War Stories are Teaching Moments

You’ve probably heard the old joke: how can you tell a fairy tale from a sea story? One begins “Once upon a time” and the other begins “Now this is no lie.” Ah, yes. The point of the joke, of course, is that neither story is true.

In a sense, though, the joke falls flat; because, in a sense, both types of stories ARE true. I don’t mean that Europe once crawled with giants, dragons and disgruntled fairies, or that sailors regularly catch sharks with their bare hands, but each of those fairy tales or sea stories makes some point intended to affect how the listeners live their lives. The events may be colored, the heroism may be exaggerated, but the stories illustrate ways to be brave, techniques for handling bad characters, how to choose friends, and what to do in peculiar situations. And those are all important skills for navigating the shadowed paths of life.

Stories had been teaching tools since people learned to talk. In fact, if you look at the oldest myths, none are pure entertainment: they all, in one way or another, explain something. Those Greek myths we had to study in English class all describe aspects of creation. The epic poems preserved cultural history. Yes, they all taught something. That they eventually became entertainment is the reminder that instructors have always had to shape their lessons to their audience.

Occasionally, though, we at NEMRT have seen comments on class evaluations berating an instructor's excessive use of “war stories:” anecdotes about the instructor’s experiences. Yet, stories are the most effective way to help students retain knowledge. Look at the popularity of TED talks. People connect with other people's experiences, and make changes in their own lives based on their stories. The students’ complaints no doubt arise when they don’t understand how the stories relate to the training topic, or if the instructors use the stories to aggrandize themselves, rather than illustrate the training topic. Nothing spoils a good story like ego, and a good story out of place is just a distraction. It's sad, too, because, chances are, those stories are all excellent illustrations of training points. Rookies can learn a lot of life-saving insights from veterans, but not when they can't understand those points.

Everyone has a story, but not everyone is a storyteller. Sometimes, listeners have to help them along by looking for the learning objectives when they relate their anecdote. Leading questions can help bring out the best in such stories. The [amateur] instructor, too, must watch for teachable moments, and not waste that instructive life experience in self-praise. As storyteller Michael Katz reminds his students, telling a story is not about you: it's about the story.

So, the next time Sgt. McBragg relates that yarn (again) about what happened when he vaulted a fence on an icy night, look for the learning objectives in that story. How can you be safer on patrol based on his experience? And, Sgt. McBragg, when you tell that story, make sure you do it at the right time for those young officers, and, if need be, tell them what they need to learn from it. Even if imagination has colored the circumstances like a fairy tale, it's the training truth that makes it real. As G.K. Chesterton observed, "What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey."* The new officers need those war stories of your victories to help achieve their own.

(Incidentally, that opening joke is no joke: my father was in the Navy and, while attending one of his ship reunions, a shipmate opened his story of adventure while stationed at Gunatanamo Bay in the 1950s with, “Now this is no lie…” And that's no lie!

*From "The Red Angel" by G.K. Chesterton:
An essay on the power of stories, and fairy tales in particular.

Other Resources:

Donovan, Jeremy. How to deliver a TED talk : Secrets of the world's most inspiring presentations. Chicago: McGraw-Hill; 2014;x, 229 [1] pages. ISBN: 9780071831598 / 0071831592
NEMRT Call Number: 56900-DON-2014, or http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/852681918

The Keys to Mindful Storytelling by Michael Katz and the GoToTraining team. [Webinar recording. www.tinyurl.com/mindfulstorytelling (Requires free registration). A clear, inspiring tutorial on how to tell a story -- which is as interesting as any story Michael Katz tells!

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