How to Tell Your School’s Stories

Learning how to turn your school's successes into engaging narratives that influence and engage

Those who tell the stories rule society

You hear it everywhere: “Tell your school’s stories.” You even recognize how important it is. You understand how impactful a story is on influence and understanding. You know how meaningful stories are to you personally, so you recognize the power a well-told story has on our culture, our history, and our attitudes. 

But, how do you go from understanding the value of sharing your successes through storytelling to being able to do it? That’s our topic for today.

Creating a story-gathering and storytelling culture

If you have teachers who teach literature and writing, they know the steps necessary to create engaging narratives. So, recruit those experts to the cause of becoming a storytelling school. They not only know how to craft stories, but they will understand their value for influence and understanding. These folks are also a great resource to provide some professional development training for all of your staff on the how-to, why, and when for storytelling. Done right, this type of training can be fun and engaging for all your staff and improve school communications and school branding both internally and externally. 

Also, consider using students as authors. A good segment on writing nonfiction narrative can produce a talented crop of writers for your storytelling school (and provide the students with their first crack at publication). Students are also great resources for discovering great story ideas that support your school’s mission and goals. They are privy to experiences your staff might not know about but support your storytelling purposes.

There are so many wonderful successes happening in your school and your classrooms, but if you don’t become aware of them, they can’t make an impact on others. 

When story gathering becomes an integral part of what your staff does, they will soon see great stories all around them. As you begin to use those stories in your communications, marketing, social media, and website content, you’ll see effective branding, convincing marketing, and trust-building communications—a good thing for everyone, especially your students.

The power of storytelling in school marketing and communications

With a well-told story, we help others see things in a new way, create new relationships, change a law, or inspire a change. In your school’s case, you can help parents experience and relate to similar dreams they have for their children. You can help a highly-qualified prospective staff member see how our school would be a good fit for their skills. You can inspire parents to engage in their child’s education and support your educational efforts. 

A well-told story is irresistible to us because we are biologically and neurologically wired to connect with stories. It is the way our brains make sense of our world. When we don’t have answers, our mind will automatically begin creating a story to explain what it doesn’t understand. We see and hear stories everywhere, all day long. When we go to sleep, our mind continues to tell itself stories all night long. Stories help us make sense out of life.

The science behind the well-told story

Neuroscience helps us understand the magic behind our love of story. When a story resonates with us (we empathize with a character in the story), levels of the hormone called oxytocin increase. This “feel good” hormone boosts feelings of trust and compassion, encourages us to work with others, and inspires positive social behavior. We also get a dopamine bump, which helps us focus, improves our memory, and motivates us. If you can add a bit of humor and make people laugh, they get a boost of endorphins that will make them more relaxed, creative, and focused.

Stories have the unique ability to create connections between us and others. When we hear a well-told story, our brains mirror that of the storyteller. Our brains react as if we are experiencing this story ourselves because it puts us inside the story. Our empathetic nature and our shared emotions create a connection through the story. 

We are moved emotionally by stories, in some cases leaving us intellectually defenseless. A well-told story can change our beliefs and alter societies’ values. Think about the influence stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on anti-slavery attitudes in the northern states. It is even alleged President Lincoln, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Are you beginning to recognize the tremendous power of telling your school’s stories to engage, influence, and build your customers’ trust? Check out the enlightening book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt called The Righteous Mind or The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall for excellent examples of the science behind story’s power.

Structuring a school story narrative 

structuring a school story narrative

The basic structure for most narrative writing (whether nonfiction or fiction, short stories or novels) is the same. It is a great place to start when you are deciding how to take an event or an outcome and turn it into a story that will be far more compelling and enjoyable than providing a link to an event on a calendar or a writing a summary of an activity or program on a news page. 

The story type most engaging for school websites, social media, school success stories, and school marketing stories or videos is narrative nonfiction (sometimes called creative nonfiction, fact-based storytelling, or literary journalism). Unlike the typical newspaper or press release pyramid structure—boring and unlikely to keep the reader reading—narrative nonfiction contains most of the features used in fiction that keep our story-loving human brains compelled to continue reading. This proven structure draws us in, grabs us, and holds us there until we know the ending. 

A simplified story structure is like this (think three-act play):

  1. Beginning or exposition. This is when you set the scene by introducing the characters involved, the setting, and the timeframe of your story. You are providing the who, when, and where part of the narrative.
  2. Middle or complication. This section introduces the events or activities where you expand upon the challenges or complications. Present the problem here. Schools always have a purpose that drives the delivery of any educational experience or training it provides, so describing the problem it resolves is critical. 
  3. Ending or resolution. You tackle the problem, resolve the complication, and make the benefits apparent. In some narratives, the outcome isn’t a happy one, but in most of your school stories, they will be (or the benefits gained still outweigh the goals failure).To show this in a bit more detail, a typical narrative arc (or story arc) includes six stages and looks like this:

To show this in a bit more detail, a typical narrative arc (or story arc) includes six stages and looks like this:

Story Arc

If you aren’t sure this structure is a proven one, pick a favorite story and look at it against the story arc model. Even successful TV commercials fit this pattern, like this Coca-Cola commercial. You’ll see each stage of the story’s arc in this 60-second commercial. 

Now, it’s your turn to put storytelling into action

So, what is a narrative? It is simply telling your audience a story. It can be written to motivate, educate, or even entertain. School websites and social media are an excellent medium for all three of these goals. For your school purposes, your narratives will be mostly nonfiction but with the goal of engaging and entertaining. 

For example, let’s say you want to share a student success story on your website. Your goal is multi-purpose in that you’ll use your story to attract prospective parents looking for the best match for their child’s particular needs or interests (marketing and recruitment). You’ll also use the story to acknowledge your staff and students for their roles in the success (public relations and showing appreciation). And a success story is also valuable in motivating others (encouragement).

Narrative structure example

So, let’s see how this looks in a practical way.

Julio is a typical, energetic, and outgoing young man with lots of friends. He loves soccer and writing fiction. But, he says it wasn’t always this way. When he first came to Ellsworth Elementary, he didn’t think things looked very promising at all. “I was eight years old when I started school here, and I didn’t know more than a few words of English. I didn’t think I would ever fit in.”

Julio says that besides being nervous about making new friends, he didn’t think he’d ever be able to catch up with his classmates or read at grade level. But thanks to caring teachers, encouraging parents, innovative technology, and Julio’s hard work, his efforts soon began to pay off in an exciting way. 

“Julio was shy at first, but willing to learn,” Ms. Sullivan, his third-grade teacher explained. “So, with his parents’ support, we made him part of the Ellsworth Excellence program. We partnered him with several other students his age, and they worked in teams on an online computer program designed to teach language skills using games and incentives. So, while Julio learned English, the other three students learned Spanish. Soon they were “language gaming” every chance they got, including after school and on weekends. It was great fun. They all learned together and are great friends to this day!” 

Now, only three years later, sixth-grader Julio is reading at an eighth-grade level. He wants to be a novelist someday. He may get his wish since one of his English assignments this semester was selected as a finalist in the science fiction short story category. It will be published in The Madison Majestic, the district’s literary magazine. 

Julio is also a student mentor in the bilingual class offered at Ellsworth three times a week to first through fifth-grade students. He teaches other students to learn a language the same way he did. Oh, and he says he can’t wait to go to junior high next year so he can try out for the soccer team! Go, Madison Mavericks!

Here’s the structural breakdown using the narrative arc:

  • Purpose: student success story (sharing student success and some of our school’s strengths)
  • #1: Exposition/background: Julio, typical 8-year-old starting a new school
  • #2: Conflict/problem: Language barrier, fear of fitting in
  • #3: Rising action: a sequence of events to address the problem
  • #4: Climax: computer games, team playing, fast and fun
  • #5: Falling action: the outcome for Julio
  • #6: Resolution: benefits and how things changed for Julio

Isn’t this more engaging than mentioning your school offers bilingual classes, tries to help every student feel included, or that you use technology in the classroom? Is this more likely to be read than a curriculum goals rubric? Your call, of course. But, I know what I would enjoy more!

What types of stories can you share?

According to Shawn Callahan, the author of the excellent book on effective storytelling called Putting Stories to Work, a few of the most useful types of stories you can use include:

  • Connection stories. These are effective for building trust, creating rapport, and providing evidence of character. They are evidence of what makes you or your school staff tick and how you are like them and can relate. They’re often used by school administrators.
  • Success stories. Like our example above, this type provides examples of how problems are solved (the kinds of problems your audience is looking to eliminate) and shares how it made them feel.
  • Influence stories. These stories can change a behavior, introduce new ideas, or dislodge an entrenched view.
  • Clarity stories. Use a clarity story to show the reason behind a decision. It describes future real-life illustrations of the goal.

Next steps

Of course, you’ll need to gather stories (from staff, students, and alumni), write those stories as we’ve described above, and use the stories where they will do the most good and have the greatest influence. For some suggestions for story prompts and where to use your stories, read Telling Your School’s Stories. Then, use what you’ve learned to put the power of storytelling to work for your school.

Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.