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.

How can I increase the potential for shift to happen?

Story-Strategy, Act 1, Episode 2 continues  – Possibility

Lectures where info is simply transmitted, shows, like feel good motivational talks and games like paint ball and potjiekos competitions (team cook-ups), all lack one or both of the essential ingredients for programmes that maximise the potential for shifting your audience, team or workshop participants. These two essential ingredients are performance design and creative participation.

Learning design is the art of turning information into a carefully sequenced and well crafted learning experience. Here the content does not dictate the design, but rather how best to shape the content so that people buy it. Often story, pictures, audio visual stimuli like props and videos and interactive techniques are employed to unfold the material and enliven the presentation. Speakers, trainers and teachers who add this component to their material significantly increase the potential for shift to happen  since it creates more brain connections for participants drawing them into the ‘story in the room’ (content presented).

Creative participation is the art of creating structures that invite participants to contribute their ideas, thoughts and actions to the material. This kind of experiential process  allow participants to bring their own ingenuity to the conversation, and even discover tacit knowledge that they did not know they had. Programmes, talks and interventions that employ games, interactive processes, conversations  and liberating structures also greatly enhance the potential for shift since people are able to connect their own stories to the story in the room.

Old fashioned lectures are poor in both these aspects, shows are stronger in performance design, but lack creative participation and games have the latter, but not the former. For shift to occur, both are needed.

Story-Strategy is a learning design principle that uses the structure of story to design talks, workshops, conferences, and other organisational development interventions.  . Storytellers from the early ages until now have learned to frame and simplify the complexities and abstractions of human experience of change.. Understanding the dramatic  structure of change and developing an intuitive sense of its ebb and flow can greatly improve your ability to create conditions for shift to happen. Story-Strategy is, therefore, an understanding of the big picture of the sequence in which people can take and adapt to new information or behaviour

ImprovSense is a creative participation methodology that uses the principles of Improvisational theatre to foster a climate for creative collaboration and team innovation. Improvsense  is the ability to know when to listen and observe, when to take action and initiative and how to mix the two into a dance of intuitive sensing and responding.  It is the skill and art of improvising in the moment and trusting that the outcome is what it needs to be. These skills are essential for creative participation in finding solutions that individuals can own and use.

When you add Story-Strategy to a game, lives can be changed just like the game of soccer can transform kids when the learning of life skills are designed into the game.

Similarly, when you add ImprovSense to a show by letting the audience take part in the meaning making, you can shift whole communities just like some of the successful AIDS education programmes that combine theatre and educational workshops.

At Playing Mantis we find that story and improvisation are potent companions because they work well together and where they intercept shift is inevitable. This blog is devoted to Story-Strategy, but will refer to ImprovSense as and when needed, so you can have the benefit of both.

When you want to increase the potential for shift to happen, your ImprovSense halps you navigate your action in the moment while your Story-Strategy helps you retain perspective of the big picture. Between the two you create the conditions for shift in the lives of your team members, workshop participants, customers, employees, and, of course, yourself.


How do I bring about shift that lasts?

Story-Strategy, Act 1, Episode 2: Possibility

If you are a speaker, trainer, facilitator, coach or OD (organisational Development) practitioner, you would have noticed that audiences, trainees, participants and teams have become more and more distracted, demanding and opinionated. Like Claire in yesterday’s story:

we need new moves  to move the people we serve.

With the explosion of the internet, everyone can be an expert, everyone can personalise and customise their programmes, profiles and preferences and everyone can choose what information they want to allow in their headspace. In addition, the shaky state of world economies and the uncertainty created by political shifts and health threats, people are more and more weary of solutions that would either waste their money, or cause more uncertainty.


Old fashioned lecturing, like FUNDA Training and Conferencing was used to, does not work anymore. On one hand lectures are content driven and the content dictate the design and flow of the presentation. On the other hand, the content proposes to be a one size fits all solution that is not customisable and adaptable for every individual particularity. Furthermore, lectures do not leverage the power of human connection and emotion as a way to drive messages home and make them stickable.


Motivation Inc and Team Adventures, from yesterday’s story, had each tried to solve some of these problems. Motivational speakers liven up presentations  by turning it into more of a show.  Through showmanship they artfully design their content using story, evolving emotion, clever presentational gimmicks like props, visual aids and performance skills. In addition, motivational speakers are high impact, but low in time investment. And while the really good speakers are expensive for the time they put in, a once off payment is still cheaper, than a process that unfolds over time and consumes both time and money.

However, traditional motivational speakers can not bring about shift that lasts. They get a high rating from people attending their talks, but a very low rating in terms of creating real shift. What they lack is the ability to help people connect their own individual stories to the story in the room. They provide a grand show, but still offers a one size fits all solution that can not shift the individual. It is a known fact enough speakers that only 5% of the people in your audience will be deeply moved and impacted by your presentation. While many may enjoy it, only 5% will be at a place where your story and their stories intercept to create shift. There is still something missing.


Team building programmes step into this gap by offering game like solutions. A game is not content driven, it is structure driven. This means that within the confines of the game, people have a certain amount of control to manipulate the rules to their advantage. A game can be individualised. A game is also good for connecting people and building relationship, something that often enhance emotional connection either by awakening competitiveness, or by leveraging people’s feeling of belonging. However, unless games are structured around content that can bring about learning, people often leave a teambuilding experience warm and fuzzy, but without a lasting shift notable in the workplace.


If lectures, shows and games do not offer lasting solutions that can bring about shift, there must be a fourth option – a solution we simply term SHIFT. The Playing Mantis SHIFT model is the subject of tomorrow’s blog.