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Keychains, Retelling, and Getting to the Heart of Stories

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

For at least 3 times in the last 5 years I’ve been fortunate to participate in the Baruch College Schwartz Institute Symposium, a rather unique event in bringing together people from both the academic and business communities to share ideas on communication. It is that mix where I get to meet people outside the usual circles, and the conversational set up up the days, that I look forward to.

This year was even more a draw because Barbara Ganley was on the agenda t lead a workshop, and I had already planned to visit her home in Vermont a few days before. But ti got better when she asked me two weeks ago if I could step in to co-facilitate her workshop on storytelling as the colleague she was working with had to back out.

There is no scientific instrument accurate enough to measure the small gap of nano-time it took me to say yes. I’ve been a friend. blog/photo buddy, and colleague for years, but have never presented together. I fondly recall the first time meeting with Barbara when we were both invited speakers for the 2007 Faculty Academy at the University of Mary Washington (also my first time in the glow of the Reverend Jim). Wow, that was long ago. Twitter was brand new. Blogging was still something people did.

This was maybe the first time I presented without any media.

I loved that.

The title for the session already on the schedule was “Story and Re-story in the Age of ‘Shape-Shifting Portfolio People'”- which I admit I still may not full understand. The shape shifting stuff refers to work by James Gee, which more or less characterizes the “new” modern worker (?) It precludes the forced division of natives/immigrants, yet I was a bit quick to jump in when people at the event start referring to “understanding the kids” or “reaching our young workers” like they are some other species.

The plan for our workshop was packed, a lot to cover in 75 minutes. But the focus was to find an activity to get people into a personal storytelling mode, but more than that, to understand the value of listening. With all the tossing around of storytelling in X (where x= business, teaching, data, whatever)- what seems missing is that more often you are telling someone else’s story, not your own. And the approach, motivation differs when that happens.

IN addition, you want to get to the stories that cause a reaction in people, where they lean forward, laugh, participate.

Barbara and I saw this was needed in the morning discussions, where there was a prompt to tell a narraive about the time we learned something. More than half the people at out table, could not hone on on a specific story “moment” (as Barbara would later eloquently describe) “a time when I did something”. They got general, talking about “building bridges” or “the need to nurture better thinking”.

You know what folks, there is an “I” in Story.

So, the original outline Barbara sent me had an opening prompt of telling a story about something in their pocket or wallet. I suggested we use the prompt we have had a ton of success with in ds106, the keychain story, first done as a Daily Create (early 2011 submitted by @noiseprofessor)- tell a story about something on your keychain.

The beauty of this simple prompt is that is something people take out and hold, but the story is always something that starts with a symbol and leads to something broader, be it about a charm on the chain, a key to a car, house, or something else. But not wanting to assume everyone had a keychain, I suggested if not, use a piece of jewelry, something in their wallet.

Actually before I gave them the prompt, we let them know they would be getting in groups of four, and would have to tell a 2 minute personal story. The key thing was listening, I told them, because they would have to use information from other stories in their group. As a guide (this from Barbara’s experience), they should aim to make sure they have 3 key sentences- the opening (a hook, something that grabs you), and the end. You really need to have an idea where you want to take people. And something in the middle to build that arc off of.

And we set them loose. First a 3 minute free write to organize their ideas

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

and then each having two minutes to tell the story to their group (I love the new ttp:// site I found that morning – just write the URL you want for time, e.g.

And the room exploded in energy

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

Literally, the energy of the room transformed from the passiveness of sitting in seats listening to a speaker to an eruption. I asked them later to share what they observed in body language- the lean ins, the laughter, one group jumped up and performed.

But mostly, it got people right to telling a story about themselves. And all it took was a simple, silly prompt.

So te next round, led by Barbara was the unexpected twist- they were charged with retelling the story of the person to their right, to not lose the essence of the story. But we added a twist, a remix if you will, an element they had to add to the story. We had printed cards with the remix and put them under people’s chairs, they each got one of the following.

  • Leave something out from the original story without losing the story.
  • Add a metaphor to the story.
  • Add an element of mystery or suspense to the story.
  • End the story with a question.
  • Tell the story as a fable or allegory.
  • Relocate the story to another part of the world without losing the story.
  • Start the story with a provocative hook.
  • Tell the story to someone from a country you have never visited.
  • Tell the story in the first person.
  • Tell the story from a perspective of someone from the opposite gender.
  • Tell the story in reverse chronological order.
  • Create more conflict or tension than was in the original story.
  • Add something unexpected to the original story.
  • Tell the story as part of a sales pitch.
  • Place the story in a different era.
  • Open the story with the ending.

We noticed that the retold stories seemed to be done mire quickly then the originals. Draw some conclusions. We had planned for small group discussions about what they observed, but could tell they wanted to have a larger conversation, so we opened up the mics for people to share about their experience.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

There was a remark about the difference of telling someone else’s story in front of them, the effort to remain true. Some groups had differing opinions on how one story deviated from the original.

But the key outcome was we got a group of 100+ people telling a story from the heart, not their heads, and they freaking loved that, like they had never done such a thing.

There is more to debrief from this workshop, but it was a highlight of mine that will glow for a long while, for many reasons.

And it cannot be left unsaid as a tribute to Mikhail Gershovich, the warmth and respect his colleagues have for him- this being the 10th Symposium he has masterminded, and actually his last as he is making a big life move to LA.

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Alan Levine

Mikhail is a friend and an increadible thinker and organizer. The range of things he has been a part of, all with some seed ties to the Symposium, are impressive- Blogs at Baruch, Cacaphony (which is getting an award), getting into 3d Printing, even ds106 radio was in the mix of innovation he has ushered in.

That whole day at Baruch is a story moment to remember, and relish. Thanks for letting me be a aprt.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. I’m inspired now, and it’s not just the coffee. I am going to use these tips for some mini-storytelling courses I’m doing at the public library later this year.
    Keep on wandering lustfully.

  2. Oh, oh, oh, this sounds SO wonderful. I’m already figuring which bits to borrow/steal/beg. I’m so sorry I was unable to accept the invitation to be there this year and wow, maybe this was the last year. Fate, fate, fate.

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