The Power of Story

Huang Fellow Ishaan Brar reflects on a seminar with Jeff Polish, researcher turned master storyteller.

I remember sitting around the late-night campfire, transfixed as I was transported around the world and through time through the power of stories. Taking turns, my crew leaders would each take turns telling their unique stories. And despite who was telling them and what they were saying, middle-school Ishaan was always entranced, never wanting their tales to end, and always wondering how he could tell stories like those.

Dr. Jeff Polish answered these questions, and more, through his engaging discussion of the power of storytelling. Sitting outside in the Duke Gardens, he began with a story, telling of the time he accidently fell asleep during a highly touted visiting professors guest lecture before loudly awakening in a room a packed room. This experience, along with many others, demonstrated to him that when telling your story, no matter what the content is, you must make your audience care. Make the content relatable. Be Impactful. Engage them from minute one. Each of these lessons further added layers to my understanding of storytelling and speaking.

“I left the conver- sation eagerly excited to develop my story- telling skills further, having been empowered with a deeper understanding of storytelling as a whole.”

Rather than do the traditional three-part structure of preview of content, content, then summary, Dr. Polish challenged us to adopt a new 3 act structure.

First, the beginning, where the question of “the why” is explored, serves to set the scene and the initial barriers or problems. Then comes the middle, “the what,” were the central conflict is overcome. Finally, there is the end, or “the meaning,” where you conclude your story with a resolution. As the story progresses, tension should build until the climax, which helps keep the emotional impact of the story and the engagement high. And, although it seemed technical, Dr. Polish emphasized that most of everything followed this structure, from our research projects to even conversations.

I left the conversation eagerly excited to develop my storytelling skills further, having been now empowered with a deeper understanding of storytelling as a whole. And, if I ever want to put those skills to the test, I know where to go: Dr. Polish is also the executive director of the Monti, a nonprofit dedicated to storytelling and community, that hosts events that allow normal people to tell their stories. After listening to Dr. Polish, I am already looking up tickets for their June show!

Ishaan Brar, Huang Fellow ’25

Ishaan BrarIshaan is a first-year student interested in studying Global Health and Biology on the pre-med track. Outside the classroom, he supports students as part of Duke Student Government, working with local nonprofits and community partners through Duke Remote Area Medical, or running conference logistics as part of TedxDuke.