What does it mean to be a great storyteller for a business owner, a fashion designer, a teacher, a marketing professional or a medical researcher?
In a novel, exploratory course offered in the University of Arizona English department this semester, students working toward those careers found that while storytelling is deeply rooted in the tradition of English literature, it is far more expansive than that.
"Whether we think it or not, we are always building influence," said Stephanie Balzer, an adjunct instructor in the English department, who taught a class of students studying business, genetics, psychology, accounting, education and a number of other disciplines.
Balzer, communications director for the UA Foundation, developed the curriculum for English 340: Professional Writing, with tremendous support from author Andy Goodman.
Undergraduate and graduate students enrolled, participating in a curriculum that emphasized two things: learning the fundamentals of how to tell a compelling story, and participating in a collaborative project that built a bank of their own stories and photographs to begin answering the questions of who studies English today, and why?
Also, Balzer collaborated with Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist Krista Niles, who produced portraits to accompany each student's story.
"We examined how stories are one of the most powerful communications tools to deepen or enhance our understanding of any subject," said Balzer, a trained journalist.
“There’s tremendous responsibility in representing someone else, or even yourself, on behalf of a cause you believe in,” she said. “My intent was to teach what it’s like to tell your own story, gaining sensitivity to the storytelling process along the way. Many of the students will go on to have careers in which they are speaking on behalf of someone else—whether that’s in medicine, marketing or law."
Simply, students were engaged in learning the art of persuasion. But the course was more complex than that. Balzer wanted students to understand the importance of communication, no matter their discipline, and how to do it well in both formal and informal settings.
"At times, it seemed I had to forage for this knowledge," Balzer said. "I thought it would be a huge gift to give someone an understanding of how and when professional writing can include a compelling narrative—and that might include a story arc like you would experience in a movie, more descriptive language, metaphor, or even character development."
If you heard the phrase, "If you don't tell your story, someone else will," this resonates broadly.
Corporate advertising alone is a multi-billion dollar industry. And on an individual level, many students said that over the course of taking Balzer's class they found that they began earning better grades in their writing-intensive courses and also demonstrated improvements in personal statements for jobs and scholarships and in general performance in their public speaking.
Consider even the pervasive nature of digital storytelling through social media formats such as Facebook and Twitter.
In fact, beyond the UA, some universities offer comparable digital and professional storytelling programs designed to train students of various disciplines how to best tell stories. Among them are Ohio State University, the University of Colorado Boulder and East Tennessee State University.
In writing about her connection to storytelling, Elizabeth Hudson said it has deeply connected her to the world of words.
"When deciding what I wanted to study, humanities offered me something unique," Hudson, who is studying English and communication, wrote in her personal narrative.
"It equipped me with the ability to think creatively, critically and especially insightfully. It has allowed me to see the world through the eyes of authors of years past," she added.
Taylor Ghiuzelian, a pre-law student also studying political science, said while she learned formal writing, proper formatting and how to produce a strong bibliography, she has received no instruction in the art of storytelling or in persuasive writing.
"People in the real world don't want a bibliography," Ghiuzelian said. "I will be using what I learned in this class for the rest of my life."
But how do you encourage a value in storytelling, or writers in general, when an often held perception is that writing – especially when more creative in nature – seems so discipline-specific?
In English 340, they studied the field of English. At the end of the semester, each student participated in a joint presentation about what they learned to members of the campus community. Students shared what they found most valuable, how they would use the skills in careers, and how the English department might benefit from their stories. In essence, the presentation became the story of the class, beginning with a characterization of the conflict they were addressing, Balzer said.
"I asked people what they think of English majors, and they tended to say they were writers, journalist, teachers," Sean Finn said during the presentation.
But Finn, a student in the UA Eller College of Management, also found that some held negative perceptions about English minors, namely that they were underpaid and tended to be pretentious.
"People are getting their thoughts from the media," Finn said. "We needed something to combat the already negative perceptions about English majors."
But the students in the class, whether they were English majors or not, learned skills necessary to improve public knowledge and understanding about any given issue.
For Atlantis Russ, it's medical research and service.
Russ, a doctoral student majoring in genetics with a minor in cancer biology, said she has already become a better communicator in her academic world and service work.
"When it comes to writing or speaking for influence, everything important is personal," said Russ, who starts medical school at the UA next year.
"After taking this class, I have discovered that I can make the cancer research I conduct more accessible to the public by framing the technical information within a human experience," she said. "Because the science itself can be difficult for people to connect with immediately, stories of those who have suffered from cancer can be a door into the laboratory for some folks."
Russ said this is also true outside of the laboratory, whether it be in speaking with relatives or while serving as a volunteer at fundraising events supporting cancer research. She feels indebted to this work and for authentic connection partially because members of her family have been diagnosed with a rare genetic cancer syndrome, and some have died as a result.
"I have a unique inspiration for being involved in cancer research," Russ said. "Though I did not inherit the mutation, I feel a responsibility to work toward a solution for those that did. By opening up my personal story to a crowd, I offer a connection between the science and something easily relatable and emotive."
Balzer emphasized all along that while storytelling seems to be best suited for creative writing, that is not the case.
"I thought a lot about how we use our stories and harness our stories for a variety of causes," Balzer said. "Ultimately, you have to align your stories to your values. It's important to be able to authentically relate to people."
Balzer does not plan to offer the course in the spring semester, but because of the strength of the course she may offer it in the future.
"I was blown away by the students and was really excited for the English department," she said. "I had no idea the stories would be as rich and as diverse as they were, academically, culturally and in terms of their career paths. It was a happy accident."