Action-Reflection Action-Reflection

The ACRL final keynote speech was my first opportunity to hear from Ira Glass, the host of the public radio program This American Life. Glass used his presentation to give us a feel for how he puts together both his radio show and the stories he features there. There were many fans in the audience, and it was a really great talk – and great way to bring the conference to a close.

The one aspect of the talk – I wouldn’t exactly call it a presentation – that most resonated with me was Glass’s discussion of telling stories. I’ve heard a number of good storytellers, and it’s fascinating when someone does it well. There’s not much storytelling at library conferences. I’d look forward to more of it because I imagine the presenters have interesting stories to share. Perhaps the reason it happens so rarely is evidenced in the comment of an audience member. She said that even though she can write just about any type document she couldn’t tell a story to save her life. Few librarians have opportunities to tell stories, and if you feel little confidence in your ability to tell a story it will fail. Glass used the book “One Thousand and One Nights” to provide an example of two things: how to tell a story and what a great story should accomplish.

Glass’ advice was to stick to a simple formula. Give an action. Then give a reflection. An action. Then a reflection. In other words, tell some story and then interject some meaning. But the action has to get the audience’s attention and keep them wondering what’s going to happen next. That’s the hook according to Glass. It’s not unlike a good joke. First you have some bait to get the listener hooked. Then there’s a series of facts that leads to a crescendo – the punchline. Other tips from Glass include using suspense to keep the listener wondering what happens next; aim for a point that relates to a universal human experience; avoid starting with a “here’s what I’m going to do” message because it eliminates the ability to build suspense. Probably the best instructor I ever had was a master at telling a story or sharing an anecdote from his many years of experience in higher education, but he’d quickly relate it to a theoretical point he wanted us to learn. Then he’d move from theory to another story. Waiting for the next story made it easy to get through those late night classes.

Few if any of us are naturally gifted story tellers. Becoming a better story teller, just like presenting well at any level, requires authentic practice. I’m trying to incorporate more storytelling in to my presentations – I wrote that in my post – just tell the story. Don’t worry so much about whether there are 10 or 11 words on a slide or if it has the right colors or images – well – if you’re going to use images they better fit what you are saying. Better yet, use images that help tell the story. We talk about how librarians can be better presenters. Perhaps focusing more on the story, and letting your images provide the backdrop is one way to do that.

Of course, it’s all going to depend on having good stories. Sometimes storytellers will depend on old folks tales. Sometimes it’s just something that happened to you. Good stories are all around us, but you have to keep your eyes and ears open for them. Perhaps something interesting happened at your reference desk or during an instruction session. For a presentation I’m preparing on the topic of entrepreneurship I found a nice little story to illustrate the importance of exploring new ideas that fall outside the boundaries of your official job duties. I came across it in a magazine that has nothing to do with librarianship. It can help to get outside our literature in search of potential stories. The catch is to find stories that lead into reflections that relate to the presentation topic – and that drive home the points without the “bullet points”.

Glass finished by reminding us that the Internet is full of stories – thousands of them. We are inundated with them. Some really inspire us. Others have a falseness to them. He said we know when we hear an authentic story because we can really empathize with it and it’s much more profound. A good story helps you sort out what’s real and what isn’t, and it makes you feel a bit saner. That’s why Glass likes to create stories for the radio – because it’s all about sharing a voice.

So I’m going to end this by pointing to a few videos – here, here and here – in which I share some stories. It’s an effort to get authentic practice. Keep in mind that I’m still learning how to do this, and working at improving my craft. I’m sure you can find other examples on the Internet of people – maybe even some librarians – telling stories. If you find a good one, share it with us.

5 thoughts on “Action-Reflection Action-Reflection”

  1. “Few librarians have opportunities to tell stories…” Really?! Maybe in the academic field, but there are MANY librarians who tell stories on a daily basis. Academic librarians need to let go of the imagined hierarchy in librarianship and collaborate with their colleagues in public and school libraries to improve in this area.

  2. Nice post, Steven!

    Not that any of us can hope to equal the sublime genius of This American Life, but I think that, for your three stories to constitute authentic practice, you have to go beyond the talking-head approach. You have to incorporate interesting visual elements, or music, or something.

    Also, TAL comes off as very informal, with ums, ers, and other elements of off-the-cuff monologues. But you can bet that Ira Glass and company have edited and re-edited these to an insane degree. So I think the ideal is to seem artless while putting a great deal of time into the production, the delivery of the story. That kind of investment, I would guess, would also be part of authentic practice.

    Bravo that you posted these practice stories. That’s awesome. And yes, I agree with the poster above who notes how much academic librarians can learn in the way of storytelling from, say, a children’s librarian, who pretty much tells stories for a living.

  3. I took Storytelling while enrolled in my LS program, and it was great for this. We actually had to tell a story in public (most folks went to public libraries), which was way more nerve wracking than any other presentation or job interview. It was excellent training, and I recommend it even for aspiring academic librarians.

  4. It sounds like Ira Glass has taken “Sermons 101” at some seminary somewhere. . . Attention-getter, what you’ll cover. Story. Reflection. Story. Reflection. Personalize. Broaden. Summarize. Big ending!

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