How Listening Shapes Your Stories

How Listening Shapes Your Stories

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Increased literacy, critical thinking, empathy, and cultural learning are all connected to storytelling, which starts with listening.

As a professional storyteller, I have witnessed firsthand the power a well-chosen and well-told story can have on my audiences—from toddlers barely able to walk, to middle school students too cool for school, to three generations of families sitting in huge storytelling festivals, delighted to hear my stories.

Storytelling is how I make a living and support my family. My father from Cuba tells me nearly every time I talk with him, “Mi’jo (my son), it’s amazing you make a living as a storyteller, because you are only the tenth-best storyteller in our family.”

My mom would rebuke him by saying, in her inimitable Boston accent, “That’s true, but Antonio is the best listener in the family.”

I am the son of a Cuban father and an Irish-American mother, or like one of my Mexican friends calls me, a leprecano. Both sides of my family taught me by example the value of a well-told story in maintaining family connection and traditions, as well as provided me with countless stories that form the core of my repertoire.

But more importantly, as a father of two young children ages 10 and 7, storytelling is a part of the fabric of our day. My wife and I use stories with our children to delight, connect, and yes, teach. Equally, we model the deep listening that can happen when we ask them to tell us their own stories.

My own children become a test audience for stories that I am working on, both personal stories about being a bicultural, bilingual dad and husband living in Los Angeles, and ancient folk tales and myths from many cultures, specifically the Spanish-speaking cultures of Cuba and Mexico. I know a story is almost ready if my daughter giggles and says, “Tell it again!” I know it’s not ready if my son says, “Nearly there, Dad. Keep working!”

Recently, I’ve been looking much more deeply into why the stories I tell and the stories I hear my colleagues tell have such a powerful, profound effect on our audiences, and our own children.

People told stories long before writing was invented, and it turns out our brains are actually hard-wired for story. There is a mountain of research on the neuroscience behind why we love and need stories. Northwestern University published a study that shows that family stories told by loved ones can have a positive effect on the brains of Alzheimer patients and those in comas.

Many teachers understand the power of what happens when they put down the book and tell the story, or even better, tell stories of their own lives: a connection is formed that makes students more engaged and ready to learn.

There is much research supporting this as well, linking storytelling with increased literacy, critical thinking, empathy, and cultural learning. Many school districts nationwide have storytelling in their standards across their curriculums in many grade levels.

In my work with parents and teachers toward creating and telling stories more effectively, I often have to convince them that their own stories can be more powerful than any screen their children would say they would rather watch.

"In my work with parents and teachers toward creating and telling stories more effectively, I often have to convince them that their own stories can be more powerful than any screen their children would say they would rather watch."

Storytelling is a folk art, not a fine art—if you can talk, you can tell a story. Because we live our stories, we sometimes forget how powerful they are, and think that others might not want to listen to them.

How can you hook young listeners? Or old listeners for that matter? First of all, think of the three or four people who matter most to you in your life, living or dead. Who are they? What do they look like? What do they sound like? What do they smell like? Do your children know how important those people are to you?

Now, think of the places where you most associate those people. Do you see them in your mind inside or outside? Sitting or standing? Again, focus on some sensory details of that place. Bring your listeners there. The specifics don’t matter. Did your grandmother’s kitchen smell like oregano or cumin? If you don’t remember, don’t sweat it, just paint the picture. What did it feel like? What do you hear, all these years later?

Then, the real compelling questions are, what did that person want or need that they couldn’t have, and how did they get it? What transformations did they undergo as they lived their lives? How did they become a teacher or a firefighter, or a citizen of this country? How did they survive hardships and heartache, successes and failures?

I think of the dozens of people I’m related to, the close friends I’ve had at every age, the teammates and neighbors and friends, and I share these stories with my own family. I use my face and body expressively and do the best I can to speak with the colorful accent and vocabulary that those people would use. I’m no voice mimic, but I’ve found if I think I’m talking like my uncle or my aunt or my grandmother, I can sound a little bit like them, and my children just love it.

Lastly, I visit my local library a few times a year and ask my local superhero (or librarian) to help me find the folk tales and myths from the cultures I come from and admire. My own family didn’t pass on these types of stories, and I’ve found much wisdom, humor, and inspiration from them.

So, what will happen if you give storytelling a chance in your house? What happens if you declare part of a long car ride a screen-free storytelling zone for five minutes? Ten minutes? I think you’ll find children eager and willing to listen. They might even remember the stories you tell and retell them when they get older for money, although I can’t promise that.

What I can promise is that you will create memories your children will remember long after they forget about whatever YouTube channel they are entranced with now, and along the way, build their literacy skills and strengthen your own family bonds.

Think outside the book. Try five ways to share your story beyond the printed page.

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