Stories are fundamental to how we think, learn and make sense of the world. If you are a coach, corporate trainer or group facilitator, telling stories is one of the most effective ways to convey what you want others to remember.
In this article, Hadiya Nuriddin explains how you can capture your audiences’ attention through the power of storytelling.
Storytelling is a powerful teaching technique for corporate trainers.
Since humans first developed language, the most powerful communication tool was telling stories. It remains true for professional communicators, especially corporate trainers and instructional designers. Hadiya Nuriddin shows corporate educators how to discover, structure and tell stories to capture audiences’ attention. Nuriddin’s versatile, clear manual explains different models of storytelling and how to apply them. Tapping into the foundational principles of story planning, creative writing and film production, Nuriddin includes useful checklists, helpful tips, story timeline diagrams and proven story models to help you become an expert storyteller. This comprehensive presentation will serve corporate trainers, educational facilitators and all those who would like to improve their communication skills.
- Corporate training’s ultimate goal is to promote the professional growth of its students.
- To connect with students, tell compelling stories.
- Your story needs a main point, a primary event and subsidiary events.
- Make a timeline for your story; plan the sequence of events.
- Stories require structure. Two primary story structures are: “recipe models” and “building blocks models.”
- The ICAP is a popular building blocks model: “intent, context, action and point.”
- The “Hero’s Journey” provides a classic storytelling structure.
- The more relevant your stories are, the more meaningful they will be to your students and thus the better they will serve as teaching tools.
- Your best story sources are your work, your family and friends, your life’s events, and your personal values.
- The best events for teaching stories have “universal applicability.”
The Power of Storytelling
Telling stories is one of the most effective ways for corporate trainers to connect with their students and the content they want to convey. The purpose of this connection is to help students gain the knowledge to become more productive and to bring about purposeful change. Stories relate experiences. They help students identify with a situation and learn from it.
“Some see storytelling as extemporaneous chats told from memory, but stories are far more likely to be understood and fulfill your intentions if they are purposely shaped with structure.”
When author Hadiya Nuriddin was a new corporate trainer and instructional designer, she had to teach a two-day performance-management course at the bank where she worked. She found the prospect intimidating. All the students in her training class had managerial experience; she had none. She worried about how she could give these seasoned managers valuable new information on performance management when she had so little firsthand experience. Nuriddin decided to structure her two-day presentation as a series of case studies. One case study involved a fictional employee named Darla who was difficult, testy and combative. Rather than trying to figure out how to deal with such a cantankerous, unproductive employee, her managers chose to avoid her. Not only did they dislike Darla, her managers vilified her and wanted to fire her. But despite her belligerence and general unpleasantness, her managers lacked reasonable grounds for termination.
“It will clearly take more effort, talent and imagination to make a trip to the grocery store as compelling as a story about ascending Mount Everest.”
Nuriddin described this situation and then told her audience a story about herself. A few years out of college, she was working in a copy shop, a job she hated. Her lowly status disappointed Nuriddin, since she had already graduated from college, and she was unhappy at work. As a consequence, she constantly belittled the copy shop manager behind his back to other employees. Her manager confronted her about this atrocious behavior. “Why don’t you like me?” he asked, asking her to stop putting him down. He extended his hand so he and she could shake on it. Touched by his direct and open manner, Nuriddin agreed. She shook his hand to seal the deal. And she stopped criticizing him.
“Stories are fundamental to how we think, learn and make sense of the world…Storytelling has been present in every age of human history and in every civilization and culture.”
Nuriddin told her class that her terrible behavior toward the manager derived from her deep fears and feelings of irrelevance, invisibility and career disappointment. She related this unflattering story to convey a basic message: Just because they didn’t like Darla, the managers shouldn’t try to exact revenge on the belligerent employee by firing her. Instead, they should be empathetic toward Darla and see her as a fellow human being worthy of sympathy and not simply a troublemaker. Nuriddin asked her audience members whether – like Darla and like herself – they ever experienced similar feelings of negativity and hopelessness. Of course, everyone in the room could immediately relate to this question.
“Participants now expect that what they are learning will be immediately usable and that the examples…will speak to their experiences.”
Nuriddin wanted her audience to understand that firing Darla wasn’t a proper course of action. Responsible managers don’t bury problems or pass them along to others. Instead, they confront problems directly and try to solve them. Nuriddin worried that when she revealed herself in her story, the managers in her class would lose respect for her. The exact opposite happened. They responded positively to her authenticity and vulnerability. By the second day, the managers were discussing newly positive feelings toward Darla and how they now would try to manage her responsibly. Hearing an appropriate story well-told changed their minds.
“Events and Change”
You can choose among many different types of stories. Some stories will entertain or intrigue audiences. And some stories will change them – those are the ones you want to tell. Stories have two elements: “events and change.” To plan your story, figure out its main point and focus on the primary, pivotal event that underlies that point. Then, create a timeline for your story detailing the sequence of events, their connections and their “causal relationships.” According to Stories at Work by Wade Jackson, a story is “a sequence of events that progress toward an ending where someone or something has undergone change.” In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron writes, “A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.” All stories need momentum, something that hooks your audience members and gets them to continue to pay attention.
Jackson says you can find good stories to tell by reflecting on four sources:
- “Your professional career” – What do you like most about your work? What do you like least? What significant events shaped your career over the years? What are your most meaningful accomplishments?
- “People in your life” – What person has had the most beneficial influence on your life? Parents? Teachers? Mentors? Managers? Other individuals?
- “Events in your life” – What significant occurrences have affected you, for good or ill? As an adult? As a child? Where have you lived or visited that meant the most to you? What hobbies and activities do you find most satisfying?
- “Your values” – What reinforces or undermines your values? What actions have you taken that made you feel guilty? What actions made you feel proud of yourself and the way you live?
“Whether you embrace the power of storytelling or are ambivalent about its place in your toolbox, it is difficult to deny its effectiveness in reinforcing memory and, consequently, learning.” ”
Tell these stories:
- “Stories that teach” – Draw from events with universal applicability to build teachable stories. Teaching stories should help your students make more informed decisions.
- “Stories that connect” – Your stories must connect your students to your educational content. Stories should serve as bridges your students traverse to learn what you hope to teach them. Look for story elements your students can relate to immediately.
- “Stories that show change” – Education ultimately creates change; it helps your students grow professionally by changing themselves. Change-based stories should show that significant change is always possible; they should evoke “positive outcomes.”
- “Stories that are relevant” – To win audiences, make sure your stories matter to them, their lives and their professional development. Your stories must answer these questions for your students: “Why are you telling this story? Why are you telling it now? Why are you telling it to me?”
- “Stories that entertain” – Stories that amuse or surprise can have great power. Being amusing makes your content more engaging, but merely being amusing must never be the sole purpose of your content. You’re telling stories as a teacher, not as a stand-up comic.
“Storytelling and Facilitating Performance”
Corporate training focuses on promoting superior performance. Stories can serve as an essential framework for organizing educational content, providing context and illustrating specific patterns. Stories can make demonstrations more meaningful. They can accentuate the importance of learning and show why the right attitude is essential. Stories can serve as cautionary professional tales. To be memorable, compelling and effective, stories must have structure, which comes from two elements, “frame and content.” Draw from two basic story-structure models: “recipe models” and “building block models.”
Recipe Model: The “Hero’s Journey”
As in cooking, recipe models for stories track specific story elements – like ingredients – and show how each one influences the overall story. The hero’s journey has long been a reliable story-planning outline for authors and film directors. Many memorable stories cover the journey of a hero on a quest. This formula has been the basis for “heroic tales” since the dawn of history. Many of these sagas have become classics. The hero’s journey always represents a fierce “battle between good and evil.” This journey passes through 12 story elements:
- “Ordinary world” – The story begins with the hero in his or her current environment. Think of Dorothy at home in Kansas before her dramatic trip to meet the Wizard of Oz.
- “Call to adventure” – To deal with a significant challenge, the hero must leave the comforts of home behind and strike out on an adventurous journey.
- “Refusal of the call” – Someone tries to convince the hero to embark on the dangerous journey and, at first, the hero refuses. Think of Obi Wan Kenobi and his plea for help to Luke Skywalker.
- “Meeting with the mentor” – A mentor stands ready to assist the hero with the huge challenge ahead.
- “Crossing the threshold” – The hero abandons familiar, safe surroundings and starts out on the adventure.
- “Tests, allies and enemies” – While on the journey, the hero encounters friends and foes. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy teams up with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. Later, the flying monkeys chase Dorothy and her companions.
- “Approach to the inmost cave” – The hero enters a dangerous place, often the enemy’s hideaway, and prepares for battle.
- “Central ordeal” – The hero joins in a life-and-death struggle with the enemy, and dies or seems to die. Afterward, the hero experiences a rebirth of some kind.
- “Reward” – The hero withstands death and receives a reward.
- “The road back” – The battle won, the hero heads for home.
- “Resurrection” – The hero must meet a new challenge. How do the hero’s previous struggles prepare him or her for this new ordeal?
- “Return with elixir” – Journey over, the hero returns home with a trophy or treasure.
“There are stories that you liked, stories you enjoyed hearing and stories you will never forget. But there is a fourth category – stories about change that also change you.” ”
Your teaching stories don’t have to include as much dramatic detail. But everyone can relate to stories in which heroes overcome adversity. Your own variation of the hero’s journey – abbreviated into story form – can be a powerful teaching tool.
“Building Blocks Models”
The way you arrange the individual elements of your story, your building blocks, creates its structure. While such structures can be formulaic, you are choosing original content. Building blocks models for story planning require every bit as much structure as the recipe models, but the content is not as specific. The “ICAP” model is a useful variant of the building block, story planning strategy. It has four elements:
- “Intent” – This answers the question: “What do I want this story to do?”
- “Context” – This element explains where you’re taking your audience. “Context is detail,” but overwhelming listeners with too much detail can derail your story.
- “Action” – This element works through “the leading, key and consequential events” in your story. Never forget, “Action is the motor that powers your story.”
- “Point” – This structural element shows how learners benefit from your tale. Once you communicate your story, no matter what your original intent may be, the story now belongs to your audience, not to you. They must determine its main point and figure out its relevance to them. That’s for them to discover, not for you as the storyteller to decree.
Telling Your Story
To facilitate learning, you must plan the right stories, shape them to hold your listeners’ attention and tell them in a commanding way. The best way to accomplish these goals is the five-step process of “facilitating with story”:
- Come up with a story that supports your main point.
- Develop your story’s focal point.
- Plan a timeline for your story.
- Structure your story and build it with attention-getting details.
- Deliver the story in the most commanding style.
“Look for stories with a universal truth…a moral that reflects those predictable aspects of human nature that most of us share.”
Using the right “expressions and gestures” and body language can enable you to “show and tell” your stories. Your sessions will go better if you involve your students and get them to participate and become part of the storytelling experience. Your stories don’t have to be one-way streets. Tell your story and ask your students to share similar experiences so everyone continues to learn.
“Being a storyteller is a way of life – it is a way of experiencing the world, shaping what you see, and reporting back through the lens of your own context.”
About the Author
Hadiya Nuriddin owns Focus Learning Solutions, an organizational learning design and development firm that provides technical and professional development courses.
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