Case Study: Talking History

Story, Orality and Community

Student-led project 

Laura Tisdall, University of Cambridge

November 2012 – May 2013

Talking History is an innovative training programme for postgraduate students and early career researchers (ECRs) at the University of Cambridge, delivered in partnership with storytelling and theatre company, Rambling Heart (WordPress). The programme aims to develop students’ abilities in interviewing research participants and presenting their findings through storytelling and performance skills, exercises and techniques.

These are skills that we can all learn to use to our advantage as public speakers – and doctoral students and ECRs need to be good speakers to engage with academic and non-academic audiences. Perhaps the most important skill is finding the story itself, identifying and telling a narrative that draws our listeners in. Storytelling techniques also help us in collecting stories and engaging with stories in the wider community, making these valuable skills for oral history, sociology and self-narrative work.

Therefore, Talking History explores how we structure the stories we tell - in presentations, in written research and in sharing experiences - and how we can make them better.

Content of Skills Development programme

Over the course of the project we:

  • trained 30+ graduate students and ECRs in traditional storytelling skills;
  • ran intensive 1-2-1 sessions for 10 participants to tackle particular skills gaps relating to storytelling, e.g. presentation skills and oral history interviews;
  • ran 8 workshops with 3 community groups (Centre 33 Young Carers’ Project), FLACK and Jimmy’s Cambridgeshire and 5 academic participants to take storytelling skills out into the community and extend academics’ experience of working in community partnerships;
  • and formed connections for the future, with further projects suggested for Young Carers and Jimmy’s, and strong interest generated among students for more workshops.

Skills Development

Participants gained skills in:

  • using story-mapping and bullet-points to plan an academic paper;
  • understanding the teller-audience relationship and how this can be helpful when presenting work;
  • using gestures, tone of voice etc. to make presentations engaging;
  • academic work and public engagement;
  • and understanding storytelling as an art form.

Challenges for the future

The current challenge for Talking History is sustaining the project beyond the current academic year and widening its scope. This could involve running a further set of workshops at Cambridge, making the programme more sustainable and forging longer-term relationships with community groups; or running the programme at other universities with a new set of community partners.

In the meantime, we intend to use social media such as my existing blog, Facebook, and Twitter to gauge interest, feedback, and new ideas for sustaining Talking History.

Top tips for future applicants

  • Anticipate demand. When sending out information about Talking History, we emphasised that these workshops would be popular and urged students to sign up quickly. Within 24 hours, we had filled our 30 places and we ended up with a waiting list of almost 40 students and ECRs.
  • Emphasise the CV benefits. Although our initial workshops were extremely popular, we found it more difficult to attract participants to later stages of the project. In retrospect, we should have done more to emphasise the transferable skills participants were gaining by working in community settings, as it is so important in modern-day academia to be able to connect to all kinds of audiences.
  • Use social media throughout. Although we plan to use blogging, Twitter and Facebook to keep the project alive, integrating this from the beginning would have been even more effective.
  • Spread the net wide. One of the particular strengths of our workshops was their interdisciplinary nature: at least six different faculties were represented. This added layers to our discussions and allowed us to challenge intra-faculty assumptions.