A Fairytale about the Art of Storytelling

Once upon a time there lived a wise man named Ed. Because he was so wise, the town elders appointed Ed to teach the other townspeople how to perfect their skills so the town could grow and prosper and perhaps, one day, merge with a bigger town to become a glistening, bustling beacon of a city.

On the third Wednesday of every month, Ed would carry his papers, pointer and posters with panache as he paraded into the town square. Carefully, he’d clamber up the steps of the town hall, position himself behind the podium, and proclaim with a deep and clear voice, “Come one and come all, for it is time to learn” – and sometimes the people would gather to hear him speak (and sometimes…not so much).

On every fourth Wednesday Ed would report to the town elders where they would ask, “Did you have very many townspeople gather for your speech? Will they use the lessons you taught them to become better townspeople, so we can grow and become more prosperous?”

“Of course, sir! At the end of the lecture I asked all them to raise their hands if they felt they’d learned something new and everyone smiled and nodded and raised their hands,” replied Ed. And the elders were happy.

And so it went that Ed taught and the townspeople (sometimes) learned, until one day when the town elders summoned Ed for an emergency meeting.

“Ed, we have a very important matter to discuss with you. We’ve learned that a pernicious virus has potentially penetrated our network of irrigation channels. The good news is that we may be able to contain it by making some simple changes in our habits and taking a few safety precautions. The bad news is that you’re going to need to make sure that every person in the village gets this information and begins implementing these new safety procedures or the virus will spread and threaten our harvest.”

Alarmed by the seriousness of the problem Ed responded confidently, “I will begin my training preparations immediately, sirs.”

For several days Ed toiled late into the night, working by candlelight to write new papers and create new posters that would describe the threat and provide detailed safety precautions.

Once all of his papers were perfect and his posters proofed, Ed gather his pointer and paraded with panache into the center of the town.  He stood behind the podium, as per usual, and bellowed at the top of his lungs, “Come one and come all, for it is time to learn.”

A distant voice from the crowd of townspeople replied, “But it’s not the third Wednesday yet?”

Annoyed, Ed yelled again, “Indeed, ’tis not the third Wednesday, for this is a special learning event. One you MUST attend – or else!”

Slowly, reluctantly several townspeople gathered at his feet as Ed began his presentation. With great panache he pointed at his first poster (exhibit 1.1) showing the pathology of the virus. On and on he droned with great detail. But for all his perfect papers and proofed posters the townspeople were unimpressed.

Sensing that they weren’t understanding the gravity of the message, Ed passionately pointed to the next poster (exhibit 1.2) which walked through the first of several safety steps. His voice thundered and threatened and his demeanor was gravely serious. Some of the townspeople looked frightened, but the rest remained unimpressed.

Gradually the crowd of townspeople dwindled away to only a few – all of whom were busy chatting with one another, ignoring Ed’s increasingly desperate tone. Ed became alarmed. Why were they leaving? How could he get their attention? Why don’t they understanding how important this information is?

Panicking, Ed yelled, “Dear townspeople, if you don’t stay here and pay attention to this lesson your harvest will suffer and we will all perish!”

The townspeople, grudgingly returned at the sound of Ed’s threat – but one little boy continued to walk away.

Incensed by the boy’s arrogance Ed challenged him. “You there – little boy! Why do you leave before I’m finished teaching you? Don’t you want to learn how to protect your harvest, your family, and your town from this perniciousness?  Do you not care that the fate of our mutual prosperity rests in your hands?”

The little boy stopped in his tracks and turned to face Ed. “Yes, of course I care. But I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do.”

“But that is precisely why you must stay. If you focus on this vitally important information I’m sharing with you, then you will learn. See?”

Haltingly, the boy took a few steps towards the small crowd gathered at Ed’s feet.

“Sir, if all of this talk of viral pathology and security procedures and safety precautions is so very important for us to know, then maybe you should find a way to better way to explain it. Maybe you could do like my father does and tell us a story? For instance, there was a time when I was pretending to be sick to get out of doing my chores, so rather than tell me all about why it’s bad to lie, my father told me a story about a little boy that cried ‘wolf!’ – and then I could see how lying about such things could go horribly wrong.”

The small crowd of townspeople at Ed’s feet nodded in agreement. Ed was stunned. It had never occurred to him to do anything other than prepare a thorough lecture. He was confident that his preparedness, his papers and his posters were all tip-top. So why would the townspeople shun his attempts to educate them on a such a critical matter?

“If I’m to understand you correctly, boy, you’re telling me that you want to be ‘entertained’ by my teaching?” he asked.

Pushing the boy gently aside, an older woman stepped forward to speak.

“I think you’re missing the boy’s point. It’s not that we want you to entertain us, although that does make things more fun. What we really want is for you to speak to our hearts and minds. We want to understand the situation and how to take action, but we also have busy lives and many worries so no matter how important this information may be, we are going to be distracted unless you can compel us to really listen. Telling us a story is a good way to compel us – even a child knows as much. When we gather together we tell stories about our children, our animals, our families – many of which are doling purposeful advice. And because a story has the power to inspire people, you can take some comfort in knowing that when they really connect with us, your message doesn’t end up resting on that podium. Instead we carry it with us and talk to others about what we’ve learned.”

Ed was speechless. How had such a wise man missed such an obvious thing? How had he not noticed that people were learning before he’d been hired to teach them?

As the townspeople stared at him, searchingly, an idea began to form in his head. Eventually he blurted, “Um..well then…let me start over. Once upon a time there was a little virus. He was a nasty little germ who loved to swim. His favorite swimming spots were the irrigation channels feeding the nearby crops and in those channels, he found every distraction he could hope for – from thirsty cows to tease, to healthy crops to infest. No field nor farm was safe from his dirty pranks…”

As Ed’s story came to a close, he implored everyone to fight the virus by deploying the very same tactics the virus had used to spread itself to new victims – by sharing the story with their neighbors, friends, and family.

And before the crowd parted ways that day, Ed had one more idea to share. “As you go about your day, please do me a favor let everyone know that I will be here in the town square telling stories every day at noon.”

And so it was that from that day forward, Ed was a wiser man AND a better teacher – all because he learned to use the power of storytelling. And he and his fellow townspeople lived happily ever after.

*****

Okay, so maybe my storytelling skills are lacking sophistication (not to mention subtlety…), but by and large don’t you think that most corporate training would be much better off with a little more creativity and lot fewer perfectly proofed presentations delivered with panache?

Looking for some more storytelling inspiration? Here are some ideas that inspired me to write this post.

A brilliant video from Purplefeather on how “using different words” can make a bigger impact. Get out your hanky!

I can’t help it. I absolutely love this use of puppets to cover a corruption case in a courtroom where no cameras are allowed. I get that it’s not for everyone, but imagine if you could take training with a dull, predictable dialog (workplace harassment anyone?) and turn it on its ear with a similarly clever twist?

Looking for some pointers on how to use storytelling to elevate your learning? Here’s some great reading.

Why you Need to Use Storytelling for Learning by Connie Malamed

How Storytelling Techniques can make any material more engaging by Cathy Moore

Storytelling in eLearning: The Why and the How by Shelley A. Gable

Are you successfully integrating storytelling techniques to reach your learners? I’d love to hear (and learn) from you, so leave me a comment.

Comments

  1. Look Ma! I read a story and I learnt something! Love this. Perhaps other will learn to tell stories from their perfectly proofed presentations.

    Great read!

  2. If I have the opportunity to talk with learners (or representatives from that audience) before doing the instructional design, I ask them to tell me real-life stories about their experiences. And then I may adapt those stories for use in the course. This works really well with customer service or sales training especially. Another way I like to use stories is to start a course with a conundrum or some relevant issue that the learner needs to help resolve. Then I structure the course material around that story and build in opportunities for the learner to interact and help make decisions along the way.

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