Storytelling to Inspire Positive Action

Learning opportunities that turn in on themselves have always appealed to me. I jump at the chance, for example, to facilitate webinars about how to facilitate webinars. Or presentations on how to effectively, engagingly deliver transformative presentations. So the opportunity to tell stories during a workshop on “Inspiring Positive Action through Storytelling” was one I grabbed, courtesy of colleagues at the Sacramento Chapter of ATD (the Association for Talent Development), late last week.

The results were magnificent.

It started with high levels of interactivity among a small group of co-conspirators in learning during that 90-minute “Inspiring Positive Action Through Storytelling” session online; this was a group of peers bringing years of experience to the table and willingly, concisely, engaging, and playfully sharing that experience in ways that made all of us better storytellers by the end of the time we had together. It continued with a combination of sharing information about incorporating storytelling into the work we do with discussions designed to find ways to apply what we were exploring into the work the learners would resume doing as soon as the session ended. And it included time to actually workshop a sample story that participants could adapt into the learning opportunities they design for their own learners.

We took a somewhat unusual approach to the idea of incorporating storytelling into learning: we focused as much on the stories we tell—or should be telling—to attract learners to our onsite and online learning opportunities as we spend on effectively incorporating storytelling into the onsite and online workshops and courses we provide. To set a context for the session, I opened with the story of how I had designed and facilitated a one-hour session at the request of a staff member in an organization where I was in charge of training. How she and I had discussed what she thought should be included in that session. How I put the word out about what the workshop offered interested staff members. And my surprise, on the day of the workshop, how I found myself facing only four people, from an organization with hundreds of employees, in the room where the workshop was taking place. And she—the person who had requested the course—was not among them. Because, as she told me later, she hadn’t needed the session; she just thought it was something others needed and would attend.

So, I suggested to my ATD Sacramento co-conspirators last week, there were a couple of lessons we could learn together—the first being that when someone tells us the story of what they need in a training-teaching-learning session, we need to ask how many people they are going to bring with them when they attend the session. And the second being that we need to be sure, in inviting people to the sessions we design and facilitate, that we are telling a story compelling enough to make them come to what we are providing.

The headline to your announcement should be like a six-word story, I suggested. It should be compelling, be complete in and of itself, and show readers/prospective learners why that session is something they absolutely do not want to avoid.

I suggested that the story should have elements that are universal to the experience of those we are trying to reach: “She lived and then she died” is a six-word story that describes the human condition because we all live and (expect to) die, but it leaves room for a reader’s curiosity to kick into play, I noted—we want to know who she was, we want to know more about her life, we want to know how and why she died, and, if we trust the storyteller, we want to hear more because we know that storyteller is not going to let us down any more than a trainer-teacher-learner we trust is going to let us down if we sign up for that person’s workshop, course, or webinar. I quickly pivoted from that “universal” story to a few six-word stories more applicable to our learning offerings: “They learned, so their company prospered,” or “He studied and was then promoted,” or “We’ll make you better at work.” With those as templates, we can certainly craft variations that apply to and entice our learners as they decide where they are going to spend the limited amount of time they have for workplace learning.

We talked about how stories have to be meaningful to the learners. How they have to help learners fill their unmet (learning/workplace) needs. How they need to be personal. Brief. And inspirational. And then we came back to that all-important learning-space requirement: the opportunity, as a group, to craft a story specific enough to the work we are doing, yet universal enough to appeal to the learners we want to draw into our learning space.

But none of this, for me (and my co-conspirators—it’s always about the learners and rarely about me), is meaningful unless it produces results that benefit the learners and those they ultimately serve. It has to give us a concrete, documentable result demonstrating that the time we spend together produces something worth producing. And that’s exactly what I realized we had done when, less than three hours after the session had ended, I received a note from one of the workshop participants: “Thank you for the wonderfully inspirational time together today. I will be incorporating your ideas into my stories as I build a class on team building this afternoon.”

So, we started with a story about telling stories to draw learners to our sessions. And we worked as a short-term community of learning to explore how we might better incorporate stories into the work we do to produce positive results. And we produced another story—the brief story of how that participant was going to immediately apply what she had learned so she could better serve her own learners. Which, in turn, will produce additional inspiring stories when you apply these same ideas and approaches to the work you do with your own learners.

N.B. — To schedule onsite or online workshops on storytelling in learning, contact Paul at paul@paulsignorelli.com.

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