OGDEN -- Bill Harley discovered the power of the story as a college student working a summer job at a day camp.
Harley told his audience Tuesday at Weber State University's Storytelling Festival that he was hired as the camp's musical director, because he knew three chords and six songs and came with his own guitar.
At the height of late afternoon chaos, Harley learned he could keep stir-crazy kids quiet for three minutes with a song, or nine minutes with a story.
"There for nine minutes, nobody was killing each other," Harley said, still marveling at the decades-old memory.
So Harley's stories began to get more complex, colorful, and longer, and more than 30 years later, the Massachusetts native is still known for holding audiences at rapt attention. Harley, winner of two Grammy Awards and nominated for four others for his stories and songs, shared his thoughts with fans and other storytellers at the 15th annual festival, which continues through Thursday.
"Stories are what make us most human," Harley told his audience.
Harley said neurologists are learning more about the parts of the brain involved in storytelling and what damage to the areas can do. People who suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome have permanent brain damage that makes it hard for them to see cause-and-effect relationships, Harley said. Events seem random, and punishment for breaking rules seems to come out of nowhere.
Harley said a childhood friend of his works as a lawyer and handles cases for troubled, destitute clients who cannot pay.
"He tells me they can't tell a story," Harley said. "They can't organize the sequence of events into a frame that makes sense of the world."
How people tell their own stories often reveals how they see the world, Harley said.
One man may tell you his alarm didn't go off; he didn't get breakfast; he didn't get a lunch break; and he even had to work late to catch up on what he had missed. Another might tell you he was lucky the dog licked his face and woke him up after his alarm failed; he raced out of the house, and was happy to find doughnuts at the office; a good friend shared a sandwich at lunch; and by working an extra 15 minutes, he was back on schedule and relieved to have made up for lost time.
"It's the same story," Harley said. "The difference is in the person and how he tells it. One tells a better story."
Harley also noted that when he is at his storytelling best, he expects only about two-thirds of the audience is listening. The other third of the people are thinking of memories from their own lives, sparked by themes in the story.
In a way, storytelling is life, Harley said, because an individual's life is defined by how he or she interprets a sequence of events and frames them into a life story that defines future behavior and expectations.
So can we organize our experiences into a more positive internal life story and improve our attitudes and our futures?
"It's possible," Harley said. "We can be more conscious of making connections between things. History is all about who tells the best story. But it's not all sweetness and goodness. Hitler was a good storyteller."
* The Weber State University Storytelling Festival is free and open to the public, and continues today and Thursday at various locations: at WSU, 3848 Harrison Blvd., Ogden; at Peery's Egyptian Theater and David Eccles Conference Center, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden; and at Davis Conference Center, 1651 N. 700 West, Layton. For a full schedule, visit http://community.weber.edu/storytelling/schedule/default.htm.