Professional storyteller and mindfulness coach Nandini Nagpal explains why storytelling works with teenagers, what kinds of stories to tell and how parents can do it well.
I still recall the first time I shared a story with a group of teenagers in a workshop. I must admit that I was a little anxious as I prepared for it the previous evening.
How would it be received?
With their notoriously short attention spans, would they stay with me till the end? Or, would they roll their eyes, smirk or worse, brush it off as lame?
Would they make eye contact or look away?
My fears were clearly unfounded. After all, who doesn’t like a well-told tale? Children do. Adults do. As did my new audience – teenagers. As I read the feedback these young adults gave after the workshop, I realised that teenagers do like stories.
So why do they not get their share of stories?
Is it because-
- We have stopped telling them our stories?
- They have stopped telling us their stories?
- We have stopped listening to them?
- They have stopped listening to us?
Whatever be the reason, teenagers today, need stories more than ever. Stories are like a balm that soothe anxious nerves. They are a powerful tool to influence, and a path that shows us all new ways of being. For teenagers, stories take them back to the days when their lives were more carefree and stress free.
In other words, stories heal.
I realised that I had a responsibility as a storyteller: to bring back stories into the lives of teenagers. A few years later, when I started co-facilitating a mindfulness program designed specifically for teenagers and children, I included lots of stories.
Storytelling is probably the oldest form of communication and predates even the written word. It was (and still is) a way to pass on wisdom, learning, values, beliefs, traditions and culture from one generation to another. Stories engage the mind and open the heart. They are containers of truth that draw the listener in, rather than push opinion out, offering great life learnings in a non-threatening way. Most of us who parent or work with teens in any way, want to engage, influence, educate or inspire them. Stories are effective in doing exactly this.
Our mind thinks in images, not in words. Stories allow the transfer of these images from one mind (that of the teller) to another (that of the listener) with the help of a narrative. Storyteller and researcher, Kendall Haven, in his book ‘Story Smart’ describes a part of the brain that he calls the Neural Story Net (NSN). It is ‘the specific part of the brain that undertakes that initial processing of incoming signals and that then sends “highly processed” information – in story form – to the conscious mind’
For teenagers and children, listening to stories have cognitive and emotional benefits. Stories help increase focus and attention span, improve listening skills and memory, build connection and empathy, reduce stress, and open the mind. Stories also enhance creative thinking, imagination and problem-solving skills.
In a noisy and distracted world, stories offer moments of silence and quiet reflection, something that is sorely lacking in the lives of many teenagers and children today.
Finally, stories help build self-awareness and enhance well-being. As cultural awareness grows through stories, respect for other cultures results through natural progression.
Storytelling is not the same as reading stories.
Reading is a tool for literacy and reading aloud to children has numerous benefits that cannot be ignored. However, it is different from storytelling. Storytelling involves a more direct engagement with the listener. The storyteller maintains eye contact with the listener without any ‘barrier’, while using voice, gestures and facial expressions to enhance the story and engage the listener.
We all are storytellers!
We tell ourselves stories all the time, in our minds – and in our conversations. Most of our self-talk is nothing but stories of predominantly the past or the future.
Stories That Work With Teenagers
- Personal stories – Stories of personal success and more importantly, failure, are very powerful. Family stories help build bridges with past generations. Horror stories based on personal experiences work well too.
When telling personal stories, it is important to stick to relevant details and stay within context.
- Humorous stories – may seem tempting at first but is a tricky genre to handle. What we find funny may not be as amusing to a teenager.
- Success stories – of famous people, those you or your child find inspiring, or heroes within your own family. Stories of their struggle and how they overcame challenges can be very a powerful narrative. Do be careful not to sound preachy or moralistic when sharing this genre of stories.
- War stories and stories connected to royalty – If told well, these tales can be very engaging. Try not to turn it into a history lesson!
- Anecdotes or incidents – These can be a great starting point to practice telling stories to a teenager. Anecdotes are very short stories with a specific purpose. An anecdote could be about the supernatural, a memorable experience, or simply a heart-warming moment.
Examples of personal incidents could include a situation that took place when you were on vacation or on a business trip, or perhaps in your own childhood.
An incident or anecdote does not have to be personal. Alternatively, you could change a personal incident/anecdote into a story revolving around another character.
- Stories based on nature / animals – These stories are usually simple as many are written for younger children. If told in a relevant context and with some deeper insight, these simple retellings of popular stories can be meaningful to teenagers. It may sometimes help to ‘modernise’ the story setting too for better connection.
Tips to Get Started
- Choice of story: I cannot stress on this point more. Teenagers are much more discerning than children (and perhaps more than adults too). Having chosen a story to tell, think through the purpose and the context of the story as well as how you would want the listener to feel at the end of the story.
- Less is more: Be aware of the natural tendency to digress from the main storyline, especially while tellling personal stories. Do try your best to be concise.
- Never pontificate… ‘and the moral of the story is?’ Stories do not always offer one moral/learning. The listener can take away a very different perspective from what you intended. Often, it is me who comes away with new learning from a story whenever I have told it to teenagers or children. Encourage reflection by asking open-ended questions.
- Be non-judgemental: Be aware of your own racial, cultural and personal biases (if any) when telling a story, as also of any emotional triggers; any story that may trigger unpleasant memories or anger, restlessness discomfort. Staying objective creates space for sharing different perspectives. If you find that a story triggers an uncomfortable emotion, it is best to avoid the story till you can manage your own sentiments around it.
- Manage your expectations: Your message may not be their take-away. A teenager may not necessarily make eye contact with you as you share your story. But I can assure you, through personal experience, that unless they have rejected the story outright for some reason, they are in fact, listening to every word. They may or may not give you any feedback. If they do, be open and accepting, even if the feedback differs radically from your own.
- The ‘No-Go’: A tone, stance or gestures that may be perceived as authoritarian, or contrarily, childish is a ’no-go’ when telling stories to teenagers. Tell them stories as you would tell a friend. If you need to, practice your story aloud in advance to become aware of your tone, facial expressions and gestures.
Storytelling can be your greatest ally and friend when connecting with a teenager. Once you start and become comfortable with it, you may find them sitting beside you more often – hungry to communicate.
Nandini is a passionate storyteller who performs a broad range of stories for adults, teenagers and children at public performances. She also conducts storytelling workshops for adults and uses storytelling extensively in her mindfulness program, Just-B. Nandini is a Professional Member of the Storytelling Association (Singapore) and currently serves on their Executive Committee. She is also a certified psychometric coach for executives. She has completed a Graduate Diploma in Applied Positive Psychology and the educator program with Mindful Schools.