Telling stories

Ed at AAM

Ed Rodley tells his story at the American Alliance of Museums conference in Seattle.

One of the highlights of my time at the American Alliance of Museums 2014 conference was the storytelling panel that Seattle-based exhibit planner Judy Rand and I organized. AAM included a “storytelling” format this year in the call for proposals, and we thought it’d be interesting to put together something that wasn’t the usual “people sitting behind a table talking while the slides went by” kind of presentation. Judy suggested we explore the power of storytelling based on the model of The Moth Radio Hour. I suggested the theme of “The thing I wished they’d told me when I started in museums.”

Ed AAM Tweet

Over the next few months, we expanded our roster of speakers to include Catherine Hughes, director of interpretation at the Connor Prairie Museum and Nina Simon, executive director of the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz. Catherine’s an actress, while Nina’s a former slam poet. We knew they’d rise to the challenge of telling compelling stories within pretty rigid time limits. I don’t think I’ve ever spent as much time practicing a conference presentation, cutting and tightening, as I did for the eight minutes I was alone in front of a room full of my peers telling my story.

The stories were amazing. Judy told of her intense shyness in public and of the revelation of taking a personality test to discover that it classified her a “people person.” Catherine described her love of museum work as an addiction and drew out a number of very funny, if slightly disturbing, analogies between her career path and an addict’s. Trust me, it was good. Nina told the story of her struggles as a new museum director with detractors in the community and what it means to really be an activist instead of just talking about it. I told the story of my own realization that what you were willing to learn was more important than what you already knew.

the storytellers at AAM

The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed and Catherine

When we asked the 200-odd people in the room to pair up and tell each other a two-minute story, the noise level was deafening. Instead of having the usual question and answer session at the end, we invited audience members to come and share their stories with the audience. It was great! The size and enthusiasm of the audience was testimony about the power of storytelling.

Storytelling is a hot topic

Do a search on “storytelling tips” or “how to tell a better story” and you’ll get back an avalanche of content promising to help you. You can find storytelling guides for game developers, web developers, publishers, filmmakers, writers, marketers and museum folks. One of the most widely disseminated started off in 2011 as a series of Tweets from writer and story artist Emma Coats, then at Pixar. She posted 22 “story basics” that have been posted and re-posted, incorporated into books and used in countless storytelling workshops, ours included. Number four became the basis of the audience activity at our session.  If you’re interested in storytelling, follow Emma (@lawnrocket) on Twitter. Here are eight of my favorite story basics.

Emma Coats’ #storybasics

Emma Coats

Emma Coats on Twitter

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. (Emma says the plot of every Pixar film uses this framework)

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on — it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.


Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Humans are wired to create narrative. It’s how we perceive the world. As an educator and a content developer, narrative is a powerful tool because a good story well told has the power to answer the “Why should I care?” question that we often struggle to answer in our efforts to connect audiences with content.

Ira Glass, host of This American Life on PBS, and no slouch himself at telling a good story, said, “The power of anecdote is so great that it has a momentum in and of itself… no matter how boring the facts are … you feel inherently as if you are on a train that has a destination.”

At least part of that power has to to do with the fact that our brains have evolved to be storytelling machines, trying to see cause and effect in our surroundings and linking them in a way that might help us predict what might happen next. In 1944, the Austrian-born psychologist Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel conducted an experiment where they created a short, abstract cartoon, featuring two triangles and a circle moving around the screen and in and out of a rectangle. After showing this film to hundreds of college students, they asked each viewer to describe what they’d seen. 95% ended up turning what they’d seen into a story, where the triangles were people or creatures with feelings, and their movements around the screen part of a story involving relationships and conflicts between these three characters. They could describe the movements of the shapes around the screen, but the intentions they attributed to the shapes came not from the researchers, but from their own brains.

Heider Simmel

A rendition of a frame from the Heider – Simmel experiment (1944)

Our desire to tell (and be told) stories is deep-seated, and museums have always taken advantage of that. PEM is literally full of objects  that express that desire. And in the museum field at large, the role of storytelling in museums has been taking center stage. The Future of Storytelling conference in New York included an interesting article, detailing efforts at the Smithsonian to use new technologies to tell stories. I expect we’ll see more interest in museum spaces as venues for storytelling.


  1. gail spilsbury says:

    This was great! Sharing the storytelling panel stimulates the reader to tell a story. And think in terms of stories. Thanks!

  2. Victoria says:

    I had the pleasure to attend this session at AAM. It was, hands down, my favorite session. It is difficult to hold several hundred museum professionals rapt as they go from session to session in windowless rooms. And yet this experience was so fantastic, so meaningful and so moving that I will not have to reference notes or struggle to recall its many lessons and all the stories that were shared!

  3. Ed Rodley says:

    Thanks, all!

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