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Effective Storytelling

July 12, 2022 3:26 PM | Jason Berry (Administrator)

Post by ATDChi Member Marc Mattson

Let me set the table for you:

John and Joan are sitting down to dinner, as couples are often do, and John asks Joan, “So how was your day?”

Joan says, “I was almost run off the road by a chinchilla!”

“A chinchilla, you say?” John replies, incredulous.

“A chinchilla!” Joan exclaims. “There I was, driving along down First Street, and a chinchilla jumps out in front of me! I suspect he didn’t care much for my red Ford Pinto. Anyway, I swerved to avoid hitting him and ran into the drainage ditch! When I swerved back out again I saw in my rearview mirror the chinchilla raising a fist at me!”

“Wow. Who knew there were chinchillas in Chicago?”

So now I know you’re wondering: “what does a story about a raging chinchilla have to do about anything?” Well, the raging chinchilla isn’t the point, nor is the story about it. What matters is the fact that Joan told John about it, even though earlier in the day Joan had attended a seminar about storytelling and told the facilitator that she wasn’t any good at it. The facilitator responded, “that’s because I haven’t yet told you about the Hero’s Journey structure of stories.”

And, after he did, Joan went home even more convinced that she couldn’t tell stories.

Except, then she proceeded to tell her husband a story about a raging chinchilla.

So there are three points I want to make about what I just related:

1.       I hooked you into this article by telling you a silly story. (Or maybe I completely alienated you and you’re not even reading anymore, in which case why am I still typing?) And while it was most definitely silly, perhaps you can relate to some part of it: Who among us hasn’t once swerved our car to avoid a crossing animal? And while the story itself, in this case, is completely irrelevant to my ultimate point, at the very least you’re now primed to listen and figure out where I’m going with this…

2.       A lot of people will say that storytelling is hard because, well, “I’m just not a good storyteller.” And it may be true that you’re not a skilled storyteller, but despite what you may think about your own storytelling abilities, I know for a fact that you can tell stories because you do tell stories. All of you. Every day. So skilled or not, you can translate your natural ability to something more practical and instructive.

3.       Indeed, the real problem is that when we think of the term “storytelling,” we almost automatically start to think in terms of epics such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and it tends to intimidate us when someone tries to tell us how to use storytelling in a learning capacity. But here’s the thing: we’re not creating an epic, we’re just trying to get an audience to relate to a situation we can help them solve. So if you’ve ever encountered a storytelling seminar or workshop or anything that’s not a screenwriting course that mentions the hero’s journey, rising and falling action, and other complicated structural elements, forget everything you learned in it.

4.       Chinchillas are native to South America, so Joan almost certainly nearly smushed a rat. It stands to reason—it is Chicago after all!

5.       I don’t know how to count.

Storytelling—for business purposes, at least—is not some kind of magical art. It does not require deep knowledge and understanding of rising action, crises development, climaxes, and falling action. It requires you only to tap into and hone a skill you already have.

The stories we might tell in a learning function are really no different than those that are told in a sales function, or, yes, even in an epic like Star Wars: **I’m telling you about the solution to a problem.**

Here' the thing: the resolution of our story is already given because we already know the solution—it’s ultimately the message we’re trying to convey. So really what you need to do is define the problem that’s being solved and add any required players who are critical to the outcome.

For example, let’s say you’re creating a learning module on Collaboration. You figure one way to illustrate the need for collaboration is to indicate what happens when people fail to collaborate. So you develop a scenario that contrasts how one company’s failure to collaborate leads to the success of another company that collaborated effectively. Here’s how you develop that story:

You start at the end

Again, to a great extent, the resolutions of our stories are already determined by the solutions we’re trying to sell. In this case, you’re selling the power of collaboration via an instructive tale of its failure. So write out a simple statement that provides the Aesop moral of your story, crafting it in very generic language that you’ll refine as the details of the story unfold:

“Company A’s divisions did not collaborate very well, so the product it released was outsold by the superior product that was developed by the fully collaborative Company B.”

Add the Problem and Solution

In general, the problem and solutions statements are pretty straightforward. In this case, because it’s a contrast of competing issues, the solution statement is really a contrast to the problem:

Problem: “Company A failed to collaborate and as a result the product it created failed.”

Solution: “Company B collaborated effectively and as a result its product succeeded.”

Add the players

Next, think about who is having the problem, and who is critical to the solution, and jot down their details. These are the ‘characters.’

Character 1: “Sony, the leader in portable music players and creator of the Walkman and the Compact Disc, created one of the first digital music players in the market: the Walkman MP3.”

Character 2: “Apple, traditionally a maker of business and home computers, created the iPod as a competitor to Sony’s player.”

(You remember the, iPod, right? They’re like iPhones but were made by hand out of stone and animal skin.)

Refine the solution

Now that you’ve determined the characters, you can go back and refine the solution to create a clearer picture of who’s involved and what they accomplished:

“Sony’s divisions did not collaborate very well, so the product it released was outsold by the iPod, which was developed through the smooth collaboration between Apple’s design, engineering, and software divisions.”

Add the why

Now you need to add the details to indicate how Sony failed to arrive at a solution, and why Apple succeeded:

The failure: “Sony’s divisions were siloed and entrenched. Each had protective teams that worked at cross purposes.”

The success: “Apple’s divisions had no proprietary ideas and were given a clear vision to create the best product possible.”

Now the story is starting to take shape.


Then at the end of it all, you basically just mash together those statements into a complete story.

“Sony dominated portable music technology in the 80’s and 90’s. It not only invented the portable cassette player—the Walkman—it invented Compact Disc technology. But it failed to adequately capitalize on emerging digital music in the late 90’s, not because it didn’t see the future of the technology—it did, in fact, beat most competitors to market with a digital music player—but because of this:

The company’s divisions were too entrenched and siloed.

Sony Music—the content division—feared piracy so much that it wouldn’t collaborate with the engineering group to develop a system to load protected MP3 files. Thus, the engineering group decided to create a proprietary music file. However, they didn’t work with the software group to create a means of easily transferring the music.

In short, none of Sony’s divisions collaborated to make a good product, and the Walkman MP3 player was released to a lukewarm response.

Contrast this with Apple, who’s divisions were always encouraged to collaborate freely, and were given a vision of what the final product should be. The engineering, design, and software divisions ultimately collaborated to design not only a product that was easy to use, but an entire ecosystem in which to use it.

We now know Sony basically for a gaming console and some Spiderman movies, while Apple…”

In the end

Now, of course, you can probably detect that additional details have been added to the final story that weren’t in the original problem and solution statements. That’s natural. Simply mashing up those statements as they are isn’t necessarily going to make for a fully detailed story. For any story to have impact, it needs to be tested and edited and tested again. That’s why you get others to read it and provide opinions and additional ideas.

Nonetheless, it only takes a few simple steps for you to translate the natural tendency toward storytelling into telling stories that have purpose and impact. No story ever just comes out big and complete; but the small, iterative steps presented here will help you develop the framework that you can build upon.

You got this. Do it for the chinchillas.


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