What’s the story?

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Written by Martin Addison on 28 January 2014

Storytelling is the oldest form of influence. Throughout the ages, stories have been told around campfires, partly to entertain and partly to educate. Think of biblical parables, ancient myths, folklore and fairy tales. All of these have strong learning points. They offer us inspiration by examining how others have shown strength of character to overcome a dilemma or crisis, to achieve their goals. The point of such stories is to show us how we can live our lives better.

The campfires may be gone but the popularity of stories lives on in novels, plays, movies and TV soap operas. We revel in the frustrations and confusion that the characters face and we feel strangely overjoyed and uplifted when the final plot twists resolve the situation. This appeals to us at a deep, primal level. We like to see justice done, order restored; we like to see those who have pursued power or control get their comeuppance; we like it when everything and everyone can be seen clearly for what they are.

Through stories, we learn about human nature and this helps us with our own personal development. For example, children's stories often show a little hero or heroine venturing into a mysterious outside world (a forest?) where they encounter some terrifying dark figure (wolf, witch, giant?). This external enemy symbolises the challenges a child will face as it socialises and gains independence. As we grow older, our heroes and heroines are often seen wrestling with dark demons within themselves. In this way, stories cast a revealing light on every aspect of human thought and behaviour.

Christopher Booker - in his excellent book The Seven Basic Plots (Continuum, 2004) - argues that stories were originally a technique for explaining how the world works. For example, all cultures have at least one great story of how the universe came into being. He cites the recurring patterns or themes in stories and names seven basic plots: rags to riches (Cinderella); a quest (The Lord of the Rings); overcoming the monster (David and Goliath; Jaws); voyage and return (Alice in Wonderland); rebirth (A Christmas Carol); comedy (The Importance of Being Earnest) and tragedy (Romeo and Juliet).

But stories such as these do more than teach us life lessons. Like sport, stories connect us with something bigger than ourselves. Like art, they can convey a sense of life amongst the mundane. They can fire our imaginations, appeal to our intellect and move us emotionally. We can even live vicariously through them. No wonder children will always want another bedtime story!

Stories also have a role outside of fiction. We all use anecdotes and examples to enhance our everyday conversations. It's much easier to make a point or get your message across if you can turn it into a story.

Savvy L&D practitioners have always known this. Many have utilised the power of storytelling not only to embed learning points but also to promote knowledge-sharing and to communicate new or envisioned strategies, structures, identities, goals and values.

Because stories speak to the heart - as opposed to facts and figures which speak to the head - they have great relevance and appeal in organisations. The ultimate vehicle for storytelling is film. It can touch the emotions and engage an audience by capturing and delivering a story much quicker than any other medium.

However, in the same way that telling stories is an art - and we can all spot when a story has not been told properly, such as someone giving the punchline of a joke too early - creating a film to tell a training story is also something that must be handled with care. Training videos should be structured around three aspects: context (introducing an activity/process), message (portraying how it should - and should not - be done) and conclusion (summary).

So, if you're not already doing so, tap into the power of stories to explain situations, build trust, promote learning, develop skills and create more productive relationships. And use video to bring your stories to life. Then you can live happily ever after!

About the author
Martin Addison is CEO of Video Arts. He can be contacted at maddison@videoarts.co.uk

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