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Challenge for Liberal Arts Communicators: Telling True Stories Well

We have data about the value of liberal arts education. What we need now are powerful stories that helps people understand and relate to its personal and societal benefits.

January 12, 2017
 

“What matters now isn't storytelling; what matters is telling a true story well.”

That’s one of Ann Handley’s observations from Everybody Writes, her book about creating compelling online stories. Though I might amend it slightly to read: “What matters now isn't data; what matters is telling a true story well.”

I was thinking about this while I was listening to Rick Detweiler’s session “From Learning to Life" at CIC’s Presidents Institute last week. Detweiler provided an overview of research that supports the value of liberal arts education based on interviews with 1,000 college graduates ranging from 30-65 in age. One of his findings is how valuable the context of the liberal arts educational experience is. The interactions outside of class with other students and with faculty, different approaches to teaching and learning, arguments with classmates, and more are very important at shaping an individual’s future success and happiness.

It’s not as if we haven’t heard some of this before. There’s other data available. There are plenty of opeds asserting how important a liberal arts education is for people in business and tech.

So we have data about the value of the liberal arts. And we have personal anecdotes aplenty. So why is it so easy for naysayers to dismiss its value?

We need more than data

Since I came home from the Presidents Institute, I’ve looked at a lot of websites from liberal arts colleges. There are often plenty of stories but most are merely interesting, not particularly compelling.

And it occurred to me: maybe we’re having less impact because the stories we are telling suck. Lots of storytelling, few well told.

While data can indeed influence us, a true story told well has the power to persuade us in ways that data can’t. And the thoughtful combination of video and audio with great text and photos enhances a story and makes it more compelling and effective, allowing marketers to add nuance and context to data.

Consider “A Living Laboratory” from the University of Washington. It’s about a student who spent six weeks in Alaska studying how grizzly bears consume sockeye salmon. The story was produced for the University’s fundraising website and though I don’t have a personal connection to the student profiled, the UW, or even an interest in the research itself, I was absorbed by it. A story well told, indeed.

What we need as part of our stories about the liberal arts is not simply an outline of what jobs someone’s had, but examples of how their education prepared them to think differently, challenged them to learn quickly about something new they encountered, or helped them to understand another’s point of view because they listened deeply to what someone else was saying. We need to hear attributes like these reinforced through the words of people who’ve learned and lived the experience for themselves.

This isn’t an easy task. These stories are nuanced and not always easy to tell. It takes time, effort, and skill to tell a story well.

Those of us who believe that the liberal arts matter — and deliver tremendous value to people and to society — will have to work harder at being better storytellers. I believe the result will be worthwhile: as Paul J. Zak has noted, “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains.”

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