Storytelling in Media

The fifth guideline from symmentropy focuses on the many different media forms that make storytelling something for everyone with many different talents.

Fifth rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling in words, pictures, dance, music and everything you can think of.

By Lee McGavin


Walking with my artist continuously surprises me. It should not. I know she views the world as a visual cornucopia. Every rock, twig and blade of grass presents her with an opportunity to express her feelings. Subtleties of color and texture send her in flights of fancy. A ten minute walk can produce a basket of potential sculpture. Walking with her separates us by how we think and tell our stories. Our brains march to drummers from different orchestras. Hers throbs with color and shape, while mine beats steady rhythm of function and text. When we share our experience, we translate our reactions into stories that we can both understand. Our process is fundamentally human. Prehistoric cave paintings remind us that an essential element of humanity expresses itself through many different forms, but always returns the desire to share life.

The fifth guideline for symmentropy recognizes the human need to express ideas in a variety of forms, each with its own storytelling strengths and weaknesses. From dance to architecture, our dreams and nightmares tell the themes of the human condition. Each of us begins to recognize what form we prefer for expressing our stories. Some call it a talent and some, like my artist, call themselves “visual thinkers”. No matter what name we use, it impacts our relationships as our comfort with different story subjects derives from the skills that we employ to move our feelings into easily shared stories. A story that makes us uncomfortable in pictures, can bring us delight if we read as it text. We each have levels of storytelling capability that we learn to use.

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From "Off the Couch"

I taught dozens of public speaking courses, often to students who would rather be going to the dentist than address even an audience of fellow students. With each class, I watched their first presentation looking for signs of panic. I wanted to be ready with water or a fan in case of hyperventilation that could lead to fainting. I never had a student collapse, but many got to sit down and get their breathing under control before continuing. Part of the goal of the class is to help students find ways to control their nerves while speaking, so I watched pretty carefully to get a sense of my students.

I was teaching a course at an extension center located on an Air Force base and several of the students were taking the class instead of a lunch hour before returning to their jobs. One charming young woman left the office of the Commanding General where she was his administrative assistant. Each day she would arrive in the conservative attire that fit such a position. On the day of her first speech, she was wearing a suit, matching jacket and skirt that came to her knees. She also had a scarf around her neck and tucked into the jacket.

She began talking about the advantages of weight lifting for exercise and muscle tone rather than building muscle bulk. She appeared to be a little nervous but controlled, so I started paying attention to her talk not her potential for becoming unconscious. Looking at her face, it was impossible to not notice the nervous rash that began crawling up out of her scarf. It took less than a minute to climb her neck and spread toward her ear. While I began to think about where I could find a first aid kit, she told the audience how confident she felt after a year of working out with weights. In my view, the rash consuming her neck did not look very confident.

Before I had a chance to consider this contradiction any further, she pulled the scarf from her neck so we could all see that the rash indeed went down past her collar bone. As she unbuttoned her jacket, she told us her increased confidence led to her part time job as a “ring girl” for boxing matches. The main responsibility for a ring girl is to look really good in a really small bikini while she walks around the ring holding up a sign that announces what round is about to start. She continued her explanation and her business like stripping without missing a beat in her presentation. She finished her speech wearing only a bikini (tiny) and heels (high).

This story would be included in my list of 10 Fun Things Students do in Class if I had not been watching her nervous rash. As my student unbuttoned and carefully set aside her coat, the rash started a mad dash back down her neck. While she unzipped and stepped out of her skirt, the rash collapsed into itself at the base of her neck. When she started demonstrating various poses to show the effects of her weight training, the rash vanished without a trace. Her speech became a perfect example of her self confidence without much covering the parts that she had spent so much time developing. All of the students learned a lesson in how your body and your clothes tell a story that you want to tell and can be comfortable telling.

Years later, at a different Air Force base extension center, I listened while a young man stumbled, hemmed and hawed his way through his speech. When he finished, I asked him where he had grown up. Still standing in front of the class, he looked at me like I was starting some form of torture but replied that he was born and raised in a small, west Texas town. Then I asked him why someone from west Texas, who was earning a degree in Ranch Management wanted to use words and phrases that sounded like New York. Once more the frustration showed in his face, but all he could mutter sounded like he thought he was supposed to do that. I asked him to start his speech again, but this time to talk like he was talking to ranchers. One more round of dirty looks was followed by a very relaxed and fluid beginning to his speech. Everyone in the room smiled as it became clear that being encouraged to tell his story, in his way, opened the door to making him comfortable as a speaker. After class, he thanked me for giving him the confidence to do what he did best.


My student thought that there were rules about public speaking that prevented him from expressing himself inside his comfort zone. He was trying to follow the rules set by what he had seen on television instead of talking to the audience in front of him. Just as we are happiest in our careers when we apply our natural talents, we achieve clarity when we apply our natural storytelling talents. Our stories work best even when the form is a west Texas drawl or telling your story while practically naked or picking up sticks and stones along the path to make sculpture. Our ideas have to fit in a form that is accessible to an audience and that usually means that we have to be comfortable presenting it.

Peary Street did not have to be graveyard of storytelling skills. It just turned out that way. The combination of inflexible rules, unrelenting bigotry and indiscriminate censorship forced the family to adopt patterns of storytelling without regard to talents, skills or comfort zones. The irony of Peary Street surfaced as my mother began her devotion to her painting. My youngest brother grew up watching her toiling at her easel resulting in a totally different sense of storytelling. His sense of family was dominated by the grandchildren and visual storytelling setting him apart from the rest of his brothers and sisters.


In the years following our father's death, the youngest brother experienced a series of personal crises that challenged him to find a level of personal satisfaction. The answers he found brightened his outlook and gave a remarkable sense of calm satisfaction in spite of all his experience with personal grief. His response turned his back over to a tattoo artist as canvass. Between his shoulder blades, my brother now has a rising phoenix. I doubt that he could have considered his ink if he had not been separated into the grandchildren generation with its easier acceptance of tattoos and our mother's efforts to express herself in graphics. His comfort with his story permanently attached to his body reminds us all that the lessons of Peary Street can be overcome.

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