Books and Stories Can Change Lives: Storytelling in the Digital Age

Storytelling in a powerful skill in this digital age, so much so that I put it on a shortlist of critical skills for effective digital age communication. People who can craft and tell compelling and resonating stories, and who can connect with audiences around those stories, have a greater voice today. Tim Tomlinson wrote that, “The best books and stories can change our lives.” Years ago I thought about pursuing a MFA in creative non-fiction. In fact, I was accepted in a program and took the first class. At that point, I already had four degrees, a full-time job, an additional part-time job, a consulting business, and a family. Plus I was, at the point where taking classes was less desirable than learning in the wild and learning by doing. As much as I treasured the idea of learning from great writers and teachers, what I really wanted to do was write. Write to think. Write to learn. Write to connect. Write to imagine and invite others to imagine the possibilities. So, I didn’t sign up for a second class, but I did commit to writing each day.

I wrote about many things. I wrote short stories inspired by my Mississippi roots and the legends that flow out of that river. I wrote about what I was thinking, reading, learning, and seeing in the world around me. I wrote about education, culture, trends, and those persistent ideals that haunt or inspire so many of us. I wrote about my joys and fears. I wrote about affordances and limitations. I wrote about possibilities.

I liked the idea that others might want to read what I wrote, and that they would find something true, good or beautiful in it. Just as much, I valued the idea that people would find something useful or inspiring. So, I didn’t pursue an MFA. I just started writing.

Writing isn’t easy for me but it is rewarding. Sometimes I don’t feel like writing. I might even dread it. Yet, once I get going, I don’t think about those things. I’m immersed in words and ideas, and even if nobody reads something that I write, I’m glad that I spend a few minutes or hours of my life doing it.

At the same time, I don’t just write for myself. It is never a solitary activity for me even if I’m alone. I am also writing to connect. I’m a teacher at heart, and I aspire to writing things that help people, even to influence people. I’m candid about that. I want to challenge, inspire, and help people explore the possibilities. I want to be a champion for truth, beauty and goodness; especially as they inform the promise and possibility of life and learning in a connected and digital world.

So, when I first read that opening quote by Tim Tomlinson, something changed in me. “The best books and stories can change our lives.” I wanted to write things that did that sort of thing. As one of my professors in my doctoral program once noted. “If you are in education, you are in the business of changing people.” You might not like the idea of this and it doesn’t need to be manipulative, but it is the work of changing or influencing people. Even in some of the most self-directed learning contexts, teachers influence learners. Even if you limit your comments to asking questions and guiding people, you are invested in their change and transformation. That is probably why I first became a teacher and it is certainly why I continue to write.

This quote about books and stories changing lives also continues to influence my philosophy of education. As much as I am a champion for educational innovation and connected learning, I see immense value in books and stories as forms of learning. Of course, stories don’t only come in written format. We have thousands of years of an oral tradition in humanity that leans heavily upon storytelling. Similarly, in this digital age, stories quickly established their home, with┬ádigital narratives of many types spreading throughout the web.

This age resulted in new and fascinating forms of storytelling that continue to be rich in meaning. There are storytellers in the blogosphere, on video sharing sites, and throughout all forms of social media and social communication technologies. These stories change lives too. It might even be argued that some of these change even more lives, reaching massive groups of people in a fraction of the time, spreading across time and space more than most stories of the past. A story created and told in rural South Dakota can reach Los Angeles, London, New York City, and New Delhi in seconds, with people sharing these stories among their peer groups on the social web.

Yet, consider the fact that storytelling is democratized in this age. Storytellers of the past shared in their local communities, with only a small number of people gaining a forum to share their stories across a country or around the world. Those rare few could share their stories on television, through films, through recorded music, through plays and musicals, and through books. Those stories spread and influenced. Today anyone can craft and share a story that travels around the world. There are few to no gatekeepers in these new forms of storytelling. If you have access and the courage to share then you can let your story be heard.

Of course, some storytellers continue to reach wider audiences. These include more traditional authors, musicians, filmmakers and the like. Yet, we are also aware of Youtubers who gain significant followers. The same is true for bloggers, podcasters, and influencers in various social media outlets who manage to garner a large and diverse following over time. This is not a small change in the world, but we also don’t fully understand the implications of this change.

Some might argue that this democratization is diminishing the quality of stories, drowning truly great stories in an ocean of lesser stories. Others look at this and celebrate the fact that stories often unheard or even intentionally silenced are indeed changing lives today. Real world stories about tragedy and injustice are shared even as the tragedies are unfolding, sometimes eliciting actions that help address the issue. Powerful groups seeking to suppress stories that undermine their agenda no longer have as much power to do so. Stories that have deep meaning and value to a small but diverse audience now have a greater chance of reaching that audience.

As such, I’ve come to believe that the connected and digital age is also the age of the storyteller. People with the courage and conviction to tell their stories have more freedom and access than any other time in history. In fact, this is part of why I see the art of storytelling as a valuable 21st century skill for young and old alike.

  • How are we helping learners discover the power of storytelling in the digital age?
  • How are we equipping them to analyze and make sense of a broader range of stories today?
  • How are we encouraging and equipping them to refine their craft as digital age storytellers?