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Epic Stories In Presentations

When was the last time that you lost yourself in a really good story?  Perhaps you were reading the latest bestseller.  Or you may have been enjoying an especially entertaining movie.  Then again, your favorite television series may have upped the ante in an incredibly engaging story arc.

A commonality among all of these examples is that they aren’t absorbed in a few minutes.  You have to stay with them for a while, learning more about the characters and their situations.  As a result, you really care about what is happening as the story progresses.

This can happen in learning presentations, too.

Most often, due to time limitations, we tend to use easily digestible stories that can be told within a few minutes to illustrate a point.  I often think of these as “training fables.”  The best of them are easy to recall and reinforce the main point.

I have also used much longer stories in multi-day workshops to have an even greater impact.  Let me give you one example:

I was asked to put together a program on increasing self-image and the possibility of retaking control of one’s life during times of severe economic stress.  I knew immediately that a one day program would be little more than a Band-Aid.  This needed to be a workshop with time for reflection and assignments.

Most of us are familiar with Joseph Campbell, an American writer who dissected the common themes in mythology and translated them into a format that became known as “The Hero’s Journey.”  I used a similar theme for this workshop.

There were four key training elements:

  • Developing a personal vision;
  • Establishing milestones for making that vision a reality;
  • Implementing the plan and overcoming obstacles;
  • Monitoring progress and making any needed changes.

Success for most of the participants was defined as starting a new career.  Everyone who was enrolled had been notified that they were to be laid off, and they were actively engaged in job searches or making early retirement plans.

To tie all of these points together, keep them fresh in the minds of the participants, and to serve as a “You Are Here” map, I decided to create an epic story.  I crafted the details…the backstory…of my heroine so that it would be easy to identify with her situation.  Then, I started relating her adventure.

Each segment illustrated the upcoming segment that would be the center of the workshop’s focus.  Like many good episodic stories, each segment ended with a cliffhanger. 

This method did three things:

  • It invited identification with her situation;
  • The story made it easy to recall what had happened (which also reinforced the learning points);
  • The cliffhanger approach not only reinforced that our participants were heading off into the unknown for what should be viewed as an adventure, but also added curiosity as to what was going to happen to our heroine.

It was easy to confirm during the discussions that people recalled learning points through the story’s events.  The class also spoke a common language of shared events acquired through the story.

For the final segment, I had the group (in a brainstorming session) create the story’s ending.  In doing so, they were also reinforcing what they wanted to see happen with their own life adventures…and they “owned” the outcome.  It was one of my most successful programs.

Do not undervalue the benefit of a longer, more detailed story in providing learning experiences.  Anecdotes and “training fables” can be very effective and they do have their place.  If you can work in a longer story, though, you can have greater emotional involvement.  That is the most effective memory resource of all.

Thanks for reading.