Here’s how you can apply storytelling theory to your next presentation.
When we hear a story, our brains don’t simply soak up the data it contains: the story stimulates parts of the brain that other pedagogical approaches don’t reach.
Drumming facts into the people that you train is one way to get important information across, but it’s not a particularly sensitive or effective one. A story, on the other hand, gets the recipient engaging with what they’re learning on a number of levels.
When you’re training colleagues or course participants, it is vital to remember that you are working with human beings and not just programming robots. A story has cause and effect, and it also has people.
Christopher Booker, the writer of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, picked up on this, and its one reason why he took the time to unpack the raw stuff of story and analyse what makes a good yarn work.
As the title of his book suggests, he identified seven key trends or structures in storytelling – which means there’s a genre for every type of training you might undertake. The trick is in learning what they’re all about, and which one to use when.
- Overcoming a monster. You’ve seen this one in the movies a thousand times – and it’s a formula that is best respected. No movie hero slays the big monster in the first act. Rather this is about trying, failing, and coming back stronger – or smarter. This structure can work well if you want to illustrate your own experience of solving a big work problem, and to lead your students by example.
- Rags to riches. Rags to riches is an inspiring story that can be used to motivate low-rung employees who are finding it difficult to picture their position in the machinery of the industry. It’s not an easy story, in that it involves triumph against adversity early on in the tale – but it can be a great way to convince your young colleagues that their hard work and resilience will pay off in the long run.
- Voyage and return. This is a particularly apt story struggle for many types of training, because the ‘voyage’ element – the hero is transported to another place, explores, struggles with the new surroundings, but eventually returns home stronger and wiser – need not be geographic voyage, but rather any step outside one’s comfort zone. More precisely, it can be about taking that big leap into learning something completely new.
- The quest. The quest is about teamwork. It’s a great frame on which to hang the elements of a routine that a team needs to learn to complete together. It begins with smaller, more basic elements of preparing for the mission, and develops to a big test that they need to accomplish together.
- Comedy. There’s always room for a sense of humour in training. It can help to relax the atmosphere and win the trust of your colleagues – and to keep their attention. Comedy is all about conflict, so putting the steps of the process that you’re teaching into a context of ‘what can go wrong, will go wrong’ is a great way to teach your subjects how to make sure things don’t, in fact, go wrong!
- Tragedy. It is Mark Twain who said “Humour is tragedy plus time.” Subtract the ironic distance from your comedy story, and those conflicts become more serious – which is very useful when you’re working with a subject with grave implications, such as health and safety. You want your colleagues to remember how tragic the outcome of your safety-gone-wrong story was, rather than how they laughed about it in class!
- Rebirth. The rebirth story is useful because it gives your students the license to fail. Ultimately, folk learn from their mistakes and from trying new things as much as they learn from the abstract process of training in the classroom. Use this story structure when you want to encourage your colleagues to take chances and to believe in themselves.
There are many ways to tell a story, and each technique comes with its own emphasis. Once you’ve picked the story structure that best suits your topic, take a look at this new visual guide to the seven story types in order to figure out how to hang your plot points on your narrative structure of choice.
About the author
Barbara Davidson is a content writer at Quid Corner.