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.


How do I overcome resistance in the room?Story-Strategy

Act 2 Episode 7: Debate2

The facilitator, Burgert Kirsten, looks at the group sitting around the circle. He takes his seat among them.

“Now that you heard you are going to use Improvisation Theatre, what emotions arise for you? Share your response with the person next to you in pairs.”

He gives them a few moments, and then asks: “What came out of your conversation?”

A young 20 something immediately says: “I’m excited, I haven’t tried it before.” “Speak for yourself, his partner responds. She is a middle aged woman “I am terrified”.  Others agree with things like “I feel anxious”, “nervous”, “I do not like being put on the spot.” “What if I don’t have anything to say?” a younger woman asks . “I am looking forward to finding out” her friend laughs.

Burgert smiles, “yes, it makes sense that you will feel that way, and we will not push you to go further than what you choose to. Improvisation is like the ocean: it is scary, unsafe and overwhelming when you are out in the deep waters where sharks can find you, but we start on the beach. We take people in only as far as they choose where it is fun and exciting, but not dangerous.

In stories

In the film the Gladiator (2000) Maximus Aurelius refuses to live after he discovers his wife and son murdered. Instead of it inciting him to action, he tries to avoid the ‘Call to Adventure’. When he is picked up by traders and sold as a gladiator, he still tries to resist. It is only after an open conversation with his mentor the gladiator master, that he accepts the call. Red Riding Hood runs off without reservation when her mother asks her to go to grandma, but in the forest she is full of debate: should she pick the flowers or not? Should she listen to the wolf? Which route should she take? Ned Stark and his wife have a debate about his going to King’s Landing after King Robert calls him up to service.

It is important in every story that the hero gets a chance to weigh both sides of possibility ahead of him or her. Doing so allows them to feel that they have chosen themselves, rather than being manipulated into the situation. It means they take more responsibility for their actions and beliefs further down the road.

Your content

This principle applies both to the content of your talk or workshop and to the methods you choose to employ in communicating that content.

Staying with the content for the moment, speakers usually have a good idea of the reservations and questions their ideas might raise, and can address this by listing typical responses and dealing with them one by one. However, it is once again more powerful to allow people to simply share their own questions. It helps a good deal if they talk in pairs about it first so that they can discover they are not the only ones that feel this way. This emboldens them when the facilitator asks them to voice it to the large group. Otherwise they will keep quiet and the facilitator will wrongly assume everyone is on board.


Your method

If your workshop itself is different from what people are used to such as when you use a BBYB exercise, or other strategy that takes them out of their comfort zone, some will feel anxious and intimidated. They have mixed feelings about it and sometimes see obstacles.

Allowing them to air these questions helps people fell validated and helps them get past the emotions that could block further participation and engagement. The trick is not to try and refute or dismiss their doubts off hand, but make real room for them to voice it. It is also of great value to the facilitator to hear what obstacles people experience in accepting the ideas they are putting forward. This information can be used very effectively in the next step of Story-Strategy: preparing for the Journey.