Episode 17 – Len Cabral On Using Stories To Communicate

When it comes to effective communication, it’s not just about the content. According to Len, using physical movement to tell a story and engage your audience is a pretty important skill and tool to employ.


Guest Starring Len Cabral, Professional Storyteller

Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield

Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE

Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE

Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:

Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation

Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League

Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory

Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC

The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.


“All The Best Fakers” by Nick Jaina is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“A Burst of Light” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Caprese” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Deliberate Thought” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) is Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/



Welcome to The Great Communicators Podcast presented by The MIT Office of Graduate Education, a professional development podcast expressly designed to bring lessons from the field to our graduate student researchers.

My name is Adam Greenfield and one of my passions is poetry, both reading and writing. I’ve also been lucky enough to have a collection of poetry published. And through this passion I frequently find myself at poetry readings, reciting some of my writing to audiences both big and small. To say I don’t get butterflies in my stomach each time would be a lie.

But over the years, as I’ve tried to better my performance and storytelling skills, I’m verbally practicing out loud to my cat and otherwise empty apartment. Part of that practice also involves physical movement. And what I’ve found is along with my communicating skills improving, there are less and less butterflies each time.

Now, when it comes to communication, especially to a live audience, even the greatest communicators started off a bundle of nerves. But if you ask each one, I bet they’d tell you with practice and an engaging communicative performance, including just the slightest physical movement, it gets easier and easier each time, even if in small increments.

Our guest in this episode is no stranger to using his body in front of an audience to enhance concepts and ideas within a talk or story. He’s not doing somersaults or jumping jacks but….


A little movement goes a long way.


That’s Len Cabral…


…and I’m a professional storyteller.


Len’s been telling stories and folktales since 1976 to many different kinds of audiences. So where did he get his start?


Well, I was working in a daycare center and I was in charge of 15 five year olds. That’ll make you a storyteller.


I watched a few videos of Len telling stories and I noticed a trend no matter the age of the audience; Len’s physical movements, especially with his hands, were a major component of his communication skills.


Well, I’ve always used my hands when I speak. But when I’m in a performance or when I’m developing a story, at times I will use my hands to maybe make that story a little clearer or use my hands so maybe I don’t have to use so many words.


When talking about a complex subject or to an audience with a limited background, I can actually see where this could come in handy, no pun intended. Ok, maybe a little bit.

Len gave an example of how useful it can be.


You don’t know the depth of your audience’s vocabulary when you’re working with children. So for example if I said, “So the witch flew through the window and sat down by her cauldron.” Now, some children may know what a cauldron is. But even children born in this country may not because it’s such an old word. They may not have heard that word, cauldron. So if I use the word cauldron and at the same time move my hands to show a bowl or half a bowl, a container, so a student who didn’t know that word cauldron wouldn’t be lost because they’ll go, “Oh, a cauldron must be some sort of container, a bowl, a pot or something like that.” Just by moving my hands that way.


Implementing physical involvement into the story is a really great way of engaging your audience, too. You’re not just helping them understand what you’re saying but you’re also asking them to be a part of the story you’re telling.


So I look at storytelling as I’m spreading my arms out and pulling everybody close. You know, like, traditional theater has that fourth wall where you separate the audience from the stage. With storytelling, it’s almost like pulling that audience onto the stage. It’s open, and so my hands are open. I try to use encouragement when I’m- especially when I’m asking people to participate, I’m waving them on. Luring them into the story, using my hands to lure them in.


Well, now I’ve got a warm and fuzzy feeling inside but there’s still a part of me that feels nervous. I don’t have the performance training or decades of experience to know when in the story these sort of physical techniques come in handy.


Well, I guess it comes with practice and rehearsing that story. When I’m in my studio working on a new story, I’m pacing, I’m using different voices, I use different techniques to help me to capture that story in my mind. So I might sing that story. Or I might do the whole story in mime. It’s what I call physicalizing the story. So when I’m telling the story, and let’s say a bell rings or a door slams, and I lose my train of thought because I got distracted, I can check out where I am physically and I’ll know what story I’m telling, I’ll know where I am in the story. I can look at photographs of people taken of me telling stories over the years and I can say, “Well, I was telling such and such story.” It’s because, I guess, how I learned the story is physically as well as verbally. And so I can check myself if I’m speaking too fast, if I need to slow the story down. So the movement is- for me, the movement is a big part of the story because it connects me to the story.


Len really embraces reading out loud, too.


A lot of people don’t read aloud. I love to read aloud. I love to hear people read aloud. But reading aloud, finding a story that you want to be able to share, but reading that story aloud helps you find the rhythm of the story and your pacing and how it works with you. And so by reading aloud for me, if I hear things, I remember things better than if I read them. So by reading aloud, my voice leaves me and comes back to me and I can lock it in. And so I’m a strong proponent about reading aloud….But I think reading aloud helps one find your voice, find the rhythm of your voice and the rhythm of that particular story, and it also allows you to play with that story, as reading aloud realizing, you know, this doesn’t have to be said in that story because when things are being read you might need more words. But when things are being spoken, because you can use your facial expressions and your body movement, that you don’t need as many words as you would if you were just reading from text, from a text.


Of course, you’re not expected to be perfect when you talk. At least not right away. So if and when you stumble during a talk or performance, perhaps this tale will help you get through it gracefully.


There was a professor who always had a story about anything. A student would say something to him and he’d say, “Oh, I got a story about that.” One of the students said, “Professor, how many stories do you know? Every time someone asks you about- a question about something, you say you have a story about that.” And the professor said, “Well, I have a story about that.” And he told this story about this young man who was sent off for military training. And he learned how to shoot the crossbow, the longbow, throw the javelin, and he really became an expert at the bow and arrow. And he finished his training and as he was returning home, and he’s riding through the country on his horse, when he stopped so his horse could get some water. And he looked around and he saw, on the side of a barn, fifty bullseyes, targets, with an arrow dead center in each one of them. He was amazed by this work and he wanted to find out who’s the marksman in this town. And he saw a young boy and he said, “Hey, whose work is this? Who’s the marksman in this town?” And the boy said, “Oh, that’s Sam, the town fool.” “Fool?! You serious? Look! He’s a marksman. Look at all these bullseyes.” And the boy said, “Oh, Sam, first he makes the hole, then he draws a circle around it.”


When it comes to effective communication, it’s not just about the content. According to Len, using physical movement to tell a story and engage your audience is a pretty important skill and tool to employ. It can really help break down the barriers to an understanding that perhaps the words being used couldn’t.

And the best way to perfect that skill is to constantly practice, and not just in your head. Practice out loud, even if you’re doing the dishes or taking shower or stuck in traffic. Anytime you can practice in order to better your communication skills is a good time to practice.

Thanks for listening to The Great Communicators Podcast brought to you by The MIT Office of Graduate Education. My name is Adam Greenfield, and feel free to talk amongst yourselves.