Story Structure and Storytelling Performance Techniques to Translate Scholarly Work

This is the fourth in a series of posts about each of the teams that will be attending SCI 2017, and their projects. This one was submitted by Brian Sturm.

Photo of man shining a flashlight into the night sky

In the last decade, “story” and “storyteller” have become immensely popular concepts in a wide variety of contexts. Corporations have adopted the term for marketing products (content marketing), organizational branding (transmedia storytelling), and management strategies.  Fiction writers, movie producers, and video game designers are acclaimed as “superb storytellers.” Even scientists, however tentatively, are seeking to co-opt the words as they try to find ways to make science more accessible.

Story has gained prominence in popular culture since the “storytelling renaissance” in the US began in 1980 with the establishment of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (now known as the National Storytelling Network).  Scholarship suggests that humans are wired to think in story (Fuller, 1991); that story improves comprehension, memory, literacy, meaning, motivation for learning, and engagement or involvement (Haven, 2007); and that people experience stories as if they were real (Sturm, 2000), leading to increased empathy and connection with each other (Manney, 2008).

In short, storytelling and story structure are immensely powerful communicative tools, and it is timely that the Institute is addressing their value in fostering scholarly communication.  The primary challenge for this working group is to answer the question, “How can we use storytelling techniques and story structure to help translate scholarly productivity and dissemination into a more accessible and memorable format?”  We view “productivity and dissemination” broadly, so that it includes: research articles, conference papers and presentations, research posters, as well as face-to-face and online teaching.

This working group is dedicated to designing a workbook of options to help scientists in different disciplines understand the processes involved in applying story structure and performance techniques to their work.  We intend to start with broad-stroke brainstorming sessions to capture the wealth of ideas our diverse backgrounds provide, and then focus on designing templates and processes for academics to follow that will help them translate their scholarly work into formats that harness the power of story.  Different disciplines have different expectations for their “products,” so we envision needing to develop different options for each, as one story or structure will not serve all disciplines.

Working Group Participants

We have assembled a team that builds on many of the strengths of collaborative teams.  The members are interdisciplinary, with expertise in folklore, linguistics, music performance, music and storytelling therapy, and library and information science.  All of the members are seasoned performers in their areas and combine to bring both the academic/theoretical and practical lenses to this endeavor. All members are published authors of scholarly work.  They bring a diversity of perspectives and an established record of pertinent, scholarly communication to this group.

  • Ruth Herbert, PhD – Ruth is Head of Performance in the School of Music & Fine Arts at the University of Kent, UK.  She is a music psychologist and performer with diverse research interests in the fields of music in everyday life, music, health and wellbeing, music and performance psychology, phenomenology, evolutionary psychology and ethology. Her book, Everyday Listening: Absorption, Dissociation and Trancing is published by Routledge (2011). From 2012 to 2015, Ruth led a 3-year nationwide study of young people’s listening as a British Academy Fellow at Oxford University. She is currently co-editing a book on music and consciousness for OUP and has published many academic papers. Ruth shares a scholarly interest in modes of experiential engagement with Brian Sturm.  Her real strength to this working group is her unique approach to “music as story,” her knowledge of the “absorbing power of music,” and her perspective on assessing the relevance of the templates we hope to develop to disciplines outside the knowledge of the rest of the group.
  • Rob Parkinson, MA – Professional storyteller, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and author, Rob has over thirty years’ experience working in all sorts of performance and workshop contexts in the UK and internationally. He is a former Chair of the (English) Society for Storytelling. Rob is also a widely experienced therapist and the current director of The Brief Therapy Centre in Tonbridge, UK, where he has trained many professionals in the use and relevance of stories and storytelling approaches to therapeutic change.  He is the author of acclaimed Transforming Tales: How Stories Can Change People. (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009) and several other titles on the practical skills and the relevance of storytelling to many forms of communication.
  • Monica Sanchez, PhD – Monica is a former linguistics professor at Brock University in Canada, whose interest in storytelling spawned the International Conference on Storytelling in 1999, the proceedings of which resulted in Storytelling: Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Perspectives (2002). Monica also brings a unique perspective that will help broaden the applicability of our proposed templates; of all of the disciplines represented in this working group, linguistics is the most like mathematics, and her expertise in analytical thinking and her training in argumentation will help broaden and deepen the group’s thinking and the dissemination of the results.
  • Kay Stone, PhD – Kay is a renowned folklorist and storyteller from Canada. She taught storytelling and folklore classes at the University of Winnipeg for nearly 30 years, and is the author of several books on story, including Some Day Your Witch Will Come (selections from her scholarly articles), Burning Brightly: New Light on Old Tales Told Today (interviews with modern North American storytellers), and The Golden Woman: Dreaming as Art. She has written extensively about women in folktales and feminist approaches to folklore, and has expertise in modern oral narration.
  • Ruth Stotter, MA – Ruth is from California and is the former director of the Dominican University Storytelling Program, where she designed curriculum and supervised six faculty members. She has been a self-employed teacher, author, and storyteller for the past 35 years, and is the recipient of the National Storytelling Network’s Oracle Lifetime Achievement in Storytelling award (2011).  She brings a wealth of folkloric and storytelling knowledge to the group, and is the author of About Story: Writings on Stories and Storytelling, 1980-1994, and its sequel, More About Story: Writings on Stories and Storytelling, 1995-2001.
  • Brian Sturm, PhD – Brian has researched the immersive power of storytelling and narrative worlds for nearly 20 years.  He teaches storytelling and public library work with children in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he brings that unique perspective to the group.  His research explores engagement in narrative environments of all kinds (digital, performative, and print), and he has recently developed a course in storytelling and social equity. He is the co-author of The Storyteller’s Sourcebook, 1983-1999 (Gale, 2001), a motif index to children’s folktale collections. He spent one month in Thailand in 2002 as a Fulbright Scholar sharing stories and providing workshops, where he helped develop a children’s literature doctoral curriculum for Mahasarakham University, and recently concluded a 27-day lecture & workshop tour of eastern China.

Photo of a man sitting in front of a wall of paintings

Dissemination and Follow-up Activities

Our workbook will be available on the open web and may lead to a book contract eventually.  To accomplish this, follow-up work will continue amongst the group, and we will seek to bring in other scholars from unrepresented disciplines (such as the sciences) to flesh out our initial ideas.  Depending on the composition of the groups accepted to the Institute, this working group may provide a completely unique set of perspectives for the Institute as a whole.  Collaborations function best when those working together provide myriad lenses on the issues, and this group certainly does so.


Fuller, R. (1991). The primacy of story. In Context, 27, 26-28. Available:

Sturm, B. (2000). The storylistening trance experience. Journal of American Folklore, 113, 287-304. Available:

Haven, K. (2007). Story proof: the science behind the startling power of story. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited.

Manney, P. J. (2008). Empathy in the time of technology: how storytelling is the key to empathy. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 19, 1, 51-61. Available:

[ Photos by Dino Reichmuth and Beata Ratuszniak used under Unsplash free license. ]

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