These are some of the most common responses I hear from students when I ask them “How was your study abroad experience?”.
Unfortunately, most students stop there; fortunately, the story does not.
My follow up question to any answer is always: why?
Why was your trip awesome? What did you find interesting? How has your experience changed your life? What did you learn? Why is that important?
Many students get frustrated with such follow-up questions because they have not either
a) taken the time to explore their thoughts and feelings, or
b) they are not yet equipped with the language to fully convey the depth and full impact of their experience
Feeling this way, though exasperating, is entirely normal. Studying abroad can be a powerful and transformative experience. It’s also one experience in which most students do not take enough time to dig deep, reflect and explore the “why” aspect of their journey. Asking “why” is what makes your study abroad story meaningful and memorable. Through conversation, questions and personal reflection, you can start to craft the meaning of your study abroad story.
Take a moment to think of your favorite book or movie. Why is it your favorite? Why do you care about it? What elements were used to make it a compelling story?
Most good stories include these basics:
• 3 acts: the beginning, middle, & end
• A back story
• A primary character to follow throughout – be it an antagonist or protagonist – in your story’s case, this is you!
• A question or conflict demanding resolve
• A journey or process to solve the problem
• Lessons learned or moral of the story
“It all begins with knowing what story you want to tell.” Kevin Spacey
If you haven’t already done some serious reflecting on your study abroad experience, I urge you to take some time to do that now. Think back on your experience, ask yourself the following questions and write out your honest answers:
• Why did you choose to study abroad?
• What did you learn in the classroom?
• What was unexpected? What surprised you during your time abroad?
• What did you learn about the culture? Why is that interesting to you?
• What was one thing that was quite difficult during the experience? How did you work through that difficulty?
• How did you change during the course of your study abroad experience?
• How have you changed now that it’s over and you’re back home?
• What’s one thing you wish you had done differently? How would that have changed or impacted your study abroad experience?
• What’s one thing you think your family or friends don’t understand about your study abroad experience? Why is that important to you?
By thinking back to your study abroad experience and answering these questions, you’ll start to see elements that can be highlighted in your study abroad story. A story begins when something happens. In addition to having the basic elements, all good stories also have another thing in common. In one of my favorite TED Talks, titled “The Clues to a Great Story”, Pixar writer/director Andrew Stanton says all great stories have to ‘make you [the audience] care’ about the story.
What’s the message you want to share? Who’s your audience? What will they care about? What information is relevant to them? It’s quite likely that the study abroad story you tell your academic advisor will be a bit different than the story you tell a potential employer. In either case, you should focus on communicating the value of your international experience in a way that is compelling and purposeful.
Three ways to practice telling your study abroad story is by crafting sound bites in 30 second, 3 minute or 30 minute increments:
• 30 Seconds = An intriguing introduction to your study abroad story. One option is to use the ABT method* to create your one sentence elevator pitch.
• 3 minutes = A thoughtful and entertaining overview of your study abroad experience, with a glimpse into something deeper (drop hints for more).
• 30 minutes = Your compelling study abroad narrative that weaves several threads into one cohesive story with depth, texture, meaning and purpose—the start of your personal epic or journey. During your 30 minute story you need to check in with the audience frequently—are they still engaged? Have their eyes glazed over? Are they checking their cellphone? Was there something you said that really resonated with them? Did they light up when you touched on one specific topic? If that’s the case, you should adjust your story to expand on that area since they are clearly interested. Keep them engaged.
*The ABT method comes from a book called “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking” by Randy Olson, Dorie Barton, and Brian Palermo. ABT stands for “And, But, Therefore”, which serves as a template for starting great stories.
Here’s an example of one way to apply ABT to your 30 second study abroad story:
“I chose to study abroad in Spain to increase my Spanish language skills and experience a different culture, but I ended up learning a lot about myself, therefore I now encourage younger students to consider studying abroad too because there are so many opportunities for growth.“
Now that you know some of the elements to creating a good story, it’s time for you to practice by selecting one audience and crafting the 30 second, 3 minute, and 30 minute versions of your story.
After you’ve crafted the 3 versions of your story, the next step is to practice. Tell your story often and to different audiences. See what works. Next re-write your 3 sound bites for a different audience. If you get stuck or the story doesn’t flow like you thought it would, go back to work and try another angle. Practice until the story sounds like you and fits your natural speaking cadence. It’s your story. Own it.
Still need more motivation?
Visit these great resources and think about how you can apply the information or structure they’re using to your own study abroad story.
• Kevin Spacey’s 3 tips for better storytelling
• Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk
• StoryCorps—Great Questions List (to listen to some StoryCorps stories, visit: http://storycorps.org/listen/)
• The Moth Radio Hour and live events (another great source for hearing how people tell their own stories!)
• Book: “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking”
• Book: “Winning the Story Wars” and companion exercise
• Park Howell’s Fast-pitch Storytelling Workshop
Shanon Langlie is an international and intercultural educator, advocate, storyteller, and travel enthusiast. With a B.S. in Mass Communications from Minnesota State University Moorhead and Master’s in Counselor Education/Higher Ed Administration from Clemson University, she currently serves at the Global Projects Manager for Washington University in St. Louis. Shanon is passionate about helping people identify meaningful international adventures and teaching them how to reflect upon, understand, and communicate the value of their diverse cultural experiences (both at home and abroad). Feel free to contact her or follow her on Twitter!