Why does the brain like to dream?

Story-Strategy, Act 2 Episode 5 – The Journey: Possibilities 2

When you want someone to buy into a new idea, one of the steps you take is to let them dream of new possibilities. You paint a picture of what it can be like if they accept your ideas/model/product.

The same thing happens when Cinderella gets an invitation from the prince to his ball. People begin to hope that things can be different in a good way – that just maybe their dreams can come true.

What happens in the brain when people dream of new possibilities?

Why does the brain like to hope?

Is it the sense of power over circumstances ie a rise in status? (S in SCARF model)

Is it the return of a sense of autonomy: that I can choose differently? (A in SCARF model)

Is it simply a positive emotion that lifts the spirits? (E in AGES model)

I have asked neuroscience expert Manie Bosman from the Strategic Leadership Institute to comment and will post his reply as soon as I have it.

In the mean time here are 3 ways to Call your audience to the adventure of new possibilities:

Room Set up

You will remember that you have to help your audience across two thresholds when you begin: the threshold of their life outside the room into the learning space and secondly the threshold from hwat they currently belive about the story in the room to the new ideas you are sharing.

To help with the first threshold, you once again start with things like room set-up, material design and so forth. Peter Block knows how to do this. His room set-up for his Community Conversations process is very clear: chairs must be arranged in groups of four facing each other. No tables. Natural lighting, soft drapery where possible, pictures on the walls and movable chairs. All these things tell the audience that other possibilities are open to them – ones that are not usually open in a traditionally set up room cinema style with a big projector screen in front, a podium for the speaker controlled lighting etc. The entire room calls the audience to have community conversations: the new idea he is ‘selling’.

Metaphors now and then

In a values alignment process with a wine export company, we asked participants to choose pictures that illustrate a) what the organisation looks like when its values are being lived by everyone in it and b) when the values are not being lived by all.  We then asked them to share first in two’s then in fours what they had chosen and why. The groups then had to pick the two pictures that most closely represent everyone in the group’s thoughts. They then shared their pictures with the entire group.

Next we placed all the pictures of the ideal reality on one end of the room and the others on the other end of the room. Then we asked them to see it as a continuum between the two extremes. Each person could then go and stand on the continuum to express where he or she thinks they are as functioning currently (current reality). How close or how far from the ideal are they? The next question was: Do you want to say anything about where you place yourself?

From past experience we knew that this exercise often creates a lot of conversation as different people view the organisation differently. In this particular group one individual placed himself squarely on the ideal reality side. Everyone fought with him asking how he could say that tey had all arrived there when they experience so much discord. He frowned at them and then said: but are these values not built into all of us? Is the dream not living in you as it lives in me? That is what gets me through my day.

The ideal he voiced there was one of the most powerful expressions of a Call to Adventure I ever heard. It could not to come from us in a more powerful way.

Reflecting on a story

From the previous blog you know that using a story can be very effective in issuing a Call. If you are able to involve people in the story by asking a reflective question, you make the brain even happier. Stories grab attention, generate connections and evoke emotion (A, G and E of the AGES model) but participation generates even more connections as well as adding Relatedness (R of SCARF).

I used the story of The Rose with a group of women in Leadership with DUKE Corporate Education and asked them to share in three’s the following two questions: “What emotions came up for you as  you listened?” And “Why would I tell you this story at a leadership conference?”

Whatever answers I get, it is not hard to use them to dream of futures where we can rise above the contradictions that we face daily. Interestingly in this particular group one of the participants had to leave in the break before my session because her sister’s son had been caught in their security gate that morning and was in a coma in hospital. One of the responses to my second  question was: “It comforts me to think that there can be happiness in death today. It allows me to stay hopeful and focus on the work we need to do here.”

A well chosen story can have exactly the effect you want even though it does not give you the answer you want. IF people are given the opportunity to connect their personal stories to the story in the room, learning can stick.

How do I help my audience dream?

Story-Strategy, Act 2 Episode 5 – The Journey: Possibilities 2

There was once a poor woman who had two children. The youngest had to go every day into the forest to fetch wood. Once when she had gone a long way to seek it, a little child, who was quite strong, came and helped her industriously to pick up the wood and carry it home, and then all of a sudden the strange child disappeared. The girl told her mother about the strange child, but at first the mother would not believe it. At length she brought a rose home, and told her mother that the beautiful strong child had given her this rose, and had told her that when it was in full bloom, he would return. The mother put the rose in water. One morning her child could not get out of bed. The mother went to the bed and found her dead, and yet she lay looking very happy. Next to her on the window sill, the rose was in full bloom. (A Brothers Grim Fairy tale)

Why is it that the girl had to choose between either alive but poor or  happy but dead?

What if it was possible to choose life AND happiness?

This story helps me to illustrate the second step in the Beginning stage of Story-Strategy: Opening up possibility. We also sometimes refer to it as the ‘Call to Adventure’ or ‘creating the gap’. The gap opens up between the current reality of the audience as established in Step 1 and the possibility that your model or programme offers. It is the gap between where they are and where they dream of going. This step helps you to give them a glimpse of the end destination and the unspoken promise that you can guide them across the cavern.

Again using an actual story for this step can be very effective, but you may choose a case study (a kind of story in itself), or use participative processes or liberating structures to let the audience articulate their own ideal reality. What ever you do:

Issue a Call to Adventure that opens up new possibilities

(then one day something unusual happens).

Once the story scene has been set with someone somewhere in a certain fix (Step 1) something happens that rocks the boat. Cinderella gets an invitation to the Prince’s ball, Little Red’s mother calls her to take a basket to gran, Brave Heart’s love is murdered, Harry Potter gets a letter from Hogwarts School of Witch craft and Wizardry and Ned Stark of Winterfell is summoned against his will to become the king’s hand compelling him to leave his family and his castle possibly forever.

Whether positive or negative, the inciting incident causes a shift in the current reality opening up the characters to perspectives, experiences and behaviours that were not on their radar before. Your process needs to make the same kind of effect on your audience in order to pull them deeper into the story in the room.

  • What new opportunity or possibilities do you/your material or programme open up?
  • How do you communicate these possibilities?
  • How do you inspire your audience to begin dreaming a new dream?
  • How do you frame negative events as opportunities?

Keeping the SHIFT model in mind how can we create opportunities for people to dream their own dreams rather than us telling them what dream to dream? Or, if you do have a particular dream you want them to drea, how do you invite them into that dream so that they too can own it?

Examples to follow in tomorrow’s post.

Why the brain likes it when you begin before you begin?

5.2 Why the brain likes it when you begin before you begin?

Story-Strategy Act 2, Episode 5 continues – The Journey: Current Reality 2

Whether you use high levels of participation as in the example of Ross Kidd and the posters, or implied participation through the use of story as in the Blue Beard example, it is how the strategy captivates the human brain that lends to it the power of transformation.

According to the AGES model Attention is one of the key components of learning that sticks and it is the job of the conference designer, workshop facilitator or speaker to make sure it is captured and held. Both story and participation captures attention because it involves emotion. When emotion is connected to an event, the brain builds a stronger memory of it. Additionally, the emotion activates the Amygdala which signals to the Hippocampus  that the event is salient and must therefore be more deeply encoded.

Both the involvement of emotion and the activation of the visual cortex through pictures helps the brain to Generate more associations with the ideas presented. Stories generate pictures in the mind of the listener, and the use of posters also stimulate this part of the brain. If you then also introduce a social aspect where people share their impressions of the story or the participative exercise, you create even more opportunity for generating multiple perspectives and associations.

Both Generation and Emotion are also aspects of the AGES model to help us understand how the brain takes in information so that the learning sticks. Between simply telling a story or allowing people to work with and talk to each other about the ideas through participation, the latter strategy is obviously more powerful for helping the brain to remember, but it is not always the most practical.

If you need more motivation to increase participation levels when you speak, train or conference, take a look at the SCARF model of David Rock. By letting people form an opinion about the story in the room and giving them a voice even before the facilitator or speaker has begun, you heighten the Status of the participants significantly. Suddenly they are not inferior to the facilitator, but co-creators of meaning.  Allowing them to choose which pictures to comment on and what words to write down increases Autonomy too. Talking with each other directly, or indirectly by the way in which people notice each other’s comments on the news print also builds Relatedness. Finally putting everyone through the same process and making them co-creators of meaning increases the feeling of equality and Fairness.

The only element of the SCARF model that is not directly involved is the sense of Certainty. It is usually also this aspect that makes people dislike participatory methods. The sense of fear and uncertainty caused when walking into a room where things are not as you expect the, to be can cause a fight or flight response. But with careful structuring it is possible to change this emotion to one of excitement and novelty which draws Attention and uses positive Emotion.

Click here for examples of how you can begin before you begin.


How do I make a strong beginning?

5.1 How do I make a strong beginning?

Story-Strategy, Act 2 Episode 5 – The Journey: Current Reality 2

Upon entering the room where the workshop on Participatory Methods for Learning and Research on HIV/Aids and Sexual & Reproductive Health was to take place, an unusual sight met my eyes. Instead of people straggling into the room and finding a seat either around tables, behind desks or even in a circle, they were forming clusters and clumps around posters and pages of news print on the walls, markers in hand.  Was I late? Did they start without me? As I was wondering, a student came up to me: “Good morning, while we wait for everyone to arrive, take a moment and look at the pictures and posters on the walls. On the news print below them, just record any thoughts or associations that come up for you in relation to the pictures. Here is a marker to document your ideas.”

The year was 2008 and I was attending the first Drama for Life Conference at WITS University. The facilitator of the workshop was Ross Kidd. It was the first time I learned the value of beginning a workshop before it begins. The pictures on the walls were of gender stereo types and people’s typical reactions towards HIV. By recording our own thoughts as we looked at the pictures, we were all given an opportunity to become aware of our own positioning in relation to the story in the room as depicted by the title of the workshop. Before Ross Kidd had opened his mouth, we all had formed an opinion and had a story of our own to contribute.

Even if you did not want to be as highly participative as this, it is essential that you help delegates become present to the current reality regarding the story in the room. Most traditional speakers choose to do it by telling a story, raising a case study or citing some research results. However you chose to do it, step one of Story-Strategy is:

Sketch a picture of the current reality

(Once upon a time there was someone, somewhere in a certain fix). 

Every story begins with someone (character) somewhere (scene) in a certain fix (plot). Some examples: Little Red Riding Hood at the edge of the forest, wearing the same hood every day. Brave Heart in a particular time in history with his tribe getting murdered by the English. Harry Potter is in Privet Drive being mistreated by his family. The Game of Thrones begin with a young lord on the other side of The Wall (a monstrous wall of ice that marked the edge of the seven kingdoms) killed by walking dead…

In each case the scene is set in such a way that the reader, watcher or listener (from here on the audience) identifies with the plight of the character so as to be drawn into the story.

  • How do you acknowledge the current reality and the pain of your audience regarding the story in the room?
  • How do you help them acknowledge where they are?
  • How accurately do you sketch that current reality?
  • How deeply can you empathize with them?

If you remember the SHIFT model, you will know that telling them is not as effective as letting them tell you. Creative participation is essential so that people can connect their own stories to the story in the room. Yet, there are many ways to do this. It begins before the talk, workshop, or conference really begins. From the moment delegates arrive, it is the beverages you serve, the way you let them register, the conference pack or learning material you hand them, the way you set up the room and the way you as facilitator or trainer greet them at the door or from the platform.

The Double Journey

This is because there are two cycles of Story-Strategy – there is a ‘double journey’ at stake. First people must be drawn from outside the room to inside: not just physically, but also with their attention and emotion. Secondly, once willing to be ‘here’ they must be drawn from their current understanding of the issue in the room to a new perspective. First they cross a physical threshold from their everyday existence filled with partners, colleagues, kids, traffic and unanswered emails into the learning space. Then they must cross the threshold from their current understanding of the learning content e.g. customer service, leadership or Learning and Research on HIV/AIDS and Reproductive Health, to a fresh perspective i.e. the one that you as speaker, facilitator or trainer want to convey.

In the example above Ross Kidd did not have to pay much attention to the first threshold because we were already in conference mode, but the conference designers themselves sure had to do it. I remember a carefully planned foyer space with musicians setting a tone, and a clearly themed conference pack. I also remember Warren Nebe starting the conference with a story about Blue Beard, immediately capturing attention and focussing it on the theme of the conference: African Research in Applied Drama and Theatre. He was establishing current reality by asking us to identify the role we see ourselves playing using examples from the story: Are we the naïve one driven by instincts to open the forbidden door? Do we find ourselves overwhelmed and surrounded by bloodied bodies? Are we dealing with the old folk hiding the past?

More examples will follow in future posts. For now, just remember:

Begin before you begin


What are the components of Story-Strategy?

What are the components of Story-Strategy?

Story-Strategy Act 2 Episode 4 continue – The Magic Weapon

Story-Strategy is the big picture sequential design and the poignant delivery of messages and events that take people from where they are to where they could be.

Every good story-strategy, like every good story, has a well designed beginning, middle and end. Each of these three can be divided into three more sections so that your beginning leaves no-one behind, your middle keeps everyone riveted and your end leaves them changed forever.

Here are the components of each:


1. Sketching a picture of the current reality (Once upon a time there was someone, somewhere in a certain fix).

At the beginning of Cinderella we find her in the ashes dominated by an evil stepmother and two spoilt step sisters.

How do you acknowledge the current reality and the pain of your audience regarding the story in the room? How do you help them acknowledge where they are? How accurately do you sketch that current reality and how deeply can you empathize with them?

2. Issuing a Call to Adventure that opens up new possibilities   (then one day something unusual happens).

Cinderella and her sisters get an invitation to the prince’s ball…

What new opportunity or possibilities do you/your material or programme open up? How do you communicate these possibilities? How do you allow your audience to begin dreaming a new dream?

3. Making room for debate and doubts (But there are obstacles and questions)

Yet, Cindy cannot see her way open to attend: she will exhaust her time and energy in helping her sisters get ready and anyway, she does not have a dress…

Neuroscience dictates that anything new brings about mixed feelings of excitement and fear along with actual obstacles that could hold you back.

How do you make room for these mixed emotions that relate to the new possibilities you are opening up? How do we allow for a conversation on the doubts/reservations people may have? How do we make room for them to identify obstacles and debate pros and cons?

The middle

4. Preparing for the journey (Because of this characters receive magic weapons, a clear plan and a mentor that help to bring safety and build confidence)


The fairy godmother appears with her magic to make a plan and send Cindy on her way. She proves her point by giving her a coach, horses, coachman and a dress.

What specific model, plan or strategy do you offer to guide participants through? Whose plan or strategy is it and why should it be trusted? Do you give a quick overview or big picture perspective before delving into detail? Can you give a short example or story that brings it home?

5.  The Journey itself (Tests and trials along the way, meeting friends and enemies)

At the ball Cindy meets her Prince and dances all night and deeply connects with each other. She plays at being royal, pretty and rich, but forgets to watch the time. When she flees the scene as the clock strikes, all seems lost…

What are the key tasks and who is the tribe that typify the journey to the new reality? How do we structure the steps/processes of the solution? How do we help people practice new skills increasing the level of difficulty?  How do we build relationship in the tribe that travels together?

6. Rewarding valiant effort (Finally there is a breakthrough and characters receive short term benefit).

The prince rushes after her and there on the steps he discovers her glass slipper and with it the promise of finding her again.

How do we celebrate breakthroughs and frame insights? How do we reward participation and risks people take in reaching into unfamiliar territory? Neuroscience again shows how people are motivated by a sense of reward. This can be given in the form of a feeling of accomplishment, of being appreciated by others, or of receiving input that is relevant and applicable to them personally.

The ending

7. Return (With new found insight characters return to their world to apply it)

While Cindy is back in squalor, the prince (as representation of her other half) now return to the village to look for her, trying to fit the slipper on every possible girl that seems likely.

What strategy or structure do you use to help people apply your model or new ideas to their personal contexts? How do you help them not just see its possible use, but actually try it out? Can you come up with a simulation that help you do this?

8. Commitment and sacrifice (After trying new ideas in practical contexts, the characters discover that they will need to sacrifice something of their old life to make room for a new commitment)

When the prince finds her, he must let go of his expectation of a ‘likely’ candidate and accept that his queen might be a serving girl…

How do you call them to commitment in adopting the new ideas and behaviours? How do you inspire them to let go of old patterns that may interfere with the shift they want to achieve?

9. Integrating new ideas to form a new current reality (Now everyday characters live in a new state different from before, but stable and integrated)

As the prince slips the glass shoe onto Cindy’s foot, poor and rich merge, servant and queen become one…

What first steps, tools and support structures do they leave with for integrating new ideas and actions into their everyday lives? How fully can we, as journey guides, ‘die’ so that we are not needed when people are back in their everyday lives.

And they live happily ever after.

How does neuro-science help us facilitate lasting change?

Story-Strategy Act 1 Episode 4: the magic weapon

We have established so far that, for any training/facilitation/learning process to succeed it needs two essential components: learning design and creative participation. We propose Story-Strategy as preferred method for the former and ImprovSense a for the latter.

One of the most compelling reasons for this is the synergy both methods share with the latest research in neuro-science that shows how the brain become more responsive to new ideas (i.e. learning under certain conditions. I would like to briefly share two models that will crop up again and again as I begin to unfold the details of how Story-Strategy and ImprovSense work.

The SCARF model

The first model is David Rock’s SCARF model. According to this model the brain is most receptive when it has a perception of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Status:                  Do I have power and importance here?

Certainty:            Do I know what to expect? Can I predict what will happen next?

Autonomy:         Do I have choice and control over what happens?

Relatedness:     Do I belong in this group? Am I among friends?

Fairness:              Are the processes fair? Do we all have equal ownership and responsibility?

If a process can give the brain all of these conditions, it will be open and receptive to learn, adopting new ideas and behaviour.

The AGES model

The second model helps us understand what characteristics a process needs to have in the way it presents the material so that the now open brain absorbs and retains the new ideas and behaviours. The AGES model of Davachi, Kiefer, Rock & Rock proposes that processes that focus attention, Generate multiple connections, use Emotion and is Spaced over time, are the most successful.

Attention:           Successful learning requires a learner’s full attention to the topic. This happens when distractions are limited, and there is enough motivation for participants to concentrate on the material or task. How do we entice the brain to stay engaged?


Generation:       Memories are made up of webs of data from across the brain all linked together. The more associations connected to a memory, the easier it is to retrieve the memory later.  How do we optimize the build up of associations in order to maximize the likelihood for memory formation?

Emotion:             Emotion is one of the most important regulators of learning and memory formation because the brain connects positive or negative feelings to the learning content. How do we turn learning into an experience?

Spacing:               The distribution of learning over time leads to better learning, because as the retrieval of information becomes more difficult, long-term memory is accessed. How do we design interventions that make use of spacing effects and delayed testing?

With these models in mind, we are ready to launch into the detail of how Story-Strategy and ImprovSense work. Let us find out if we can answer all the questions posed in this article. If so, we must be in the possession of a pair of magical  weapons…

Story Secrets for Speakers #5 – Who is in this with me?

If you have overcome personal resistance, relational resistance and practical resistance, you are now ready to tackle social resistance. Every person in your audience wants to know: if I do this thing you suggest, or believe this idea you promote – who is in it with me? In essence the question is: what tribe do I become part of? In the Lord of the Rings Frodo has learned that 1. He is chosen (Story Secret #2) he has learned that he can trust Gandalf  (Story Secret #3) and he has heard the plan (Story Secret #4). Now he trembles as he almost accepts his duty…”So I must go to Mordor and deliver this ring into the fires that created it. And I must go alone…” But Gandalf surprises him. The wizard gets up, opens the door and brings in Samwise who had been eavesdropping the entire time. Neither Samwise nor Frodo can believe their good fortune when Gandalf informs them that Samwise must accompany Frodo. Sam is thrilled because of the promise of adventure, Frodo is thrilled because he would not be alone. Samwise becomes Frodo’s loyal companion and it is thanks to him that Frodo finally manages to achieve the objective. We all need loyal support when we accept a new idea, try out a new habit or open up to a new perspective. But there are other social forces too that are needed to make sure we succeed. I will share six of them with you here. Note though, that they work together in pairs. 1. The Sidekick and the Sceptic Samwise is an example of the Sidekick – someone usually in the same peer group as the hero (the hero is of course your audience member). Can you tell a story or produce a testimonial from someone like them who has bought and used your idea/behaviour perspective successfully? Find someone that your audience knows and can relate to. I have seen many a speaker who draws on the approval of one of the audience members to strengthen their case. “In the break I talked to (name) she agreed with me that…” Piglet is Winnie the Pooh’s sidekick: unquestioningly enthusiastic and positive. Yet opposite piglet sits Eeyore… Sceptics who end up buying your idea/habit/perspective give the best testimonials. “When I first heard about… I thought it would be too expensive to implement, too airy fairy/too time consuming, but, I am warming up to the idea.”  A sceptic’s voice is even more powerful when he/she is of a higher status than the general status of your audience: get their boss’s story of why he wanted to book you as speaker. Get the opinion of someone well known to the audience that endorses the idea you are putting forward. You can do this very successfully with quotes or stories. Always balance the positive energy of a piglet story or with an Eeyore story, else people will take it with a pinch of salt. 2. Emotion and Reason Your audience needs to know that their peers and superiors are already in the tribe they will join if they accept your ideas, but they also need to know that they will be both emotionally and mentally accepted into the fold. They need to feel good about joining and be able to satisfy their logic. If both Tigger and Owl support the idea, they will be likely to accept it too. Ever wondered why advertisements either use sex appeal or scientific proof to make their point? Your case is doubly stronger if you can do both. It is always a good idea to use either a celebrity or a professor’s quote or story to strengthen the idea. The trick is not to be too obvious, though. People can see through sales talk and they want to hear authentic stories. I have become weary of speakers who ‘namedrop’. It is not so important who you know, but who knows the ideas you are promoting. 3. The Guide and Contagonist  When all is said and done, you as the guide will be inviting the audience into your peer group. They need to like and  trust you and they need to know if you like and trust them. You as Guide face the opposite energy of the Contagonist. This is the person, or type of person, that will distract, tempt and confuse your audience. Your job is too also guide them through these possible misunderstandings, distortions and false solutions that may be hidden in the ideas you promote. Failing to do so will leave them vulnerable to failure, but will also leave you more open to criticism. Just like the Sceptic’s testimonial is often stronger than that of the Sidekick, your illumination of pitfalls and misunderstandings is more powerful than your praise singing. Stories of failure can build success and stories of doubt can build faith. For seven whole volumes Harry Potter distrusted and suspected Severus Snape, but after he heard his true story,  sadly a little too late, Harry named one of his own sons after him. For more on these archetypes google Dramatica.

Now just as you think you have covered it all and now it is plain sailing, everything goes wrong. This is when you need Story Secret 6

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren

Researcher, Speaker and Coach

Need a speaking coach? Contact Petro

Interested in a course in facilitation and coaching? Click here

Looking for a speaker or storyteller at your event? Contact Petro

Story secrets for Speakers #4 – Your Secret Weapon

Every speaker faces resistance. If you have done a good job of Painting a Picture of the Possibility , Story Secret #1, you can expect at least 5 types of resistance: personal, relational, practical, social and cosmic. Here we focus on the third kind: practical, also called contextual, resistance.

Apart from the personal and moral objections of Story Secret #2, and the doubts they may have about you as the mentor, Story Secret #3, there is a very real practical resistance. How will I do what you ask? What is the plan?  Will it work for me?

Whatever your solution is: 3 steps to losing weight, 5 principles for being an extraordinary leader, or Seven story secrets for speakers, your audience needs to know it will work for them.

Like Aslan in the Narnia series, Dumbledore for Harry Potter and Griet for Liewe Heksie, the guide in the hero’s story can cut to the chase and bring light to the befuddled mind of the main character. The magic weapon often come in the form of three (wishes), five (stones) or seven (dwarfs).  Finally, the guide provides very specific instructions for its successful use: before the clock strikes 12, only when used by an innocent child or only if you use the right words like ‘Open Sesame’.

1. It cuts through darkness

The magic weapon is often a blade of some kind, like Arthur’s Excalibur, or a light, like Aladdin’s lamp. Sometimes it is even both like Skywalker’s light sabre.  The blade or light symbolises its power to break through darkness or cut through the woods of uncertainty

Your solution  must cut through what the audience experiences as darkness. Clean up the myths and misunderstandings around personal tax returns, what diet to follow, or how people deal with fear.  Give them a torch to guide them through the woods.

Your solution must therefore be  simple to understand and easy to remember and yet show that it really gets the audience’s context and obstacles.

2. The power of three, five and seven.

The numbers 3, 5 and 7 each have an internal logic helping your audience grasp and remember it. Stories have used these numbers over and over again.

Think of 3 little pigs, 3 bears, 3 wishes, 3 days in the belly of the whale, or in the grave, 3 time frames (past, present and future), 3 elements (substance, liquid and gas).  The number 3 has an internal logic because it sets up a pattern. Often the first two are the similar and the third is special, a punchline. The older pigs make mistakes, but the third gets it right. Because of the power of 3, 9 also gains popularity: 3 main ideas with 3 sub ideas under each. The logic of 3 is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that speakers use it as often as possible.

Likewise 7 has made its mark: 7 dwarfs, 7 brides for 7 brothers, 7 days of creation and 7 days of the week and 7 holy sacraments. Speakers and writers  employ 7often:  Covey’s 7 Habits or Bruce  Wilkenson’s 7 Laws of a Learner. However, seven similar points can be difficult to remember while five is easier. So 7 items are often broken into 2 of one kind and 5 of another: 5 working days and 2 weekend days, 5 loaves and 2 fishes, or 5 types of resistance speakers face and 2 other secrets that frame the 5.

This is also how 5 gets its significance, although it hardly ever features by itself in stories and myths. . Remembering the 5 is made easier by the practicality of having 5 fingers on one hand. Many writers and speakers find acronyms with 5 letters to strengthen the internal logic of their ‘weapon’ or model:  David Rock’s SCARF model, or the SMART goal model.

3. Rules for correct usage

To ensure that the hero is successful in the use of the secret weapon, the mentor provides specific rules for its correct application. But if practicality was the only reason for specific rules, why make it so difficult: Get out of the Ball by the stroke of midnight… Why not let the magic go on forever? By restricting the use of the weapon, you also restrict the number of people who are able to be successful, making your audience become part of a selected, special group. This makes your model so much more desirable and your audience feel so much more like chosen ones (see Story Secret #2).

While your solution is simple, it is not necessarily easy to apply. It will take skill – but if your audience ‘buys’ it, they will then be open to further training in its use creating longer term clients for you – should that be part of your business model..

Now, think of Neo in ‘The Matrix’.  Remember how you as audience member discover that there is a chosen one who has a special gift and a destiny. Together with Neo you discover that he is the One, but you know it before he does and so the tension builds as you watch him get closer and closer to the discovery.  Then there is that moment when it all dawns on him and his entire life up to that point finally begins to make sense…   He is the chosen one, the one who fulfils the conditions of the prophesy, the one who can manipulate the matrix in a way no-one else can.

Imagine you can recreate that moment for your audience, where, suddenly, in the light of your insights or your model their whole experience around a certain subject suddenly makes sense.  If your conditions for use are such that your audience turns out to be exactly the right kind of people in the right kind of context to use it, you will ensure that their resistance on this level crumbles.

There are only 2 more types of resistance to address, so keep a look out for Story Secret  numbers 5 and number 6

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren

Researcher, Speaker and Coach

Need a speaking coach? Contact Petro

Interested in a course in facilitation and coaching? Click here

Looking for a speaker or storyteller at your event? Contact Petro

How does improvSense work?

How does improvSense work?

ImprovSense Act 1 Episode 3: Debate

Marius van Wyk, sales manager at FUNDA Training and Conferencing, sat up quickly.

Wait, I get that people can be encouraged to work in groups and dialogue, but that is not the kind of creative participation you are talking about. You said ‘improvisation theatre’. That means people make things up on the spot in front of others. I call that ‘put on the spot’. That is terrifying. Our client base with its high volume of financial people and government employees will never feel comfortable with that. Even if we were to buy this concept, how on earth will we sell it?

Ok,  so making people feel safe is important to you – especially safety from being put on the spot. It seems to me you value the autonomy of your clients to choose how and when they participate. According to David Rock’s SCARF model both safety and autonomy is necessary for the human brain to function at its best, so you are spot on. ImprovSense is not about putting people on the spot against their will and expecting them to be clever at a whim. ImprovSense is a  skill with three layers:

1. to be aware and listen to one another,

2. to step in with confidence and risk their ideas and

3. to work together to let all the diverse ideas integrate into a coherent whole.

To listen, to step in with confidence and to give and take ideas cannot happen when people feel put on the spot, they have to feel safe and free to choose. You can therefore be sure that we take real care with both these conditions before we start working. We ask people how they feel when they hear they are going to improvise. This gives them a chance to air exactly the kinds of fears that you expressed. It is part of the Story-Strategy we follow as we design our processes.

Among the feelings, though, there are always also excitement and some curiosity. People are drawn by the idea that they will learn to trust their instincts and come up with innovative solutions together. These are the feelings we want to build on. Apart from safety and autonomy, the brain also likes status, such as the kind that comes from people accepting and using your ideas, relatedness that comes from people sharing solutions and fairness that comes from people all being in the same boat together. All these abound when people improvise collectively.

I don’t understand, show me a game.

Check out  the walking exercise, it is one of our favourite games to start with and really simple, but it creates a feeling of relatedness and fairness within 5 minutes and quickly gives a sense of accomplishment to everyone, which raises their status. It only works though, if people risk moving autonomously and having the safety and certainty of knowing that other will support them. Within 5 minutes everyone’s  brain got what they needed to engage further with whatever the content of the training or learning is going to be.

So ImprovSense opens people up to the content of the training and the conference? I think I like it. This may seem contradictory, but if you just stay on the beach and in the shallow water with them, how do they ever get good at the skills of ImprovSense so that they can keep learning? Listening and speaking up with confidence is not something that can happen in 5 minutes.

That may be the most important question of them all. It relates to the question Claire asked about the stickability of the learning. The brain can get into a space for creative participation within 5 minutes, but it takes a lot of practise to keep it there and to get it there when the pressure is on. There can be a range of things that keep people from listening to each other more often, from speaking their truth with confidence and from integrating diverse ideas into a coherent whole as a way of being. Yet without these skills teams cannot keep learning and developing to keep up with change and stay on the cutting edge of their industry and business.

What do you suggest then?

We like to work with teams over time in a group coaching type space to help people identify what holds them back and we work through it using improvisation exercises.  What keeps them from listening to each other, from speaking up and from integrating diverse ideas into a coherent whole that is innovative and produces lasting solutions?  Over time the way people relate to each other and the way they learn and develop in an organisation can completely change. We like to do more that just revamp how people train, conference and learn, we like to create a team climate in organisations where learning, innovation and development is a way of life. In an organisation like that training, team building and even conferencing is not a once off let’s hope it hits the mark type thing, it is a way of life and conferences or training workshops are just instigators for deeper learning processes.

That is a mouth full. If it is the way you say it is, then why do most of our training workshops run for only half or full days, maybe up to 3 days in a row if we are lucky. The skills you talk about develops over time. Are you saying we must change the way we structure our training?

I did not say that, but it may be something you are saying.

It sounds expensive and time consuming. I want to see how it works first.

Great, then stick around. You may find it far less time consuming and expensive than you think – especially if you can learn the tricks yourself and do not have to pay experts to run it all the time…

How does Story-Strategy work?

Story-Strategy, Act 1, Episode 3 : Debate

As I finished explaining the Shift model to Clair Pillay from FUNDA Training and Conferencing, she wrinkled her nose and said: :

Okay, so old fashioned lecturing is something of the past and it is necessary to attend to the learning design of presentations and conference, not just content design,  and to invite creative participation from delegates and trainees. What I don’t get, is how does Story-Strategy do this. I know that stories can be very powerful to communicate a message, but I am hearing something else when you talk about story as strategy.

Story-Strategy does not exclude the use of stories to communicate messages, but is not limited to it. Any single well crafted story follows a particular structure and logic: the same structure and logic followed by almost every other well crafted story. It is this structure and logic that makes it such a powerful communication tool.  It is designed to help listeners cross boundaries and integrate opposites. The Beginning of a story always sets up a current reality for people to identify with, the middle of the story takes them into a new and often opposing view of that reality, usually temporary,  and the ending of the story shows an integration, more stable new normal. Think of Cinderella starting in poverty, being introduced to temporary riches at the ball and then ending as queen with a new more stable normal.

The trick is how to get the main character from the current reality across the threshold to the ball and then across the second threshold to permanent queen. So, h do we get FUNDA Conferences from being mostly filled with lectures to being revamped as powerful learning experiences that wow and impact their audiences? We can give your delegates a taste in the form of a keynote at the start or somewhere in the centre of the conference as temporary experience of what is possible, but to make a real difference, the conference itself must be designed as story, taking delegates from where they are into a new way of seeing and equipping them to apply that new perspective in their workplace. Shall I give you the logic and structure of story so you can see what I mean, or do you want to raise other reservations?

You can give me detail in a minute, but there is something else that worries me. You talk about creative participation from the audience, but many of the people who come expect to be served with great information, delivered by experts. They don’t want to play games. They want input, they don’t come to give it. How do you help people be open for interaction and not feel self conscious?  This self-conscious thing is a big one because many of our delegates come from the financial and government sectors. They are reserved people comfortable with numbers and routine. Some are tired of all the changes that are constantly happening, especially those in the government sector.

Yes, it makes sense to take special care with your particular audience and their characteristics. The point of Story-Strategy is to meet people where they are and take them gradually to a new place. That new place includes one where they are open and comfortable with participation. As I said earlier: the power of story and therefore of Story-Strategy is in how it draws participants in and help them cross the thresholds.  To cross the first threshold, you need to lead people through their doubts and reservations, making sure you allow them to be expressed, acknowledge and then address them.

Much like you are doing with me now?

She smiled and I smiled back.

Does it really work, though? How do you make sure that what they learn goes home with them and has a lasting impact?

You are talking about the second threshold now, and you are spot on. This is definitely the biggest challenge for just about any training or conference or OD intervention of other kinds. There is no simple answer. Even the best story tellers in the world will tell you that ending a story is the hardest part of its design. It is easier to make the story go on and on like a soap opera. Like a story too, to end a learning process is an art form, but Story-Strategy gives you good guidelines. I suggest you hold this question in the back of your mind and bring it up again when you think it is important.

 Ok, I will keep challenging you on this.

I look forward to it, I say and smile. Anything else before I launch into the detail?

You mentioned neuro-science earlier. I am curious to know how Story-Strategy works with the brain.

Great question, I will make sure to highlight the neuro-scientific aspects of the model as we go through it.