four subjects who had both participated in the 2018 and 2019 Portage excursions and completed a storytelling project. Having paddled in 2018, I was effectively a fifth subject. As it was to the original Portage storytelling process, creating an artifact was important to my research. Brummet (2006) contends that "part of the meaning of an artifact is its connection with a group" (p. 18).

"Artifacts are charged with meaning, but many of those meanings bespeak (that is, speak of or speak for) our identifications with groups. You need not be a member of a given group to understand an artifact that manifests that group identification, but it helps. That is to say, being a member of the group allows you to appreciate more of the meanings, and to understand the ways in which the artifact is standing in for the group as a whole" (Brummet, 2006, p. 19).

In a series of qualitative interviews, therefore, we created a mobile, a communal artifact, while we discussed the subjects' original storytelling projects and experience.

Analysis

Fiddian-Green, Kim, Gubrium, Larkey & Peterson (2019) note that there is a small body of literature that considers the "experience of creating and communicating a personal story" (p. 502). This work views the process of composing a narrative that integrates the emotions associated with an experience as granting "individuals a sense of control and emotional acceptance, facilitating goal setting that can support improved overall health" (Fiddian-Green et al., 2019, p. 502). How the process of creating and sharing a personal story is linked to these positive outcomes, however, is not as well understood (Fiddian-Green et al., 2019, p. 503). One hypothesis relates to the way in which writing assists in the construction of memories. Cabillas (2014) contends that while "narrative dynamics are emplaced at the moment of writing, the perspectives involved are open to our past, our future, and to different and coexisting presents" (p. 310). Writing involves "mediating and actively participating in" a negotiation with the narrative dynamics of representing an event and the meanings associated with that event, a process that determines the final version of memory (Cabillas, 2014, p. 310). For Cabillas (2014), the stories that comprise one's memory are both retrieved from the past and "emerging realities that require decisions involving dialogical dynamics at the present of writing" (p. 314). I sought to explore this hypothesis in my conversations about storytelling. Four themes emerged from these conversations: Group communication, creativity, time, and value.

Conclusion

Humans are natural storytellers, even if they may not think of themselves as such. My research revealed that conducting a storytelling project in the wake of a shared experience has tremendous value as a communication tool, whether that communication is directed outwardly or inwardly. Even subjects who reported a fraught relationship with their project expressed positive feelings for some aspect of the process. Key benefits for participants included social bonding, increased capacity for retaining memories, integration of experience, and for some, the ability to take the first tentative steps toward thinking of themselves as creative. Offering a storytelling project has the same benefits within a workplace as it does for the post-secondary students studied. When employees are able to share something that is genuine and different than they might typically feel comfortable expressing at work, the organization is better able to support them.

A Model for Storytelling Projects

  • Propose the project in a way that allows people to be intrinsically motivated to participate
  • Acknowledge that what you are asking them to do is an imposition
  • Define the scope and purpose of the project
  • Ensure meetings are opportunities to work and share
  • Push creative boundaries, but not so far that it becomes a burden to acquire necessary skills
  • Construct the timeline to be either very short (one or two sessions) or long enough that an individual can realistically complete a substantial project, allowing for multiple draft stages

Leslie Sinclair is an experienced writer and professional communicator. After co-writing two annual reports for an indigenous womens' resource centre as a freelancer, she was compelled to return to university to pursue corporate storytelling as a career. As a non-fiction writer, her primary beats are feminism, technology, and subculture. Passionate about pushing underrepresented voices forward through communications and social media, she ultimately hopes to work as a communicator in a helping agency. Leslie is graduating from Ryerson University with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Communication and a minor in sociology.

Contact me: lsinclair@ryerson.ca

Credits:

MD, JH, RM, NP & JB