Lecture Series features art of storytelling


Marshall University

Professor Dan Hollis speaking at Marshall University graduation event.

To discuss the importance of storytelling in journalism and in the classroom, Marshall University journalism professor Dan Hollis presented a lecture on his teaching techniques and the importance of creating memorable stories for an audience.   

The event, titled “Storytelling and Storytelling,” began the MU’s Artists, Scholars and Innovators lecture series for the spring semester. The Center for Teaching and Learning hosts the series, and each lecture is presented by award-winning faculty chosen for their achievements.  

The virtual forum opened with MU staff congratulating Hollis for winning the 2019-2020 Outstanding Faculty Award and being named a finalist for the Faculty Merit Foundation of W.Va’s 2020 Professor of the Year.   

He began his lecture with a description of what makes stories interesting. Hollis said all good stories are relevant and purposeful. They have a “character” or a human focus that can relate to the reader.  

Hollis said that readers often connect more to human beings than they can to facts, and switching the focus of a story to a person’s detailed experience is more interesting and effective than restating facts and events. He also said characters should have a voice for themselves, and the storyteller should not tell the audience how to feel.  

Hollis also said it is important to include an emotional element to a story to add conflict and stakes to a narrative.   

“Emotions drive a story,” Hollis said. “They provide a motive for the character.”  

Hollis also said details make a story — the better the details, the more vivid the story. Hollis shared an example of an engaging story he shares with his students in his mass communications law and ethics class. It focused on the life of Sojourner Truth and how she seized her freedom and secured a future for herself. He invited the audience to consider details and descriptions that stood out to them, noting the structure, conflict, and characters in the narrative.   

Hollis then discussed how to incorporate storytelling into lectures to help students be more engaged with class material. He said the purpose of telling Sojourner Truth’s story is to make an ethical point to his students about the decisions they make in their careers. He said students should, like Truth, make sure they are confident in their choices when brought to light.   

“I told them this story for a reason, and I want to make sure they get that reason,” Hollis said. “I wanted to make sure they got my ethics point. Make your decisions. Make sure you can live with them, and make sure the decisions can survive the light.”  

Hollis said storytelling has many forms that are useful in the classroom to drive a point to students. He said that in his law and ethics class, he has students create stories of their own by dramatizing the concepts covered in the lessons. He said he also invites them to invent stories to accompany images or prompts.   

Hollis also said he likes to engage with his students by being animated during lectures, moving around the room and making eye contact with students. He said an issue with virtual learning for him is losing the ability to move and dramatize during lectures, but there are some benefits to virtual learning.   

“I can see the faces of my students and make eye contact with each of them,” Hollis said. “I can still be personal with them, sometimes even more than in-person learning.”  

Hollis ended his lecture by saying professors should “read the room” and anticipate the attitude of a classroom to see if a break is needed. He said if students aren’t focusing, add a story. He said the process of storytelling and stories themselves merge and become inseparable. He said stories can be one of the most memorable and valuable aspects of a lecture that students can take with them into the future.    

“Stories are the ultimate currency,” Hollis said. “Think about that gold coin from our stories that stays with our students, and our stories hopefully make our students lives a little richer.” 

Madison Perdue can be contacted at [email protected]