Tag Archives: storytelling

Marketing = meaning

3 Aug

A while ago, @shackletonjones tweeted:

GemStGem twitter Gemma Critchley marketing learning innovation nick shackleton-jones


I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. The ‘somehow’ in that tweet has been under my skin for weeks. I agree wholeheartedly with Nick that marketing is the bridge, but how? Why?

I’ve seen it work. I’ve put marketing in place for ‘performance support‘ or ‘informal learning solutions’ (otherwise known as useful stuff that helps people do their jobs better). I’ve seen the things our team creates illuminated when cast in the glow of a clever campaign, but for ages I couldn’t articulate why.

It recently became crystal clear.

I’ve worked on quite a few projects to deliver performance support using our ‘resources not courses’ approach over the last few years.

A chap that I worked with recently on one of these projects said that very few people in our audience understood what performance support is and how it works, or what’s in it for them. Fair point, I thought.

All of a sudden, the answer was so clear: we needed to translate what we were doing in a way that would be meaningful to the audience.

We knew the resources that we were creating would be useful (thanks to the 5Di process), but if people weren’t into what we were doing – if they didn’t see what was in it for them and choose to pull on the things we created, then we would have only done half a job.

So we decided to tell a story, to show the benefits of what we’re doing, to share some examples and to give a strong call to action for people to find out more. In essence, we decided to do a marketing campaign.

The penny dropped.

Beautifully simple, blindingly obvious and laced with common sense in the way that most decent ideas usually are.

GemStGem twitter Gemma Critchley marketing learning innovationGemStGem twitter Gemma Critchley marketing learning innovation


By putting what we call ‘performance support’ into a marketing frame that speaks directly to the audience in a way that matters to them, we translate what we’re doing. It makes sense.

Marketing is tailoring.

Marketing is translation.

Marketing is sense-making.

Marketing = meaning.


Through marketing, the audience can easily engage with something that seemed foreign before. Heck, never mind just being able to engage with it; they might even actually want to.


I am the spirit of dark and lonely water 

14 Apr

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a real and quite irrational fear of what I call ‘organised water’. This is basically water which has pooled or been channelled somewhere it shouldn’t be: a quarry, an aqueduct, a construction site, a canal, a reservoir. There’s no reason for it, I’ve never had a bad experience with water or known anyone who has.

ladybower sinkhole sink hole reservoir scarfolk. gemma critchley. blog

This fills me with dread. Image: FlickRiver.com

I suspect most people will have their own irrational fears. You might have stayed up after watching horror films, scared to go to sleep, listening out for noises that aren’t there. Maybe even years after watching, you remember feeling frightened and won’t revisit that particular film.

Turns out it’s not just horror films that do this. I recently discovered the BFI’s public information films collection: a treasure trove of sinister warnings, glittering darkly and crackling with the threat of doom.

One of the best examples of this is Lonely Water, a film that was designed to warn kids away from playing in unsafe water. I wasn’t even born until almost a decade after it was made, but I (think I) remember seeing this, or a variation of it at primary school as a kid.

The film was made in 1973, but it has all the hallmarks of what I’d consider to be an effective video for learning today:

  • The film’s approach is rooted in the Affective Context model. It makes you feel something; the Donald Pleasence voiceover is straight out of a Halloween film and the use of the hooded figure is just disturbing enough to jolt you out of your reality.
  • It has a clear objective: to stop children from drowning by showing the dangers of ‘lonely water’.
  • It understands its audience and appeals to their fears to make the message stick.
  • It’s short – under two minutes long: something many people forget the importance of today.
  • It has a compelling narrative and sub-story, separate to the voiceover: you want to know what happens to the boy who goes swimming.

In a time when filmmaking has never been more accessible, it’s good to take a step back and look at what makes a compelling, effective film, especially when it comes to creating film for learning. It’s refreshing to see that the stuff that was terrifying in 1973 works just as well at scaring the living daylights out of me today; and that somewhere along the line, the message from the film stuck with me. That’s Affective Context in action.

It’s hard to believe it wasn’t made by Scarfolk Council, but was instead produced by the UK government.


scarfolk council BFI public information film lonely water gemma critchley

Image: Scarfolk.blogspot.com


If you want to see more, the whole collection is available on the BFI Player.

Warning: may contain scenes that some viewers may find disturbing…

7 trends spotted at #LT16uk

10 Feb

What does learning look like in 2016? Plenty was said on the subject at Learning Technologies 2016.


Don’t be a meatpuppet, kids. Image: @charliekneen on Twitter

Here are 7 trends that I spotted at #LT16uk. I’ve turned them into handy calls to action, so get busy…


1. Get strategic


Image: neurogadget.com

We don’t need to align with the strategy of our organisation, we need to BE the strategy. Andrew Jacobs talked about how to weave learning into everything we do, and how to use the right tactics to get stakeholders on board. I often see learning as an afterthought so I see where Andrew’s coming from, but I think it’s less about creating  learning as a ‘thing’ that’s part of the business and more about building good, useful, simple experiences into what work is.

2. Collaborate with purpose


Come together, right now… Image: socialplanningtoronto.org

‘Start collaborating right now, using whatever you have’ was the message I took from Jane Hart‘s session. Jane focused on enterprise social networks like Yammer, and also gave a nod to platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp & Slack: whatever you have. For me, it’s important to give the tech a purpose and let the users see the benefits for themselves. Don’t just say: “Here’s Yammer, use it to collaborate!” Instead, say “Here’s a space to share documents, collaborate and have conversations as you go: why not give meetings, calls and emails a miss on your next project and give this a try?

3. Modernise

dilbert change

If it’s broke, fix it. For the last couple of years, our team has tried to bring learning in line with what people use outside of work. YouTube-style videos, checklists and apps have all been part of this, and the user feedback is encouraging. It was interesting to hear Emma Pace from PA Consulting sharing how she led a project to modernise learning at the firm from the ground-up; it’ll be exciting to see what happens as more organisations look to do something similar, realising that courses aren’t the answer.

4. Put everything in context

3d printer with cheese motherboard vice.jpg

Yes, this is a 3-cheese printer. Image: Motherboard.com

Contextual computing is revolutionising our lives. Ben Hammersley talked how we can apply a learning lens to this by taking cues from the internet of things. I think we need to take that one step further: by designing performance guidance to be smart enough to understand the context of the user, we’ll be creating useful, relevant, timely stuff at the point of need. Need is the important part. Don’t be like these guys from The Stupid S**t No-one Needs and Terrible Ideas Hackathon.

5. Tell a story

cool story bro

Cool story, bro. Image: MGOblog.com

Affective Context, a theory developed by Nick Shackleton-Jones, has been applied to what we do in our team for a while now. It was good to see David Guralnik and Julie Wedgwood exploring this in detail, and looking at ways to add meaning to information to make it stick through emotion and storytelling. I had a bit to say on this last year; you can watch the video here.

6. Continue? 3…2…1…


arcade-museum dot com

Mindfulness for work: v 2.0. Image: arcade-games.com

You can’t move in learning now without hearing someone mention gamification. Pete Jenkins asked us to go and explore how we can make learning more compelling by using gaming mechanics in a real-world context to improve performance. I think the industry needs to go a bit deeper than this, and to define the difference between games and gaming, because at the moment there’s confusion and they’re two very different things with different applications and outcomes.

7. Use your users


Get involved, but please… Don’t be one of THOSE people. Image: mashable.com

Video for learning is ubiquitous. Yet so many times I see it used in ways that people would never engage with ‘in real life’. When was the last time you did an interactive e-learning video on YouTube? So, it was refreshing to see Stephanie Dedhar chairing a session by Ian Slater from GE talk about the way they’ve put how to videos at the heart of their approach, and are focusing on user generated content by kitting-out their engineers with GoPro cameras, capturing how-to videos on the job, then sharing their short films on line.

And here are a few things I would’ve loved to see covered at Learning Tech, but didn’t:

  • Audience/user focus
  • User interface design
  • Experience design
  • Applying lessons from marketing to learning
  • Performance guidance

Did I miss these? What did you take away from #LT16uk? What do you think to my key trends? Holler at me on Twitter and let me know.


Film in learning – Learning Technologies Hangout, 2015

18 Feb

I took part in a Google Hangout as part of Learning Technologies 2015, talking about storytelling, social media, film and learning. Have a look here and let me know what you think. I talk about how I’m using video to engage learners, how I’m using content marketing techniques to connect with people and how we use social media to foster peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge through film.

Are you using video for learning in your organisation? How’s that working out for you? Want to get together to share best practice? Let me know!

I did a talk at this conference too, and I’ll share the video of that as soon as it’s available.

Hope it helps to inspire you to get out there and start using video to support your learners.

Unearthing Organisational Stories: finding the narrative

12 Jun

Dig out your stories…

Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

Uncovering StoriesIt’s a little wordy, is that normal in your field?” was Heidi’s response to my first draft. Her tact doing little to numb the honesty. In some areas, volume is good: boxes or chocolate and length of holidays being two of them. In stories, it’s less certain, and, when it comes to organisational narratives, shorter is invariably better.

I’ve been working this week to write the story of my own organisation, SeaSalt, and it’s been harder than you might think: this is frustrating as, since i created it, you’d think i could just make it up. The problem is that we tend to create stories that sit within our own frame of reference: we write stories that make sense to us, use language we understand, refer to concepts that we have mastered, exist in frames that we shape. By their nature, our first drafts of our stories

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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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