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Storytelling As a Key To Learning: Adventures with Nicole Flores Jara

"We are part of the universe."

Nicole Flores Jara on Half Moon Island. Photo taken by Dr. Diane Jackson Schnoor, 2022
Nicole Flores Jara on Half Moon Island.

She loves leopard seals and cormorants even more than penguins -- and she tells an amazing and engaging story. Meet Nicole Flores Jara, an experienced tour guide and travel leader who has been to Antarctica at least eight times. Nicole was born and raised in Chile. Her passion about her country and the region sparked her adventure in learning. She's been leading travel programs since 1998, encouraging people to connect with nature, culture, and with each other. Nicole is a true believer in lifetime learning. Travel is her best source of inspiration to share stories, knowledge and keep learning. Nicole is a master storyteller and shares strategies for telling a good story and engaging an audience. We talk about elements of connected and story-based teaching and learning that can be applied with adults, children, and online meetings. And we spend time exploring the power of story in conveying the unique beauty and urgency of Antarctica. Ready to travel without leaving your home? Join us for a globe-trotting Adventure in Learning. If you want to listen to the conversation, you can always download the podcast.

Adventures in Learning: How Nicole Traded Tourist Shops for Travel Guiding [01:03]

Nicole started her career in tourism practicing her languages by working in a tourist shop. "I am supposed to be there just selling stuff for the tourists," she recalls, "but I never did because every time we got the buses, I started to talk with the guides. And I was always in that corner talking with the people that basically never buy stuff. So I was very lucky because I got my salary anyway, and that was good. But eventually all the guys who were telling me hey, what are you doing here? You never sell anything anyways. Why don't you start working as a guide?"

Nicole kept at her tourist shop job, thinking she had to study to be a guide, until one day in 1998, she watched a big tourist bus leave her parking lot. "And I will never forget that day," she says. "I saw the bus leaving through the rain and I saw the guy with a microphone and people laughing on the bus and I wonder what the hell I'm doing here? I mean, I don't want to be here. I want to be that guy telling lies to the people and making up stories." She quit her job the very next day and went to live and learn how to be a guide in the Atacama Desert. From there, she returned to Santiago and begin taking study trips to Patagonia.

"The learning is not the final destination. It is a way of living. It's the process you're never ending." -- Nicole Flores Jara

Strategies for Successful Learning Environments [07:11]

Nicole Flores takes pictures while leading a Road Scholar expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo taken by Dr. Diane Jackson Schnoor, 2022
Nicole Flores takes pictures while leading a Road Scholar expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo taken by Dr. Diane Jackson Schnoor, 2022

Nicole currently leads a variety of educational travel expeditions for her company, Chile Signature. She also leads in-person AND virtual expeditions for Road Scholar.

In leading her workshops, she has learned a number of things about creating successful learning environments. They boil down to a four-step approach:

  • A busy brain is an engaged brain

  • Connect the brain and the body for learning

  • Appeal to a wide range of learning styles

  • Connect storytelling to experiences


"We need to work the process of how you keep the brain of somebody engaged, but also with a purpose, which is the emotional factor," Nicole says. She lives by the proverb that we hear something and we forget it easily. We see something and we remember it. We do something and then we understand it.

"The best deliverers are not the ones that answer all the questions, but the ones that leave you with many questions and just show you the path to find the answers the way it is better for you," Nicole says. She points out that in a group people have different learning strengths. Some like visual art, some read, some need hands-on experiences.

Nicole gives the example of preparing a lecture about Shackleton for the Road Scholar program. "You need to prepare the story for the people that like just visuals," she says. "But the most important thing is that if you don't have that visual, are you able to make a compelling story without it?"

"Because at the end of the day, the very best way to learning is when you actually have an experience by far. But at the second best, it's a compelling story. So you cannot have the first one. How would you do the second one? A compelling story." -- Nicole Flores Jara

For online education, Nicole says it is important to find the right mixture of images, sounds, and breaks. "You need to make the whole experience just like a good movie, just like a good book," she says. "You need to start, you need to have a powerful beginning, you need to have a climax, you need to have a good ending, you need to have a good close up, you need to have good characters, you need to have the story. So it's all about how you make the preparation, how you make the script of what you are doing. And at the end of the day, that is what we try to deliver."

I heard Nicole's Shackleton lecture aboard the Ocean Victory last month. She's a masterful storyteller who really understands how to make history entertaining and urgent to her listeners. I'm realizing that this is part of what we do as teachers, too. When we want kids to understand, we give them those hand on experiences and if we can't, then we do exactly what Nicole said. We frame it in story, we find ways to make it compelling and to have that really good beginning, middle end that leaves them wanting more and makes them want to learn.

Nicole leads our family to Port Lockroy, Antarctica. Photo taken for Dr. Diane Jackson Schnoor, 2022
Nicole (front) on Port Lockroy (with my Dad, me, and my sister behind)

Up Close and Personal With Antarctica -- Strategies for Educating AND Protecting [15:58]

Nicole has traveled to Antarctica, leading educational tours, at least eight times. One of the questions I am interested in and have been asking those who travel and educate on the continent is how have things changed in the years they have been visiting it.

Nicole said one of the things she is noticing is more vessels, particularly those that fall outside of the International Association Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) agreement, who are not abiding by the rules that are put in place to keep the continent pristine. "I think it was the last trip, but for the very first time I saw in some of the areas traces of skis," she says. "People were skiing actually there, which is totally against the idea of keeping the white continent without anybody visiting other than the teams of scientists or the ships that are very well organized and following the structure of 100 people maximum and following all the rules we do have. But that is showing us that if you have the money enough, you just hire little yachts and you go there and you do whatever."

Nicole notes that the IAATO rules are in place to protect the wildlife as well. On our trip, we watched orientation videos and signed agreements to abide by the rules. We were following IAATO best practices to not contaminate the continent, to be very careful to make sure that we weren't impacting habitat. Because of the possibility of avian flu, we were especially careful around the penguins, maintaining distance and not sliding on our bellies with them (yes, I actually behaved myself). And so I left with that sense that we've got to do more to be able to protect Antarctica and try to find that balance between telling the story and making people fall in love with Antarctica and not doing our human thing, which is to want to go in and ski or Instagram or whatever it is that drives somebody if you've got enough money to disregard the rules.

"There is a unique ecosystem that is really delicate and we can destroy it very easily if we don't follow this," Nicole says. "I mean, when you are a little fellow bird that it's been there for the whole existence of Antarctica and they don't have any protection against any virus, a new flu or whatever, they're going to die instantly. And you need just one in order to make a mess, right? So the victims are others, but the ones that bring the flu is going to be us. It might happen anyway that other birds bring it, but at least try to try to be not us."

Nicole says education and storytelling is the way to help people understand why they have to do their part to protect the continent. "Education makes a big difference when you educate people and especially when you make them understand and sometimes in the rough way. It's like 3,000 breathing couples in specifically this section might disappear forever if one of them gets contaminated. And you give them the facts and you give them the whys. That is a real learning process, not just random telling. And you can even tell the story, the story of the ones that disappeared already. So it's by education as always."

Blue ice and glaciers near the Yalour Islands, Antarctica. Photo taken by Dr. Diane Jackson Schnoor, 2022
Glaciers near the Yalour Islands, Antarctica

One of the things I learned and connected with on the tour that Nicole led is that we have an individual responsibility to make a difference, as well as the responsibilities that should be shouldered by countries around the world. We all have a stake in Antarctica because our lives depend on it. I saw the glaciers firsthand and I recognize the importance of the ice melt and what it could do to us in North America if we lose that glacial water, if it starts raising sea levels. But even more than that, as Nicole said, I think about those individual penguins. I think about the leopard seals that I saw on the ice. I think about how our actions here can impact their lives there. And they are living breathing creatures in Antarctica.

"It's like the Amazon, it is one of the areas in the world that affects the rest of the world," Nicole says. "Antarctica is actually something that keeps the temperatures of the planet. It's something that is affecting the climate. So it is super interesting for everybody. Regardless if you live in Japan or United States or France or here, it is for everybody."

Gentoo penguin carries pebbles at Port Lockroy, Antarctica. Photo taken by Dr. Diane Jackson Schnoor, 2022
Gentoo penguin carries pebbles at Port Lockroy, Antarctica

Do you dream in penguin? Or why Antarctica is special [24:31]

I've been dreaming in penguin since my return home from Antarctica. The gentoo, in particular, have a very distinctive bray-moo sound. So I asked Nicole if that's an occupational hazard of being a guide. Turns out she doesn't dream in penguin.

Don't tell anybody, but penguins are not my favorites in Antarctica," she laughs. "It's actually the leopard seals and the cormorant, except the king penguins, but those are in South Georgia. But yeah, I know that everybody is crazy about penguins. But my favorite it's been always and I cannot explain it because it's not the most beautiful. But I love Cormorants. I just love them and the leopard seals. And somehow I feel good because for most of people, it's just about penguins. And I'm like, no, this is my guy. The leopard seals, I thought they're fascinating, the way they live, the way they hunt. It's an incredible world. And also the cormorants yeah."

[25:27] Dr Diane: And the leopard seals, their faces are just so incredible, they almost look like aliens. There's something to their smile. And the fact that we got to see a mom and pup when we were there was just for me, that's one of the things I took away from Antarctica, was that moment of locking eyes with a leopard seal. You don't forget that.

[25:47] Nicole: No, and I never saw that before. And I never heard about somebody having the chances of seeing because it's extremely rare to see a pup because it's actually a week or two weeks. So it's not just the hardest of find them exactly, the moment, but it's also really short time when the pops are with the mother. So that was a very beautiful moment. I really treasure that day we saw all the seals.

[26:18] Dr Diane: We did. There were ten crab eater seals, there was the weddell, there was the leopard seals, and then, of course, there were the penguins. And I do dream in penguin these days. I dream in gentoo. They just have a very distinct bray.

[26:35] Nicole: Yes. I love the idea that for many days after you leave the ship, you still hear the penguins when you visit those places. And I think it's incredible. You keep for some days, a few days, two things. The movement of the ship that keeps with you until probably you get home for a couple of days, you still feel the movement after crossing the Drake Passage. And also the impressive sound of the amount of penguins.

Why is Antarctica so special? [27:31]

Nicole says that one of the things that makes Antarctica stand out amongst so many incredible places in the world like Costa Rica or Africa is the wildlife. In places like Costa Rica or Africa you have a large number of species like monkeys, elephants, lions, rhinoceros, but in very small numbers. "In Antarctica, we have really few species. I mean, really, really few, but in super big numbers," she says. "And that is the incredible thing that is so impressive. Especially talking about the penguins. Sometimes you go and you see big colonies and you walk, and they walk just in front of you, and if you are not careful enough, they get in your boots. So that is really impressive. It really is unique."

For me, personally, the fact that Antarctica is not developed, the fact that it's so vast, makes wildlife and nature stand out. The environment stands out. The popping of the glaciers or of the icebergs in the water, that sound that they make under pressure, that's the stuff that I can hear even now. And it haunts my dreams in a good way. It's one of those things that now that I have that experience, I'm not going to lose that experience. And it sort of informs as I'm thinking about what can I do here today that will protect that place that I've seen.

Nicole says that it's important to educate, to teach people to understand and to love Antarctica.

We are a part of it. We are a part of the universe. We are made of the same material as Saturn, the moon, or the glaciers. We are a part of it.

She points out that another thing that is impressive in Antarctica is that there aren't land predators, which means the wildlife in the peninsula is not afraid of humans. "And that is so different than the rest of the world," she says. "So that's the reason why it's so unique when you go to Antarctica to make a landing and walk around. Penguins, they don't get scared. Or seals, they don't get scared. So it's really nice when you take that and you incorporate it in your mind and in your heart because it stays forever with you. And as you mentioned, the immensity of Antarctica, when you see the glaciers, when you hear the calvings remind you how small we are, how little we are in the universe, how little we are in the planet where we are. So it's so massive. That is the reason I think it's so unique."

Nicole Flores Jara tells stories and lectures about Antarctica to the Road Scholar group in Ushuaia before leading the expedition. Photo taken by Dr. Diane Jackson Schnoor, 2022
Nicole Flores Jara tells stories and lectures about Antarctica to the Road Scholars.

How to tell a compelling story (strategies that work for tour guides, teachers, and anyone who needs to communicate well) [33:53]

Nicole says storytelling is one of the most important skills a tour guide or educator can master. "When you do what I do in my work, it's really, really important," she notes. "So I did study a lot about storytelling. I officially can actually stand and just tell stories because I studied for it, because I thought it's a tool like any other tool. English is a tool and a good outfit is a tool and storytelling is a tool. So I always try to, whatever I do, regardless what it is, I try to make it a story because I know the brain is connecting better with you if you do it in the form of story. That's simple."

She gives the example of the Shackleton lecture she delivered while we were crossing the Drake Passage. While not a huge fan of Shackleton, she knows there are others who are and so she took on the challenge of creating a balanced talk about the explorer when Road Scholar asked her to develop it for their virtual tours. "It was a very big challenge and it took me forever to find out the way of doing it that was appealing," she says.

She found a balanced, well-researched approach that didn't mythologize the explorer but told the story in a compelling way. "At the end of the day, you know it's a good story when you can do it without any images," she notes. "I make a very good PowerPoint presentation because it's a requirement. So that is very important. So I made a very good PowerPoint presentation with videos and movies, but for me, the most important thing is you should be able to do exactly the same without any PowerPoint. And the only way that your brain is going to be engaging with that is when you make it as a story."

Nicole notes that the storytelling approach can work with any story. She adds that there are techniques a good storyteller learns, including when to raise your voice, when to add sound effects, when to put the story in first person, when to add quotes, when to ask a question. "All of those are techniques that calls the attention," she says. "But the number one, by far, will be always the question why? Because if the brain of the other person listening is always asking what is next and what happened next? And what happened next? And what happened next, you're keeping that brain engaged. It's simple. Well, it's simple in theory, right?"

Nicole says she achieves that by developing a story that engages the audience. She uses a strategy of rising action that leads to a climax and then declines to an ending. "You cannot have climax after climax after climax because it gets overwhelming as well," she says. "For the brain, it's like a movie where every five minutes you have bullets and explosions and whatever. You get tired after half an hour of that, right? So you need to know where to put it, how you do it, how you study the curve, depending on how long it's going to be, your lecture or whatever. Everything is about the technique and making a compelling story and you use that. But number one is, don't forget the questions."

If you want to travel with Nicole Flores Jara, you can connect with her through LinkedIn or through her company Chile Signature. She also leads in-person AND virtual expeditions for Road Scholar.

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