What was the last film that made you cry? What was the last photograph that haunted you? What was the last book that you couldn’t put down? What qualities did they have that made an impression on you?
Humans are wired for stories. They are infused in every aspect of our lives. They materialize as early as when we are toddlers and are linked to every known culture in the world. Stories capture the mosaic of life around us and open our eyes, cultivate understanding, transcend stereotypes and limitations, forge connections, and inspire action and global change.
Stories are so powerful, in fact, that they ignite a chemical reaction in our brains. A well-told story can cause our brains to synthesize oxytocin, a chemical sometimes called the “love hormone,” which makes us more empathetic and apt to feel connected to another person. Quite simply, storytelling is one of the most transformative tools to inspire others to think and act. It’s why storytelling is such an integral part of leadership. As psychologist Howard Gardner describes it, stories are “the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal.” It’s no coincidence then that some of the most well-known leaders in the world have also been captivating public speakers. Martin Luther King, Jr. Oprah Winfrey. Abraham Lincoln.
So if storytelling and leadership are undeniably powerful together, why is it that education systems rarely focus on developing storytelling skills at a young age? Even many of the photography courses I witnessed at high schools focused on the mechanics of the photo rather than the magic of the story. How should we equip young people with the ability to tell impactful stories—the kind of stories that will help them guide our planet toward a better future?
I asked four world-class storytellers—videographer Sandesh Kadur, photographer Erika Larsen, cartographer and infographic expert Kelsey Taylor, and audio producer Katie Thornton—for their thoughts. Collectively, they have decades of experience using media that are as diverse as our globe. From their insightful responses, three key themes emerged as ways to empower young people to make a mark on the world through the power of story.
1. Remind young people that they—like everyone—are natural storytellers.
Erika Larsen says that we can “help young people remember that, at the core, they have been engaging in story since they were born—and not only that, but that they are story. As plain as they are flesh, they are story.” Katie Thornton echoes this sentiment and emphasizes the ease of storytelling via social media, noting that “youth have been given tools to create short stories through Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat. But I think many young people are eager for more information, and to consume and create long-form media.” Educators can acknowledge that young people are already creating stories through their social media presences and prompt them to think about ways they can extend and expand their storytelling activities for good.
2. Encourage young people to look for threads of compelling stories in their everyday life—from what they’re curious about to what they care most about.
“Start by asking your students what they want to tell stories about, and who they want to hear from who might not already be represented in the curriculum or the media,” Thornton recommends. “Trust that your students have a unique insight into stories that need to be told—stories that the mainstream media or education system may be missing.”
Once young people have established their focus, help them build confidence in their idea. “Encourage them to trust their instincts and remember that only they have their unique perspective,” says Kelsey Taylor. “There are a lot of voices out there—I find it’s important for me to remember what makes mine unique.”
Sandesh Kadur agrees that young people have the power to find important stories, ones that only they are capable of telling. He advises them to “look through a different lens from what you are normally used to, or what you normally see around you. That will help shape your stories and make them more unique.” To help young people find meaningful stories that can make an impact on the planet, Kadur also advises educators to “encourage young people to get out there, explore the world around them, connect to people from different backgrounds, and face the harsh realities we live in. This can really open up their minds and not just see things for what they are, but also connect what they see to the underlying problems that most people don’t see.”
3. Help young people find the tools to bring their story to life.
Equally as important is finding the right medium to share the story. Larsen says one challenge for young people is choosing “tools that align with their personal expression of their vision and voice.”
The equipment does not have to be fancy, though. “With a few little tricks, students can get good quality audio on their cell phones,” Thornton says. Educators can encourage young people to use the tools they already use every day. “Reduce barriers to entry, and let your students dabble and practice without committing to a bunch of production training or expensive software. If they like telling stories, there are plenty of affordable ways to evolve into producing even higher quality work.”
We are all in the storytelling business, and it’s so versatile that I encourage everyone to ask themselves: How can I encourage the young people in my life to find the stories that are personally meaningful to them? What are the stories that motivate? That provide contextualization or connection? Young people are shaping our future in countless ways, so what better way to lift up their efforts than through the unifying power of story?