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March 2013

Storytelling, POV, & the power of first-person narrative

FilmI have long thought that 21st-century presenters can learn as much about communicating ideas from filmmakers—especially documentary filmmakers—as they can from traditional speech-communication resources. Filmmakers are master storytellers and they have much to teach us about engaging an audience. A great story can do many things to an audience, but one thing it must do is make the audience feel. Your story does not have to make people feel good, but it must make them feel something. Now, like a filmmaker, 21st-century presenters/storytellers have many tools at their disposal including motion pictures (i.e., digital video for most of us), photography, sketches, data visualizations, and audio including narration, first-person interviews, music, sound effects, etc. In a live talk, short video clips of first-person interviews can be highly effective if woven into your narrative with purpose. A first-person interview provides a direct link to the subject's point of view (POV) in a way that seems more authentic and evocative.

When it comes to film, I'm rather keen on the first-person narrative approach. Many documentaries mix in first-person narration with a "voice of God" narrator who serves as a kind of guide and voice of authority on a journey of discovery. There is nothing wrong with that, but for short films, telling a story with only powerful visuals and first-person narration can be very effective for providing an emotional, insightful POV. The short film below is another good example of an amazing story of resilience and determination told with only first-person interviews. The film is called "Alone in the Zone" and is the story of one farmer, Naoto Matsumura, who remained behind in the ghost town of Tomioka inside the Fukushima evacuation zone in spite of high levels of radiation and loneliness to attend to his abandoned animals. The film also introduces Kenji Hasegawa's who was evacuated due to high levels of radiation and for a time sought refuge in temporary housing. Both men share candid and heartbreaking insights into their lives as well as their views of the nuclear power industry in Japan, government inaction and daily life in an area with high levels radioactivity.

(Note: click the Captions button to see subtitles in various languages including English. Also note the video is available in resolutions up to 1080p.)

A great story: curiosity & creativity inspire child inventor

Kenya—storyHere's a great short presentation which tells a wonderful story about a child in a challenging situation who applies creativity to engineer a smart solution to overcome a big problem. The presentation by 13-year-old Kenyan Richard Turere was delivered last month at TED in Long Beach. TED discovered Richard's story during its worldwide talent search last year in Kenya. (See Richard's interview with Chris Anderson and a short film about his story from last year). Richard's story was remarkable and he impressed the TED staff, but last year he was not yet ready to give a TED talk on his own. "At that point he lacked the confidence to give an actual talk," Chris Anderson commented on the TED website. "It was just an interview, though he still lit up the theater. His progress in the 10 months since then has been exciting to see. His teachers and friends at Brookhouse School, where he won a scholarship as a result of this invention, can be really proud of him. He's an amazing example of what a kid with curiosity can achieve." 

Standing alone on a stage in front of a large room of strangers and telling your story—let alone doing so at age 13 in a foreign country—is one of the most frightening things you can do. But Richard Turere did a great job. His story was simple and clear and the visuals helped amplify the story for the audience and also served to keep him on track without notes. His narrative had a simple exposition with nothing superfluous, a clear conflict or problem to be solved, an account of things that did not work, things which were unexpected, and a clear conclusion. It was a story of how curiosity and an innovative spirit can inspire someone—even someone so young—to use his creativity to solve a big problem. We see transformation in the outer world in the form of the threat to the family's livelihood being removed in a harmonious way, and in the fact that his inspiring ingenuity lead to a scholarship. We also see transformation in the inner world in that Richard has stopped hating lions and the accomplishment also surely gave him even more confidence to pursue his dreams. As Richard says, "one year ago, I was just a boy in the savanna grassland herding my father's cows, and I used to see planes flying over, and I told myself that one day, I'll be there inside. And here I am today. I got a chance to come by plane for my first time for TED." That's a story of transformation. And his journey is just getting started...

Eric Mazur: confessions of a converted lecturer

PeerinsturctionEric Mazur is a well known physicist at Harvard University who is also a leader in science education. In the early '90s he developed an instructional approach to teaching called peer instruction. In 1997, he published a book on the subject called Peer Instruction: A User's Manual. Others later supported the seemingly commonsensical idea that student engagement worked, such as Richard Hake in his 1998 report entitled Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. Research which concluded: "the conceptual and problem-solving test results strongly suggest that the classroom use of Interactive-Engaement methods can increase mechanics-course effectiveness well beyond that obtained in traditional practice." To many people, the approach Dr. Mazur advocates may hardly seem new or controversial. After all, many instructors work hard today to make their classes more interactive. However, the one-way, didactic approach to teaching is still common in many schools today.

I thought I was a good teacher
"I thought I was a good teacher until I discovered my students were just memorizing information rather than learning to understand the material," says Mazur. "Who was to blame? The students? The material?" In this presentation below from 2009 entitled "Confessions of a Converted Lecturer," Mazur explains how he came to the conclusion that "It was my teaching that caused students to fail!" If you have the time I recommend that you watch the entire presentation (over one hour in length). However, there is a rough edit of the same presentation that is still fairly good at getting Mazur's key points across in just 18 minutes. Watch the abridged version here on Youtube.

In summary
Dr. Mazur's approach: (1) Students read the notes and appropriate section of books, etc. before coming to class. "I am not going to lecture on the notes anymore," Mazur says. (2) In the classroom what matters is going deeper. "What's important is depth not coverage." The pre-assigned readings take care of the coverage, but class time offers the chance to go deeper and spend time on those parts that were most difficult for students. This depth, says Mazur, is not obtained through telling but by using a more Socratic method of asking good questions.

The two main features of the peer instruction approach is that (1) there is active engagement in the classroom. "It's impossible to sleep in class because every few minutes your neighbor will start talking to you." And (2) there is continuous information flow back and forth with the student and teacher and also between students. What about solving the physics problems in class? Mazur says that he realized students watching a professor solve problems at the blackboard had little lasting benefit. The benefit of watching a physicist solve problems at the board, says Mazur, is something like training to run a marathon by sitting on the sofa eating chips all day and watching videos of great marathon runners. If you want to be a better runner, you have to run. If you want to be a better problem solver, you have to solve problems. In the end what Mazur found is that when students better understand the material (by going deep, discussing with peers, teaching to peers, etc.), they become better problem solvers. Interestingly, however, Mazur discovered that being a good problem solver (and doing well on tests) did not always indicate understanding.

There are two basic and important points that Dr. Mazur made in this presentation: (1) "Traditional indicators of success are misleading." That is, teacher evaluations and examination results do not reflect whether students really understand the content, even if they do well on the tests. (2) "Education is no longer about information." Mazur says the key is not memorizing recipes and formulas to do well on a test, but rather to develop and demonstrate the ability to use the information to solve problems.

Education and 21st Century Presentation

Student-presoOne of the problems with 20th century approaches to education, according to learning activist and Tokyo International School founder Patrick Newell, is that children are taught what to learn but not how to learn, "and they are slowing educated out of their innate curiosity and creativity." 21:21 The Movie—which is 21 minutes and 21 seconds long— contains interviews with many thought leaders including David Perkins, Kirpal Singh, Philip Zimbardo, David Kelley, and many others. An overview of the elements of 21st century learning can be seen here on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website. Obviously the core subjects are still important, including the "3 Rs," but it's so much more than that. "As teachers and parents," says Newell, "we need to create learning environments which nurture creativity and inspire confidence."

Presentations: nurturing creativity & inspiring confidence
If you are particularly interested in the role presentation plays in the modern classroom—especially presentations researched, designed, and delivered by students—then this section of the video here entitled Learning Through Teaching may be of special interest to you. Last April I was on campus to watch students at the Tokyo International School come together to give presentations of projects on which they'd been working. In this section you can get a glimpse of that event as well as some interviews with students and adults on the role of presentation in this context.

While watching the students present and teach others I was reminded of this old chestnut from Harvard's Erik Mazur, a physics professor who is famous for having his students learn by teaching their peers what they had learned: "You can forget facts, but you can not forget understanding." From what I saw, students learned that presentation is not merely the transfer of information but rather an opportunity to make a contribution. After the event the presenters were even more excited about their subjects and you really could see the confidence in their eyes as a result of a job well done. A job for which they had full ownership. (Watch the full 21:21 video.)

"When learners are engaged in defining their learning processes, and when they have ownership to choose and to use digital tools to express themselves, their excitement becomes tangible, and their skills long-lasting." — Patrick Newell

An organic metaphor for teaching & learning
In the clip below, Sir Ken Robinson speaks of good schools and good teaching as being those that provide the right conditions for students to reach their potential. He calls this more of an organic approach that stresses not an industrial metaphor of mechanization, compliance, and standardization, but rather the creation of the optimal conditions for learning. In this way Robinson says a more modern metaphor would be one of a teacher as gardener or farmer. A farmer depends on plants growing healthy and strong, and yet gardeners do not make plants grow, of course, they provide the conditions for growth to occur. "Great farmers know what the conditions of growth are and bad ones don't," says Robinson. "Great teachers know what the conditions of growth are and bad ones don't."  Part of providing the right conditions in today's world means giving students more ownership of their learning, their explorations, and discoveries. A significant part of that journey is students sharing ideas and materials with students in myriad ways, including the many forms of presentation.

* More material from the movie
Go here for a longer version for many more interviews by the foundation that did not make it into the movie, including interviews with Jill Bolte Taylor, Nalini Nadkarni, Hans Rosling, Nicholas Negroponte, and more. (In the interest of full disclosure I should say that Partick Newell is my personal friend. Yet even if I were not his friend, I would be one of his biggest fans. His energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to education is inspiring.)

Neurochemistry, empathy & the power of story

Dr. Paul Zak is a key contributor in the emerging field of neuroeconomics. He has many interesting talks online including this one delivered at TED in 2011 concerning the issue of morality and the function of the neurochemical oxytocin. But the video I'd like to highlight today concerns the role of neurochemistry and story. Have you ever wondered what is happening to you at the neurochemical level when a story gets your full attention, brings you in, and then causes you to care deeply about its contents? If so, this video below should be of interest.

The video above can be found on the wonderful Future of Storytelling website.

How did you feel when you watched the story of a boy and his father? To be honest, it caught me off guard. I felt such a level of distress that I nearly stopped the video. (Perhaps this is because I have a little baby boy about the same age. There is evidence that a father's brain changes when he begins to raise his children. I believe it.) Dr. Zak's research suggests that during a story like the one used in the video, most viewers produce powerful empathic responses, responses which are associated with the neurochemicals cortisol and oxytocin. A few moments in to the video, when I heard of the boy's fate, I felt as if I were becoming physically ill. Dr. Zak says this is in part a reaction to the distress hormone cortisol. This distress hormone is associated with attention—the more distress one feels the greater the focus in this case. As I kept watching, like most people who watched this, I felt great concern (or feelings of sadness, sympathy, compassion, etc.). These feelings are related to oxytocin, a hormone associated with care, connection, and empathy. The more oxytocin released, the more empathetic people felt toward Ben and his father.

Dr. Zak's research goes on to suggest that we can use these brain responses to elicit concrete actions, such as getting people to make more generous donations. For example, in one of his studies, Dr. Zak determined that the amount of oxytocin released could predict how much money people shared in an experimental setting. One suggestion is that the type of narrative used in the story of the boy and his father—a form of Freytag's story pyramid—changed the neurochemistry of brain (which changed behavior).

I do not mean to make too much of this, but the early research in this field seems to support what we already know through experience, which is that a story is ineffectual if it does not make people care. A story must get our attention and make us care. Period. That is not all there is to it, of course, but these two elements are crucial and yet not easy to achieve.

A powerful narrative in transformation (redux)

Shane.tedCanadian poet and writer Shane Koyczan's To This Day was featured below a few weeks ago because it's an excellent personal narrative amplified by its visual presentation. That version of the poem was sent by Koyczan to his fans earlier this year with the message: "My experiences with violence in schools still echo throughout my life but standing to face the problem has helped me in immeasurable ways. Schools and families are in desperate need of proper tools to confront this problem. This piece is a starting point." This video went viral and  has touched the lives of many in a short time.

TED 2013
Koyczan was asked to speak at the 2013 version of TED in Long Beach, California. That live presentation took place during the session called "Secret Voices" on Thursday, February 28. Fortunately for those who could not be in the room live, TED put it up on the their site rather quickly. I like this version as much or perhaps even more than the animated version. The words may be the same, but if it is authentic, the delivery will feel natural, like the words are being spoken for the first time. And if Koyczan is anything it is authentic. Authenticity is risky—and what could be riskier and more vulnerable that speaking of your pain in front of a group of strangers. Remarkable and inspiring. This TED version below includes Koyczan standing before the audience live, front and center, and is subtly augmented by some animation displayed at times as well as live musical accompaniment. I love the way Koyczan eased his way into the poem and brings you inside his story in such a way that one forgets this is a man on stage reciting his poem. If it is a good story told well we become unaware of the medium. What matters is the feeling. What lingers long after the performance is the meaning. Even if you have seen Koyczan's To This Day before, it is worth seeing again...and sharing it with others.

"They asked me what I wanted to be, then told me what not to be."
“I've been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself.”
“If you can't see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror.”

 • Shane Koyczan's website

The world needs you to stop being boring

EnncourageInspiration and a great story can come from anywhere. Today it comes from a 9-year-old child named Robbie Nova, a dynamic young man who is wise beyond his years. Robbie, also known as Kid President, was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta ("Brittle Bone syndrome"), but he's obviously not going to let it get in the way of his dreams. "This is life people! You got air coming from your nose! You got a heart beat! That means it's time to do something!" The video below has been seen by million in a very short time and is even featured on the TED website. Kid President has an important message for all of us, whether we're 9-years old or 89, and that is: Stop being boring. "The world needs you to stop being boring," he says. "Everyone can be boring. Boring is easy!" Watch the video below or here on 

Encourage others
I love Kid President's core message: Encourage others. But many people do not themselves feel encouraged. What should you do, then, when you feel discouraged? This question was addressed in the book Essential Zen: A student asked the master during a meditation retreat, "I am very discouraged. What should I do?" To which the master replied: "Encourage others." When we encourage others we often feel encouraged ourselves. There is more to education than encouragement, but it's something that is undervalued by antiquated systems based on compliance and threats of punishment rather than on the joy of exploration and discovery. Anatole France said "nine tenths of education is encouragement."

What will you create that's remarkable?
"What will you create that will make the world awesome?" Robbie Nova asks. "Nothing if you keep sitting there!" So get up and take the road less traveled — that's the road that leads to awesome! As Robbie says: It's time to do something, people!

Kid President on Wikipedia.
Kid President's story (video).