How do I use the power of stories for my talks and workshops?

Once upon a time in the Bushveld of South Africa lived a dragon who thought he was a springbuck. He ate grass like the buck, hid from the midday sun under the trees like a buck and ran from the lions like a buck.

One day another dragon flew overhead and saw this dragon behaving like a buck. He swooped down, picked up the younger dragon and flew with him into the clouds.

“Fly!” her bellowed as he dropped the young dragon.

“No, no, no noooooo!”, shrieked the young one closing his eyes as the ground came up to meet him. But before he hit the earth, the older dragon scooped him up again.

“Fly!” he bellowed as he let go a second time, then a third and a fourth. On and on the same routine until the young dragon could not stand it anymore. Angrily he began to protest and struggle, but still it went on. The young dragon became angrier and more indignant still, until finally he had had enough. As he was hurtling towards the earth one more time he opened his mouth and roared: “I am not a DRA-GON!!!”. As he did so, flames burst from his mouth, his wings shot open and he caught an up draft narrowly escaping being smashed to the ground.

When he looked up to see where the other dragon had gone, he was just in time to see him disappear into the distance.  He had to work like mad to catch up. Now he lives with the last remaining pack of dragons in the Drakensberg. (Adapted from an old Chinese tale “The Roar of Awakening”)

Which of the two dragons do you identify with most? The younger one, or the older one?

Why? Take a moment to write your answer down.

I have just demonstrated two way of using  a story as part of a talk or workshop:

1. Tell a story

2. Let the people in the room reflect on the story in a way that connects their own life stories to the story in the room.

The most effective way is to let them reflect on it by themselves for a moment, then share in pairs and then feed back to the larger group on a voluntary basis.

The first works because stories can address all four the requirements of the AGAES model. This model explains the four elements that are needed for the brain to remember messages: Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing.

Attention: Because of their visual nature and ability to make abrstract concepts concrete and simplify highly complex ideas, stories capture attention. A well tole story also keeps it. This is especially true if the audience finds personal relevance in the story for their own experience.

Generation: Stories help the brain to make numerous new connections because it involves pictures, symbols and emotions and connecting all these to abstract concepts.

Emotion: A good story allows the audience to empathise on one level or another inviting them to link emotion to the message. This signals to the brain that the message is important based on the intensity of the emotion.

Spacing: If the message can be linked to clear symbols in the story, it means that it will be recalled in the future every time the audience sees something that reminds them of the message. The recalling after a space of time entrenches the message further.

If you then add the second kind of story-strategy i.e. letting people connect their own story link with the story in the room, you now double the effect of all four aspects of the AGES model. The sense that the story is personally relevant captivates more Attention. Sharing this with someone else and hearing their story Generates more connections in the brain. The social interaction itself signifies importance to the brain, because relating your story to others’ story satisfies the brains deep need for relating and belonging. This increases the Emotional response and adds another Spacing opportunity, because you will recall the story and its message every time you meet this person.

The third way of using story, however, can increase the effectiveness of your message exponentially. 3. Using story as a design principle for your entire talk or workshop.


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.

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.