We’ve been telling each other stories since the dawn of time. Some for entertainment, others for social connection and a lot of time for sharing knowledge.
It’s not a radical new concept which can be turned into a flashy new tool or methodology by an education provider (although I’m sure they’d try!). If you’re like me, you love nothing more than a good old story to inspire you to do something great, or, in some cases, put you into the sleep we so crave.
I’ve spent a lifetime improving my craft of storytelling.
Watching, reading and listening to some of the best and worst at it so I can design my own style. I’m sure you have done exactly the same thing. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, our environment plays a big part in how we share stories.
I’m a big believer that good stories entertain people, but great stories change people.
In my continual mission of paying it forward and sharing knowledge with fellow humans. I’ve compiled some of the key lessons I’ve learnt not just over my 15-year working career but across the entirety of my lifespan thus far on storytelling.
Attached to these lessons are real-world examples of people today who I feel embody the traits that we’re going to explore.
You gotta connect with the people
The stories (or should I say PowerPoint presentations) I disconnect with the most are the ones that make no effort whatsoever in understanding the audience.
You know, the ones where someone just talks at you like you’re an emotionless wall built for the sole purpose of receiving noise and nothing else!
This is often seen in my world of workplace education. Many are misguided by this sage on the stage persona, where L&D people are some sort of all-knowing gurus preaching their vast knowledge to their flock of disciples.
The truth is most of us don’t know shit without a script or some off the shelf content. I find that telling people concepts off a slide is not enough.
We have this thing called Google to fill that activity. We gotta show people too! And I find the show is where the magic happens.
We have to relate to people with openness and honesty. Dump the guru-ness mystique and encourage open conversations with everyone on the same level.
This is something I learnt in my own facilitation journey when I asked myself, what are you without a fancy script? It was a good question. Scripts are safety nets to not immerse oneself in a topic and do their own research.
It’s impossible to get deep expertise in all areas of life and it would be madness to even try. But, I could get good at a few key topics that would serve me well when helping any humans get better at this thing we call life.
Off the back of that realisation many moons ago, my approach to facilitation (on the rare times I do it these days) completely changed. Today, any workshops I do get involved in are built on open and honest conversations.
No sage on the stage let me tell you how to do this thing. Each experience is set as humans on an equal coming together with a beginners mindset in the pursuit of sharing stories to help each other become better. And it’s a process I love when I do get time to be part of these things.
One last thing I’d add on this, which you may have picked up on already, is treating people like adults. Workplace learning has bred this quasi-education like approach of the parent-child relationship.
Not surprising as this was the way we were conditioned in the education system. Back then you were a kid so logically adults know more but the script switched in the workplace. We’re all adults in the workplace just with different experiences and points of view.
And, this is what we have to break when telling stories, especially from a workplace learning perspective. This is an adult-adult conversation. Everyone is equal and the delivery of the experience should reflect that.
This applies to everything from public speaking, blogs, resources, podcasts and books too.
I got a lot deeper on this first point than I had expected when I began typing these words. I blame the white tea I’m consuming as I type. However, let me share an example from the world around us that I feel embodies a lot of what I just shared.
This one comes from my own field of the learning industry with Nick Shackleton-Jones, author of How People Learn, Ex-Chief Learning Officer of Deloitte and all-around cool human.
I’m a big fan of Nick’s work in all formats and his ability to tell stories in all settings sets him apart from quite a few in the industry. The talk below showcases a lot of what I’ve referenced above.
Complicated to simple
A hallmark of great storytellers, in my opinion, is their ability to turn complex ideas and thoughts into simple tales that anyone can pick up.
I often tell people in my teams to explain it to me like I’m 5 years old. That always gets people taking a moment to pause and think.
I think we’ve all read, watched or listened to something with someone who’s an expert in their field, but terrible at their delivery of ideas which leaves us in a state of WTF! And this is a real shame, as we lose out on what could be valuable know-how.
It’s an art to take complex ideas and break them down into easy to digest and relatable story pieces that the majority of us can grasp. Not only that, if you can educate and inspire at the same time with this, then you’re in the superstar leagues.
I’ve only come across a handful of people that do this really well. One of those is the fabulous Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, and a visiting professor in management at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. Spending the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.
I love Brene’s work and it has influenced so much of my own.
Every leadership programme I’ve built has Brene’s book Dare To Lead as highly recommended reading. Brene’s tagline of “Maybe stories are data with soul” strongly connects with me.
If I could give you one resource to learn from Brene’s approach, it would be her Netflix special released a few years back where her storytelling awesomeness is in full flow. Brene’s ability to take her research and weave it into an enjoyable and educative experience is something I learnt so much from.
Check out the trailer below, and if you don’t have Netflix, you can find plenty of Brene’s other talks on YouTube.
Unleash your own brand of authentic humour and personality
Ok, if you’ve read my writing for long enough and/or been part of experiences with me in the real world. You’ll know that I’m a pretty relaxed guy with a not so serious outlook and a cargo ship worth of witty comments ready to unleash at any moment.
I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s fine. However, this is me. And, over the years, I’ve grown more comfortable with my own personality.
In my earlier days, I did everything I could to suppress the real me of humour, playfulness and excitement. I led myself to believe that I had to fit a view that others expected.
Basically one of a corporate robot.
I did this for probably longer than expected but detested it with every ounce of my being. So much so that I questioned whether this was the line of work for me.
A number of things changed my perspective on this. As I sit writing these words closer to the age of 40 than 20, age has given me much perspective on what I truly care about. Another is environment, specifically being in places over the last 6 years that have allowed me to express myself more.
And the third is understanding people more.
I came to the awakening that people don’t want a corporate robot that looks feels and talks the same as everyone else.
Once I started to pull at this thread and show more of the real me in my work, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. My engagement, output and, most importantly, joy 100x’d.
Today, I’m a very different product as I’m the most comfortable in my own being than ever. And this translates into all of my work. A big part of it is that I care less about what other people think (at most times, I’m still human and have feelings after all).
I’ve learnt that I can’t please everyone, and I shouldn’t aim to do that. In order for me to do my best work, I need to be the real me, not some strange stage version of me that appears when the lights come on.
I imagine many of you reading this have or are experiencing this too, so I hope this story might help you too.
Someone who I feel showcases what I’m talking about here, and navigates it very shamelessly, is Professor Scott Galloway of NYU Stern Business School.
Like me, he’s not everyone’s cup of tea and embraces that. But he’s authentic to who he is and does this (mostly) in a way that’s positive and exemplifies his work. I recommend you check out this video to get an example of what I mean ⬇️
Similar to the themes I’ve already shared, playfulness is something I’ve found quite useful in my own storytelling toolkit and I’ve seen many pros deploy too.
A lot of things can be serious in this world but at the same time not so serious.
Being playful is something which can allow us to bring character to many topics. You can deliver playfulness through what you say, imagery and suggestion. I’ve learnt a great deal about playfulness over the last decade from writer Tim Urban.
Tim has one of the most popular blogs on the digital highway called Wait But Why.
With its deep and often very long articles covering life, love, careers and human existence. It has very much served as an inspiration in my own creation of Steal These Thoughts.
For me, Tims’s storytelling works so well because it’s relatable, playful and at the same time transformational. Some of my favourite posts of his include:
Taming The Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think
10 Types of 30-Year-Old Single Guys
How To Pick A Career (That Actually Fits You)
And he has a thrilling Ted Talk on beating the procrastination monsters which demonstrates all this in a visual format too.
And this brings us to the end of our little storytelling tour, my friends. Hopefully lots of value here for you and as always, I’m curious to know what you’ve learnt on this topic too?
Drop your comments below.
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