Story-telling as an instructional strategy
This is the third and final part of a blog about storytelling and its value as a tool for training and motivation of people in the workplace.
It is not by accident that teachers turn to story to settle excitable young children. It works for adults too; a good book or an interesting film has the ability to transport us beyond the cares of here and now and can inform, inspire, instruct – or simply soothe.
The satisfaction that comes from a story is held within its structure – it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Everything that happens is tied together by a string of events, in which people meet and then respond to challenges with more or less positive outcomes. A good story can help us to form concepts and develop beliefs and values. It can use metaphor and narrative to make complex ideas accessible and to help us to recall intricate chains of cause and effect. Social media such as LinkedIn and Facebook have caught on to the importance of story in people’s lives and so have introduced narrative and timeline as a means of harnessing the elegant self-containment of story as a format. We engage with story through our emotions as well as our thoughts, so we can become immersed in it. Afterwards, our insights and memories can be as strong as if we as if we had actually been present in the events that the story related. The easiest stories for us to assimilate connect with our understanding of the world, and have a logical flow so that we can make sense of them and remember what they were about.
Let’s get serious
The limbic system is the part of the brain that science has linked with motivation and emotion. It is the limbic system that signals whether we ought to laugh or cry at a stimulus. In the first part of this blog about storytelling I mentioned John Cunliffe and his circle of attention when telling stories to children. Adults react in that way, too; promise a riveting tale and you can sense the change in the mood and body language. Whether it comes from a person or a screen, you can see people lean forward towards the storyteller. They release tension, and apply all their senses to receiving the sounds and perhaps sights too, that combine to tell the tale.
Suppose someone said to you, “I’m about to tell you a deeply moving and inspirational story. Many people who have heard this story say it changed their lives profoundly and they became better people for hearing it.” Or alternatively, “I’m about to tell you a story in which some very good people struggling against impossible odds were defeated and lost everything.”
Do you want to hear that second story? Will you feel keen, ready to listen, disinterested, intrigued, suspicious, ready to switch off?
The textbook says that the prospect of a happy ending makes the limbic system inject its own special opium (dopamine) into your brain to give you a ‘feel good’ sensation that comes when the guy gets the gal, the whale returns to the sea, the rightful king is crowned, or the aliens are repelled.
If we can accept the truth in this science then we might draw the conclusion that ‘feel good’ would be a more productive state than ‘flight or fight’ for someone who is conceiving a bright new future for themselves or their organisation.
The work of Joseph Campbell focused on stories, myths, and rituals across cultures and throughout time. He detected common patterns, especially in rite of passage stories and rituals in which people progress from being dependent children to responsible adults in the community. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he showed how ancient myths from around the world all have a similar basic plot. Campbell called this ‘the monomyth’. It contains some or all of the same eight ingredients whether found in the legends of Gilgamesh, Osiris or Prometheus, in the tales of the Buddha, Moses and Christ, or (bringing things up to date) Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or your favourite Adventure Game.
The Call to Adventure
- The hero begins in the normal world
- The hero receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events
- The hero accepts the call
The Road of Trials
- The hero faces tasks and trials either alone or with assistance
- The hero faces a life-threatening challenge, often with help earned along the journey
- The hero survives, achieves a great gift (the “boon”), and often discovers some profound self-knowledge
- The hero decides whether to return with the boon, often facing challenges on the way back.
- The hero gets back safely and the boon makes the world a better place.
Some tips for using stories in training
Know your audience. If you are writing for a predominantly young age group, use a tone, style and language they will relate to. If you are writing globally for a multicultural audience, avoid jargon and idioms.
Use real stories wherever possible. Senior members of staff are often happy to provide real stories of mistakes they have made in their youth that had disastrous consequences but which have clearly not affected their rise up the corporate ladder. People lower down the pecking order may be less open to paint potentially disastrous scenarios.
Make sure your characters arouse interest. How many times have you read a book and not given a monkey’s about what happens to any of the characters because they are all so one-dimensional? Give them a bit of background; their likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses. Base them on people you know or have met along the way.
Use humour with caution. All equality and diversity training courses say, “make jokes we can all laugh at”. This is, of course, easier said than done and it comes back to knowing your audience.
Avoid rights and wrongs. Most decisions are not clear cut. Don’t over simplify or make the right answers to situations that you paint painfully obvious. People and the systems they interact with are complex. Encourage further questioning, research or validation to uncover more nuggets of information that may have a vital impact on the scenario you are painting.
Test your dialogue out loud. Photo or audio stories that use direct dialogue must have resonance with reality. There are some shockingly badly written dialogues out there. Read out loud the words you have written. Does it sound clumsy or is it difficult to read? Then it is.
Photo story or not photo story? Photo stories can work well. They add another dimension to the written word and can be particularly helpful if you cannot use audio.