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.

 

Introduction exercises for Speakers and facilitators

Marius, the sales manager, spoke  again:

Now you have introduced everyone, you have oriented them, but you still have not explained the topic or started with the actual material all this was just introduction, now the speaker too has his or her introduction. This is taking very long.

True, you have only crossed the first threshold from their outside world into the learning space, now they still need to cross from their current understanding to a new understanding of the topic.  Yet it does not take long.  The only thing we added was this idea of asking them to air reservations or express feelings. This takes five minutes maximum compared to  the alternative : people remain distant and never really engage with the learning wasting their whole day and all your own effort..

Also, if you know that you need to do all three these things before continuing, you may find ways to condense your processes and combine some of them. The BBYB exercise for instance, both introduce the participants’ current reality regarding the topic in the room (step one of the second threshold) as well as present an invitation to participate (step 2 of the first threshold)

After you completed the first cycle with the agenda, and explanation of the working method and an opportunity for attendees to air their mixed responses, you introduce the speaker.

The speaker now tackles the next cycle of the double journey by building on the BBYB exercise showing how the perspective of the audience is mirrored in the world.  The speaker can do this by talking, letting people talk, or creating a whole brain participative experience.

Talking

Your bio of the speaker has set him/her up as expert, so the audience believes the, when they now paint a picture of the current reality from a global perspective. They also show the problems that arise from this perspective and its consequences., back it up with graphs, statistics, research and events that are in the news. All the time you are further building out the current reality of the topic be it leadership, sales , marketing or wellness.

Letting them talk

You may also choose more experiential and participative methods by inviting the CEO of the company to give an overview of the situation with financial reports, staff statistics, stories  and so on. You can also let people share stories of their experience relating to the issue with one another.

Experiencing

In a customer service training programme we designed for Spier Wine Farm, we used theatre images to really help participants feel the pain of the current reality. In four groups they had to create   theatrical tableaux where participants show scenes from lived experiences using their bodies to build statues. Each group showed a different set of consequences of bad customer service: the effect on 1. customers, 2.  the organisation, 3.  staff and their families and 4.  the wider South African community. People play out characters like a  disgruntled customer telling their friends not to go to this hotel (group 1), or perhaps the CEO needing to lay off staff because of cost cutting (group 2), or the husband telling his wife he had lost his job(group 3),, or children begging in the street because tourists are not here to support our economy (group 4). Playing out these scenes drive the message home using  Attention, Generation and Emotion (AGES model).

With the stage neatly set and the current pain identified and empathised with, you can now move to creating new possibilities again.

 

How do I ensure participation when I design a workshop?

How do I ensure participation when I design a workshop?

Claire Pillay  took a deep breath.

My head is spinning. I have to begin before I begin and I have to begin twice because people have to first come into the room and second  into the learning material. With all this beginning, when does the workshop actually start? Won’t I lose the people along the way?

I can see why you get confused, but it is simpler than you think. Tell me how do you usually begin a training programme or conference?

Aside from the room set up and materials etc? Because you said that is part of it.

Yes, those are part of beginning before you begin, we will covered that, but you can go ahead and tell me what you do once the people are in the room.

Well, the convener will welcome them, do a few logistics including an overview of the programme,  and then introduce the speaker. We give a short bio and then the speaker takes over. If I run the workshop myself, I will introduce myself and tell them what to expect from the session before launching into the topic.

That introduction you just described, together with the room set-up and the materials and the ‘begin before you begin’ BBYB exercise that we introduced , forms the first three steps of the Story-Strategy that gets people from their life outside the learning (kids, partners, traffic etc) into the learning space:

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

The most obvious way this is introduced is by giving people name tags that tell each other who they are and often also their companies and job titles. These name tags say: We acknowledge your current reality outside of this learning space. Usually there is tea served before the time so that people can ask each other: who are you and what do you do? Where do you come from and why did you come to this conference or workshop?  Speakers and facilitators usually also make it their business to find out as much as they can about their prospective audience even before the learning event.

Then the  BBYB exercise take this further and say: we acknowledge that you have current opinions about the learning we are presenting.. Your introduction of the speaker then establishes the speaker’s current reality: name and position and back story i.e. what brought them here.

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

The conference pack or learning material, the room set up and pictures on the walls all have their purpose in the second step of the Story-strategy. They set the scene for something new and unusual, novel and interesting. It captures the brain’s attention and focuses energy. Introducing the speaker and their topic takes this even further opening new possibilities around the subject. Going through the logistics and the agenda for the day helps participants to feel safer  building certainty. This is especially important if you did a BBYB exercise which could have made them a little uneasy because it was unexpected.

If you do use participation or dialogue, it is very important to also let people introduce themselves to each other, this brings in a sense of relatedness and helps people relax into the learning space and each others’ company. You can even combine this with the next step.

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

If you really put out an attractive invitation, people will have mixed feelings of both excitement and anxiety. They may even wonder if what you are saying isn’t too good to be true. At this point you may want to ask participants to comment on their experience of the BBYB exercise, the room set-up, the conference pack or the agenda you are proposing.  In this way you acknowledge their mixed feelings.

This step is especially important if you are using participative methods like Applied Improvisation, creative drawing, World Cafe or Community Conversations. We will elaborate on this further in the next post.

Claire smiled  wryly:

We seldom do things risky, so we just ask people if they have any questions about the programme or whatever. Does that count?

Sure that counts, but people who are trapped in mixed emotions will seldom speak up. You need to address the emotions directly, else it blocks further engagement.  However, if you take them through this cycle, you greatly increase the potential for participation and shift.