Telling the Story
Curator, Commemorative Air Force
When asked if I would write an article for the WASP Squadron Newsletter about storytelling I was honored and more than happy to accept the challenge. I am certainly not a master storyteller and if you ask some of the folks who work with me, they will probably tell you that my stories can be repetitive, long or boring – or even worse, all three! However, I have had numerous opportunities to listen to true master storytellers both exercising their craft and explaining it. My intent in this article is to pay it forward – to share with you all some of the important kernels of information that have been shared with me in the past.
Some of you might be expecting an article on the construction of the narrative arc, or the ancient Greek codifications of Nemesis, Catharsis … but this is not that article. We deal almost exclusively with historic stories, they have all of the players constructed – and the drama is built in. Instead, let’s focus on storytelling and the technicalities of message delivery.
Storytelling plays a key role in the CAF. Each time we show off a plane to the general public, give a guided tour in a unit museum, or stand up in front of a classroom full of school children with artifacts in hand, we are seeking to share history with others – seeking to tell a story. Storytelling is actually the primary way in which the CAF accomplishes its educational mission to impact Americans across the country. It is crucial that we go into the field, understanding that the way we tell a story can dramatically affect the way the public connects with our artifacts, our airplanes, and World War II History. Tell a story well and you can have an impact, make a difference in the world, and advance the mission of the CAF.
Thankfully the single most important ingredient for excellent storytelling is already present within the WASP Squadron in abundance – it is PASSION. Energetic, passionate delivery will often engage people with your story in a real and meaningful way, even if you aren’t as strong in other fundamental areas. Let the audience see how much you care about sharing the story, and they will come to share your excitement.
It is critical that you consider your audience at all times. Know that our stories about the greatest generation are inherently abstract and hard to internalize because your average audience member lives as far away from World War II as the World War II generation was from the Civil War. This is a massive hurdle that we have to work to cross each time we tell a story. Luckily there are two great tools for creating access points, RELEVANCE and RELATABILITY. They can be used independently, but have a multiplying effect when used together.
Making a story RELEVANT can be accomplished by forming bridges between the wartime experiences in your story and the things the audience cares about today. In the specific case of the WASP Program, making connections to women’s issues today would be an example of how a story from World War II could be made relevant to a modern audience. Relatability is slightly different; it is based on providing your audience opportunities to connect with basic elements of the human experience. In our WASP example we might emphasize the struggle to overcome adversity on the part of the WASP themselves, because struggle is something we can each relate to in our own lives. Another opportunity to forge relatability can come from encouraging your audience to consider the emotions of those who lived through the actual experience you are covering in your story.
Raising questions to the group is a great technique, as long as it is not over‐used. Remember that our ultimate goal is to educate the audience by bringing them along on a journey. We want our story to REVEAL important information and highlight the meanings within the history that we are sharing. Always be asking yourself: Why does it matter? Why should my audience care? Endeavor to answer these questions as part of your delivery.
Make sure that you connect your particular story with the LARGER NARRATIVE of the war. Remember that without your help the audience may struggle to place the story within the history that they know. This is especially true of stories which are not broadly known – like that of the WASP Program. Do not pass up opportunities to touch on events like Pearl Harbor or D‐Day which are etched in the Nations collective memory. Even if they are not central to your story, you can mention them in passing.
As we each work to hone our storytelling techniques, and we weave our narratives around the touch‐points outlined above we must also guard against that most heinous of lurking issues – being boring. We must endeavor to make our stories interesting. We all struggle with this as individuals, and the solutions will be diverse. In my own experience the best way to ensure a story is interesting is to test it, and refine it each time it is told. I TEST STORIES routinely on my girlfriend, because she will be honest about its being boring – and while she is passionate about history, World War II is not really her bailiwick, so her perspective tends to broadly reflect that of the general public.
One of the common challenges we face as storytellers is being “too close” to the story. We have studied aviation, and World War II; we forget that our audience might not have. We forget to give them the context that they need, because for us it is implied. We might be agonizing over the explanation of how the WASP were founded, bouncing back and forth between Jackie and Nancy, and forget to explain that women were not initially allowed to be pilots in the military! As with the boredom factor, this is most effectively guarded against by testing the story. In storytelling you have to start where the audience is are, and bring them to where you want them to be.
Even as you are telling your story, you have to keep a weather eye on your audience. Develop your “Stand Up Comedian Reflex.” This is the ability to observe what is working, and what is not working, and adjust on the fly. This is a critical skill in our role as storytellers. If you observe people on their phones, or drifting away, adjust your approach, and see if you can get them to re‐engage with you, and the story. Try emphasizing different aspects of relatability or relevance if you are struggling.
Storytelling is an art form, some people are born with a natural aptitude. The rest of us study it, test it, and seek to improve ourselves over time. The old adage, practice makes perfect is absolutely correct. I look forward to seeing all of you sharing the WASP story, making sure their experiences can inspire us all to achieve more!
A Word on Content Another whole article could be written about crafting the content for your stories. Since it is my sincere hope that this article has encouraged you to unleash your creative energies in telling the WASP story, let me close by sharing pearls of wisdom on content I have acquired over time.
1. Stories should be carefully researched and factual. We shouldn’t just be repeating stories we have gleaned from movies and yes, even some books, without verifying them first.
2. Knowing your content and understanding it are two different things. If you understand the story you are telling you will be able to be flexible when you need to adapt it for different age groups etc.
3. We should be careful not to over generalize when we tell a story, and we should be aware that using small and specific examples to explain a global trend can be helpful for audience comprehension. Example: WASP ferried planes vs. the WASP took planes from the Grand Prairie manufacturing line, flew them to the specified squadron base, were themselves ferried back to Love Field in Dallas (no commercial airlines!), took a bus to the manufacturing facility/airfield and repeated the process.
4. Stories we tell should be chosen for their ability to emphasize the American values which won the war: perseverance, dedication, and courage ‐ because these are the values our
veterans seek to pass on. Don’t glorify the war, or take issue with right vs. wrong. Instead, acknowledge the men and women who fought to keep us safe from the spreading of the war onto our shores. 5. Stories from the war years are a powerful opportunity to show the awesome might of a united America; this resonates with modern audiences.