How to tell a good story

30 Jan

One of the most inspiring sessions I attended at Learning Technologies 2014 was the one on Storytelling, which was run by Deborah Frances-White. Deborah is a comedian and screenwriter, so it was interesting to see how you might apply some of the techniques she uses to learning.

Capturing hearts as well as heads with the magic of stories.

You’re watching Newsnight. The phone rings. You answer it, you go back to Newsnight and you can more or less pick up where you left off. The programme is easy to dip into/out of.

Now, imagine you’re watching a crime drama. The phone rings. Most people ignore it, because they can’t afford to miss one minute of the drama in case they miss an important fact that reveals the whole story. The programme is compelling and you’re engaged throughout; you don’t want to miss a second.

What’s the difference between the two? The story.

The same goes for learning. If we want to engage learners, we can use storytelling techniques to make our learning so compelling that they don’t want to miss a second – every part of the course, video, programme or portal becomes vital to the denouement at the end.

So, how do you craft a compelling story?

  1. Just because it’s obvious, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen.

We like predictability. Cause and effect is familiar to us and without it, a story can’t make sense. This doesn’t mean a story has to be dull or clichéd, but it is more likely to hold the attention of an audience if it is linear and easy to follow.

  1. If we don’t know our characters they’re a headline, not a hero.

If your audience aren’t invested in your characters or don’t have enough context of how they fit into your story, they will become disengaged. We don’t feel compelled to engage with people we don’t know or feel emotionally invested in. You don’t always feel the need to read a news story about ‘Man arrested for road rage’, however if you read ‘Local teacher arrested for road rage’, you have a connection with the character and feel more compelled to engage with the story. You’d be even more likely to read on if you personally know the man, ‘Local teacher John Doe arrested for road rage’.

  1. Stick with your obvious – it will be a surprise to someone

By sticking with what’s obvious to you in a story, you will surprise your audience eventually. The mundane can be quite exciting when you add people, emotion and jeopardy…

  1. Make your character stand out and be relevant to the audience – don’t be generic

In a learning context, the character may not be a person, depending on the story you’re telling. It could be a piece of software; for example, if the IT&S teams are implementing software that has real value for the end user but is a painful process to install; the software becomes the hero – in this story, the users are without access to a system for a while but eventually the software is installed and it makes them more productive and able to have a better work-life balance. Or, if you’re speaking to a team which is signing off the budget for the software, the cost savings become the hero. It’s all about tailoring your story to your audience.

  1. Keep making promises about what’s to come to keep your story compelling.

Teasers are essential to keep the story compelling. Use the ‘pull back to reveal’ storytelling device – you can start with something obscure, but keep layering on detail to paint a picture – a technique very often used in comedy sketches/stories.

  1. Bracket your story by relating the end to what happened at the start.

A sense of completeness adds fulfilment to the listener/reader/viewer. This doesn’t mean you have to say ‘happily ever after’ or make everything obvious, but make sure you story has a clear beginning, middle and an end:

This was the problem > This happened > So this happened > And this was the outcome

A few other pointers:

Become adept at telling simple stories before telling complex ones.

Make your audience care about the characters of your story before bringing in the drama. If the audience isn’t invested or don’t have enough context for what’s happening, they don’t care. Hold off the drama until your audience knows the storyteller/characters in the story.

A note on drama – stories aren’t always about ‘bad stuff’ happening. Drama doesn’t have to be about conflict, it can be one person being changed by the actions or behaviour of another.

People don’t care more about other heroes than they do about themselves – so if you can make your hero’s story relate to your audience, you’re golden.

So now it’s your turn. Go on, start your very own version of ‘once upon a time’…


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