Plain English questions for analysis

In part 1 of this posting I referred to Robin Hoyle’s 6 A’s and Clive Shepherd’s 20 areas of enquiry, Here I offer a selection of some of the questions I have typically asked of a client.

I don’t always ask all of the questions, but I am always alert and listening. Lots of information comes spontaneously. Whether or not they are a response to a specific question, I aim to record all answers and I look for patterns and links that might lead to a “cocktail” of solutions in the right places. The classifications of “Learner, Learning and Logistics” which Clive has quoted are a nice, simple way of beginning the necessary sorting and grouping of factors that affect performance. After many years of using it I still find Mager and Pipe’s worksheets and flowcharts to be invaluable. Another tool I’ve found useful in this context is MHI Global’s (formerly Huthwaite) consultative selling method, known as SPIN (Situation, Problem, Implication, Need”.

Plain English Questions for Analysis.

My own favourite opening question is “Why are we here?”, but there are always many alternative ways of phrasing the same question. I’ve used “What are trying to achieve?” “What’s up?” “What are you trying to accomplish here?” “What’s going on?” “What seems to be the problem?” “Tell me your story.” Then I hold in my head the poem by Kipling, that is so well-loved and often quoted by trainers and sales managers:

“I Keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”

(Rudyard Kipling, From The Elephant’s Child.)

I work as I might with a jigsaw, looking for things that have a common colour or shape – here is a “what”, there is a “how”, here is a “who”, etc. Some questions I might never ask, and I’m always ready to invent new ones. My aim is to complete a framework like the border on a jigsaw, and then to fill in a picture with no pieces missing. My notes are almost always more like a mind-map or a picture than a text.

Before you read the questions I have found to be most productive, I stress that there is no standard system for asking these questions, and they are absolutely not to be asked in a fixed order. I also have in mind the wisdom of sales trainers who would remind me that I have one mouth and two ears and that I should use them in those same proportions
(2 listening : 1 speaking) when I’m engaged in diagnosis.

A short selection of typical “Plain English” questions for analysis

What?

What seems to be a problem or needs to change?
What do you need to see happening that’s not happening now?
What do you think is the consequence of that?
What is the scale of the “problem”?
What will be the biggest advantages of making the change?
What will “finish” look like?
What will we hear people say?
What will we see people doing in a different way?
What do you believe is stopping people from meeting the standards you need them to meet?
What solutions have you already tried?
What happens if we do nothing about it?

Why?

Why is it a problem?
Why should we invest time, effort and resources in this?
Why is this the right time to deal with it?
Why should I get involved?
Why has the problem not been fixed before now?

When?

When is the problem most likely to reveal itself?
When is the problem most inconvenient?
When is it least inconvenient?
When do we need the change to be initiated?
When do we need the change to be complete?

How?

How well are people doing?
How do you know?
How can we get reliable, objective and scientific evidence of the current situation and how it affects the business?
How much is under-performance hurting?
How will we prevent matters from slipping back to as they were?
How can we win support for making a change?
How will we know that the change has happened?
How will you know when any problems have been fixed (what will you be seeing, hearing, measuring etc.)
How could the change be made apart from through Training?
How were people trained to do the task in the first place?

Where?

Where does the need for change appear most obvious?
Where have we dealt with this kind of situation before?
Where can we see the accounts of others who’ve already done what we’re considering doing?
Where might we find a new slant on this, for example in another organisation, sector, profession or domain?
Where might we find people whose work already meets the standard we want from everyone?

Who?

Whose performance needs to change?
Who’s involved?
Who’s at the heart of this (problem, change, vision etc.)?
Who is accountable for the current situation?
Who is responsible for it?
Who are the “high performers?”
Who are the “low performers?”
Who are the witting contributors?
Who might be unwitting contributors?
Who is most affected?
Who is losing sleep over this?
Who stands to gain most from making the change?
Who might block the change?
Who might champion the change?
Who has the capacity to supply resources, people or information that will help me to understand the situation and change it?

To conclude

Use your ears and eyes to seek out how things are. If you must use your mouth then know that you will achieve the best rapport and so get the best results when all talk is just natural conversation. Empathy is a key ingredient that makes it possible to reach a high level of trust, confidence and effectiveness. Step into the shoes of your customer and experience their world at first hand, feeling their pride and their pain. If you don’t care about uncovering the real reasons behind an apparent training need, then you might as well pack up and go and do something more useful elsewhere.

By pgstips

Plain English is just as important in Analysis as it is in the Design and Development of learning solutions.

In the past few days two things crossed my desk and set me thinking.The first was a blog by my good friend and colleague Clive Shepherd. He wrote:

“As a learning professional, it’s absolutely vital when you’re taking a brief from a project sponsor that you ask the right questions and are persistent in making sure you get a clear and satisfactory answer”

The second was a link to a short video by the excellent and down-to-earth Robin Hoyle who has managed to distil the entire process of setting a learning and development into 6 A’s. Robin’s A’s form the framework of a strategy; they stand for:

Aim
Audience
Activities
Assessment
Actions
Assistance.

I won’t elaborate on this – you can hear the man himself explaining them if you follow this link.

What I like is the simplicity of these two pieces of advice. Both are sincerely striving to simplify a thought process that is anything but simple.

Clive proposed a list of essential questions for analysis.

Arranged in a logical order the questions are set within four headings:

  1. Need
  2. Learning requirement
  3. Learners
  4. Logistics.

(It is heartening to see one of my own attempts at simplification – the 3 L’s – used in earnest in this way and forming the basis of the analysis phase for the More Than Blended Learning design model.)

To set a strategy that works, or to solve a defined problem it’s not good enough to be driven by your own whims, aspirations or prejudices. You need to get at the nuts-and-bolts realities of the organisation you are serving. It is rather a good strategy to ask some rather good questions. Clive’s list and Robin’s A’s seem to cover the right areas of enquiry, but what are the “right questions” to ask, and does it matter how you ask them?

First on Clive’s list is the question:

What goal is this intervention intended to support?

Followed swiftly by:

What does this target population need to be doing in the future that it may not be doing now if this goal is to be achieved?

Robin’s first A is Aim and his second is Audience.

Picture yourself as a busy manager, a nuts-and-bolts pragmatist, fretting over some kind of problem or challenge at work. How will it feel if smart consultants arrive with their clipboards and a script, and begin to sound as though they are reading from a textbook with a foot firmly wedged in your door? Terms such as performance requirement and target population and intervention may be very precious to us as L&D pros, but perhaps there is a risk that we might be using them as “thieves’ cant” to prevent the non-professional from fully understanding what it is we are trying to do on their behalf. Even deceptively simply words such as aim and audience are loaded with a special meaning that may not match what is in the heads of our clients and customers. Ask any two managers to define the word “aim” and there is every chance you’ll get three different answers!

I like plain words and simple models; they make it easy for me to understand complex ideas and manage complicated procedures such as “Needs Analysis.” Above all they help me to get on the same wavelength as the people I believe I am trying to help through learning and development strategies and products. I have seen both Clive and Robin at work, and I have heard them speaking about their beliefs and approaches. The magic they perform is definitely not all about running through a list of prepared questions. Nor is it truly about persistence – a double edged sword that can leave a blunt gash in a relationship if it crosses the line over to dogmatism and nuisance!

Onlookers often see more of the game than the players do. Clues are there to be found, but we shouldn’t expect them to emerge naturally just because we ask a set of questions, especially if those questions are too formal or rigid in style and tone. Robin and Clive are highly experienced and respected analysts. What they do is quite subtle. It may be difficult to notice and describe, and so it’s not that easy for a novice to copy. Somewhere in the things that a manager has to say to them, or perhaps on the walls, in the choice of books on the client’s shelves, in the working environment there are clues as to what makes a business or part of a business tick, and to what might be getting in the way. Whether someone does, or does not offer you refreshments can reveal more about the deep beliefs and values of a team than anything pressed in aspic or etched in stone on the walls.

a bloodhound is a different beast from a dog-in-a-manger

I often think of a performance consultant as a soft, sentimental gumshoe detective, seeking out all the clues; going where the action is, sniffing the air and making genuine attempts to sense the real factors that shape what’s going on. But beware – a bloodhound is a different beast from a dog-in-a-manger. It is important to remove from your mind any preconceptions about either the problem or the solution.

I am not arguing against checklists, but I do feel there is some risk that the questions themselves might direct the lines of enquiry along pre-drawn lines. There is also a risk that an analyst/designer is so focused on their own questions that they neglect to listen with an open mind, in a forensic manner and with proper attention to the answers. I know many well-shod consultants, who make a good living with their models and matrices, balanced scorecards Johari windows and the like. The tools that have always served me best are a seeing eye, two very well pinned-back ears and some good plain English. In the 1970s TV detective series, Columbo, the lead character would make some telling remark after the prime suspect thought the conversation was over. Typically he would start to walk away, and when the suspect felt relaxed and relieved, the detective would turn back and say, “just one more thing.” What followed was always very revealing. In performance consultancy too, some of the best are “pick-up” and “follow-on” questions, and the “Columbo Close”. And that’s where I’ll finish for now – with a classic “Columbo Close”. Here it comes:

“Oh by the way – did I mention that I have a good store of my own favourite questions for analysis? I’ll sort through a selection and share them as Part Two of this posting.”

By pgstips

Instructional objectives have some practical use and come from a process known as “needs analysis”.

ListeningInstructional objectives have some practical use and come from a process known as “needs analysis”. That is the last of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

I have devoted a good deal of energy to persuading people that instructional objectives have some practical use. I strongly believe that they are not a tick-in-the box requirement, an unnecessary chore or a lucky charm. I regard them as the most fundamental part of specifying learning from which all other considerations must issue. The process of analysis is not one thing but many, each of which can influence instruction and testing, and so frame and shape a learning experience.

I see measurable or observable objectives as the bridge between what a learner takes from the content of a course and what has to be tested. Without them there is bound to be a large amount of irrelevant course material and learners will lack the sense of priority that will enable them to focus their efforts.

I don’t include detailed lists of objectives in what the learner sees, but I always make them explicit because I feel sure that when learners know the general purpose of a task and the standard they need to attain in completing it, their confidence improves and anxiety decreases.

It may be useful to include formal objectives to help to explain very complex learning materials, but not for simple, assignments that are easy to understand and follow.

It is certainly easier to write precise objectives for concrete, observable tasks than for abstract or academic content or for activity that aims to manipulate attitudes and emotions, but nowhere can I find the suggestion that objectives are more useful in one domain than another.

A widely-recognised behavioural model for framing objectives is Mager and Pipe’s performance – conditions – standard, although many do not associate it with that source.  I find it works well to simplify it a little in plain English using the template “You’re going to do this… so you’ll need this… and here is how we’ll know you’ve done it.”

So let me conclude this journey around the truisms I’ve encountered over the past several years by setting a final set of 9 straw man statements for you to craft into a permanent figure or blow into dust.

  1. Course objectives come from analysis
  2. Analysis takes many forms – goal analysis, performance-gap analysis, stakeholder analysis, audience analysis, feasibility analysis, organisational analysis (readiness to adopt and support), content analysis, job analysis, task analysis
  3. In combination these forms of analysis provide objectives that form the basis for designing, developing and implementing instruction and assessment, and for quantifying and valuing the results they deliver. The effectiveness, fitness and efficiency of a learning strategy, materials or course rely upon this.
  4. The quality of a learning program is in direct proportion to the adequacy of its objectives. It is barely possible to develop a relevant course and adequately test its users without a proper analysis of needs.
  5. It is quite common to find courses and learning materials where the content does not match the stated objectives.
  6. Some trainers and designers misuse objectives by displaying them as a kind of decoration, makeweight or rubber-stamping of course design.
  7. Course with unclear objectives usually contain irrelevant information or omit vital information.
  8. Without clear objectives you cannot create valid and reliable assessments.
  9. Every objective in a programme of learning should be assessed in some way.

Thank you for staying with me during this journey through my 12 truisms. When you are ready for the next dozen, please let me know.

You can lead a horse to water and you can make it drink

It is possible to interest people in taking up new methods and media in learning. That is the eleventh of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

The whole industry of eLearning and online learning is predicated on the belief that it is possible to interest people in taking up new methods and media in learning, but is that a safe assumption? Managers, training providers and learners themselves can all influence the rate at which a sponsoring organisation might adopt new and innovative materials and programs. From the very first hint that an instructional project is under development, suppliers and buyers should be working out how to encourage users and all relevant stakeholders to advocate and work with the new materials.

A pessimistic view shows people often reject ideas and resources that have been put together outside the immediate ambit – a kind of “not invented here” complex. Another cliché is that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. An antidote to resistance and rejection is to involve all influential stakeholders, and that includes potential users, in the analysis and design phases of distinctive new items and approaches.

It is prudent to treat an innovation in learning as you would any other change in the normal procedures of an organisation, with a Change Management Plan and Process and a suitable person to lead it. That Change Champion has to fully empathise with the organisation that is facing the change and needs to demonstrate the following 7 things beyond question:

  1. That the new approach, materials or equipment are better than any old ones they might replace
  2. That they add extra value to those that remain and they fit easily amongst them
  3. research and evaluation shows the innovation will bring advantages
  4. there is a clear and logical plan for implementation and adoption
  5. the innovation satisfies a recognised need of the prospective user
  6. it is intended to be a long term solution and not merely a short-term whim
  7. users have the skills necessary to work with the innovation or can easily acquire those skills.

It is vital to focus on users and their needs rather than on the innovative solution itself. Managers must know at least as much about what’s going to happen as they do, must explain and perhaps justify it to users and show it can be shaped to their particular needs.

A Change Management process must move users progressively from one state to another, first by raising their awareness, then by arousing curiosity, helping them to a clear and accurate vision of what the change will look like, giving them opportunity to practise and finally providing support and feedback as they use it.

So if all of these initiatives are in place, it is safe to assume that you can make your horses drink. Do you think that is true or is it a flight of fancy? Please use the form below to contribute your views and experiences.

There’s no effin’ white cabbage at Tesco

The decline in basic standards of literacy and numeracy has been much mourned by employers. This morning I went to my local Tesco to buy the missing ingredient for my Minestrone. “Do you have any hard white cabbage?” I enquired of the young man who was stacking shelves nearby. “No”, he muttered, “but we do have savoury cabbage.” “Savoury cabbage?” I speculated, “I’ll just reduce the seasoning and it ought to do in soup.”

Arriving at the produce, this fine young man triumphantly directed me to the Savoy cabbage. “But there is no R in Savoy”, I almost began to say, then thought better of it. There is no “R” in “Savoy” and there is no “F” in “white cabbage” at Tesco. I went to Sainsburys instead.    
By pgstips

This StreetLife is full of noises

dustbingateIn days gone by, when neighbours met by the parish pump, by the school gate, in the pub or at the local community centre it was the custom to exchange information on items of common interest.  It might be to build grand plans to benefit the whole community, but more typically it would be to gossip and to pass on recommendations and sometimes to air and resolve grievances. When Street Life dropped leaflets through doors in my village, many saw the advantages of a local, user-led example of social media and joined in the fun. At first it was a model of rectitude – warm, sociable and community-spirited people directed others towards the florists, plumbers and hairdressers whom they had found to be most reliable. Lonely or needy people reached out to a network of caring people that previously had been invisible behind closed doors. 

Then for a while it became Exchange and Mart – the daily newsfeed was a list of items to sell. In the parish pump model people had a different place, the market square, in which to buy, sell and exchange goods and services. I doubt that schools would tolerate the setting out of market stalls in front of the building and I was reminded of the story of Christ and the merchants in the temple.
But the tipping point for our own village’s flirtation with social media came when a discussion appeared to comment upon the fitness of the local Health Centre and the GPs who operate it. Take care, I thought, because once you begin to comment on the performance of professionals in an unmoderated, public space, there are implications for all concerned. Happily everyone seemed to have nothing but praise for their doctors and so nothing controversial emerged.

Dustbingate

Even so, a change had taken place – people were being named and their competence and character were being evaluated without their consent and probably without their knowledge. The lid had come off Pandora’s Box, and that left space for the Furies to fly out. And fly out, they did when along came “Dustbingate”. It was a very windy Monday. Some neighbours had left their wheelie bins for collection the night before as usual, and then had  departed for work. The end result was that the bins were blown over and the neighbours who were still at home had virtuously taken it upon themselves to clear up the litter. Later they put finger to keyboard and blogged asking who were the “idiots” who had left their bins out?
I could see how, with a little more attention to the weather forecast, one might have decided not to put out the bin. It had not occurred to me that placing the bin so that its opening faced downwind might reduce the risk of rubbish being blown out. I welcomed the suggestion, although it was no remedy for the bin actually blowing over, as so many had done in very uncommon weather conditions. But I knew who had left out his bin and that meant I had to accept that I was one of the idiots, perhaps I was THE idiot.
You might think it was a fairly trivial matter, and “idiot” is a low-level insult in the general scheme of things, but it is an insult and that meant the rules had changed. It was now acceptable to define a person with a label or a value judgment and not just report on an event associated with that person. It reminded me of a school playground scenario, where someone tells tales – “Billy stamped on my conkers”. If the person reporting the event refers to Billy as a “bully” or a “swine” or an “idiot”, then the matter goes beyond mere reporting of fact. Now it is a personal insult and as sure as eggs are eggs, conflict will ensue.

Am I nice or nasty?

In our newsgroup, one or two people mildly commented that it was not very nice to make personal insults. Others took an opposing view – “nice” was not nice! To be nice was to invite censorship, to gag free speakers and one should be less sensitive and let people have complete freedom to say what they like. In a moment the community had polarised so that one found oneself in one of two groups – either one of the “idiots” (who don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and would suppress freedom of speech) or one of the virtuous (still very caring people who have the courage to speak their minds).  So a wonderful idea has shown the potential to grow into a destructive force, and our village is on the horns of a dilemma in how to shape its future as a community in a digital world. Should we embrace the new media, leave it completely unmoderated and accept the consequences whatever they might be? Should we introduce some form of regulation – a code of conduct, a set of rules? What sanctions should we apply to those who disregard them? A knock on the door? Suspension? Expulsion?
Or should we return to a system of closed doors, take it all offline and return to a scenario in which people for the most part know only the neighbours adjacent and immediately opposite? To quote The Tempest, “This Isle is full of noises.”

Postscript

I should add as a postscript that Street Life removed the “offending” discussion. I now wait for someone to quote George Orwell.
By pgstips

Learners who work together and help one another learn more than those who learn in isolation.

Problem solving man and womanLearners who work together and help one another learn more than those who learn in isolation. That’s number 10 of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

You could fill a library with words that have been written about social and collaborative learning in the past decade. Common practice is based on a belief that learners who work together and help one another learn more than those who learn in isolation.  Peer co-operation may assume a number of different forms: discussion groups, seminars, syndicate and “breakout” groups; social media; proctoring and mentoring – where learners help, supervise or assess other less able learners; self-directed, moderated and un-moderated study groups. I believe that pairing and grouping people to study, discover and practise together improves their results in assessment. But is it true? Where are the unchallengeable authorities, where is the incontrovertible evidence and the body of proof to support my belief? Here are some questions on which I’d like to ask you to ponder:

  1. Is it true that social learning makes learners feel more confident in their own and one another’s talents and capabilities, and gives them a more positive attitude towards the process of learning?
  2. Does group work enable learners to observe, copy and learn from one another?
  3. Does it prevent them for straying away from the task?
  4. Will it encourage individuals to share and celebrate their own and others’ accomplishments?
  5. Won’t it lead inevitably to a minority of learners dominating proceedings so that they inhibit the opportunity of others to learn?
  6. Can peer interaction in small groups help slower and underachieving students to learn and succeed in their learning?
  7. Do peer coaches really benefit through learning more about a subject by preparing and giving lessons to others?
  8. Does this approach only work in academia and in courses that involve extended periods of drill and practice?
  9. Is it necessary for partners in a learning task to be physically in the same place? When they connect through a computer or phone, don’t they do at least as well and often better than when they work alone? Is it sensible to believe that online learners can connect with one another more frequently and with more regularity than they can do face-to-face?
  10. Is the collective wisdom of learners as valuable as the specialist knowledge of experts? Learners possess a wealth of life experiences that you can acknowledge, tap and exploit so everyone can learn through co-operative study with peers they trust and respect.
  11. Will their attitude toward themselves, towards the course content and towards the other party improve when a learner is partnered with another?

I have at least as many questions as I have answers on this theme.

As for peer-coaching (or any form of coaching) I believe it will not add very much to a course in which testing and assessment is very frequently used, but that if you use a valid and reliable pre-test coaching will bring big benefits – far more than if you leave assessment to the end.

I do not favour competition except in the case of groups where the culture and spirit is already highly competitive. People learn to avoid the things that hurt them and so competition might provoke them to strive for success or to keep out of the way of failure. I feel sure that co-operation makes learners productive and successful, whereas competition makes them focus on grades and beating others to win extrinsic rewards rather than on understanding learning material and working well within a team.

Just putting people together to work on a learning task does not guarantee that they will co-operate. They also need some structure and a process to raise the chance of their really sharing the work in a way that contributes to the learning of both.

So there you have it, but are the views I’ve shared here just blind faith, or can they be substantiated?

What do you think and what do you know?

Assessment is a really crucial part of learning – Part 2

ChecklistAssessment is a really crucial part of learning and should be as performance-based as possible. That was number 9 or 12 truisms I cited as having influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I invited you to support them with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock them down using similar sources of evidence. Last time I began to express some beliefs I hold about assessment. To complete the picture I want to say that I believe the two criteria of “validity” and “reliability” are guiding principles; they are much more than academic labels and are the best measure of the effectiveness of assessment.

The concept of validity is probed by a simple question, “If you say ‘watch me’ will the observer see you doing precisely what you’re required to do in the real world?” Watch me fill out this form while questioning a customer” is not quite the same as “Watch me fill out an image of the form on screen while reading a scenario and looking at a photograph of a customer.” At some point it is necessary to decide how far you can compromise where assessment is concerned. Is “Watch me land this simulation of a plane” quite as valid as “Watch me land this plane?”

“Reliability” is more to do with the structure and composition of the test and the conditions under which it is administered. For example if you test someone at the start of the day when they have no other commitments on their diary and have been given time to prepare, and then you use the same test on someone you’ve taken by surprise ten minutes after their working shift has ended and they are anxious about missing their bus, should you expect the same results?

So taking part one of this posting on assessment alongside this second part on validity and reliability, here are some statements that may be true and may be false assumptions, and I’d welcome your views and experience.

  1. Well designed, performance-oriented tests inform learners about job requirements and guide their learning.
  2. Tests must be both valid and reliable.
  3. Learners who are frequently tested do better than those who are tested less often.
  4. Learners generally take two kinds of tests: knowledge tests and performance tests.
  5. Knowledge tests tell you whether people have learned information important for safety, and acquired knowledge that regulates their performance.
  6. Skill checks and performance assessments measure the competence of learners and reveal gaps and weaknesses in the method, media and content of instruction as well as gaps in the learner’s understanding and skills.
  7. Errors can be used not only to identify learning gaps to close, but also to motivate learners to deepen their enquiries and seek information that they appear to lack. They can also be used heuristically to give the learner, in a safe no-penalty environment, a view of what happens when you do things wrong.

Please let us all know what you think.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll conclude.

Story-telling as an instructional strategy

This is the third and final part of a blog aboUlyssesCalypsoBoecklinut storytelling and its value as a tool for training and motivation of people in the workplace.

It is not by accident that teachers turn to story to settle excitable young children. It works for adults too; a good book or an interesting film has the ability to transport us beyond the cares of here and now and can inform, inspire, instruct – or simply soothe.

The satisfaction that comes from a story is held within its structure – it has a beginning, a middle and an end.  Everything that happens is tied together by a string of events, in which people meet and then respond to challenges with more or less positive outcomes. A good story can help us to form concepts and develop beliefs and values. It can use metaphor and narrative to make complex ideas accessible and to help us to recall intricate chains of cause and effect. Social media such as LinkedIn and Facebook have caught on to the importance of story in people’s lives and so have introduced narrative and timeline as a means of harnessing the elegant self-containment of story as a format.  We engage with story through our emotions as well as our thoughts, so we can become immersed in it. Afterwards, our insights and memories can be as strong as if we as if we had actually been present in the events that the story related. The easiest stories for us to assimilate connect with our understanding of the world, and have a logical flow so that we can make sense of them and remember what they were about.

Let’s get serious

The limbic system is the part of the brain that science has linked with motivation and emotion. It is the limbic system that signals whether we ought to laugh or cry at a stimulus.  In the first part of this blog about storytelling I mentioned John Cunliffe and his circle of attention when telling stories to children. Adults react in that way, too; promise a riveting tale and you can sense the change in the mood and body language. Whether it comes from a person or a screen, you can see people lean forward towards the storyteller. They release tension, and apply all their senses to receiving the sounds and perhaps sights too, that combine to tell the tale.

Suppose someone said to you, “I’m about to tell you a deeply moving and inspirational story. Many people who have heard this story say it changed their lives profoundly and they became better people for hearing it.”  Or alternatively, “I’m about to tell you a story in which some very good people struggling against impossible odds were defeated and lost everything.”

Do you want to hear that second story? Will you feel keen, ready to listen, disinterested, intrigued, suspicious, ready to switch off?

The textbook says that the prospect of a happy ending makes the limbic system inject its own special opium (dopamine) into your brain to give you a ‘feel good’ sensation that comes when the guy gets the gal, the whale returns to the sea, the rightful king is crowned, or the aliens are repelled.

If we can accept the truth in this science then we might draw the conclusion that ‘feel good’ would be a more productive state than ‘flight or fight’ for someone who is conceiving a bright new future for themselves or their organisation.

The monomyth

The work of Joseph Campbell focused on stories, myths, and rituals across cultures and throughout time. He detected common patterns, especially in rite of passage stories and rituals in which people progress from being dependent children to responsible adults in the community. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he showed how ancient myths from around the world all have a similar basic plot. Campbell called this ‘the monomyth’. It contains some or all of the same eight ingredients whether found in the legends of Gilgamesh, Osiris or Prometheus, in the tales of the Buddha, Moses and Christ, or (bringing things up to date) Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or your favourite Adventure Game.

The Call to Adventure

  • The hero begins in the normal world
  • The hero receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events
  • The hero accepts the call

The Road of Trials

  • The hero faces tasks and trials either alone or with assistance
  • The hero faces a life-threatening challenge, often with help earned along the journey
  • The hero survives, achieves a great gift (the “boon”), and often discovers some profound self-knowledge

The Return

  • The hero decides whether to return with the boon, often facing challenges on the way back.
  • The hero gets back safely and the boon makes the world a better place.

Some tips for using stories in training

Know your audience.  If you are writing for a predominantly young age group, use a tone, style and language they will relate to.  If you are writing globally for a multicultural audience, avoid jargon and idioms.

Use real stories wherever possible.  Senior members of staff are often happy to provide real stories of mistakes they have made in their youth that had disastrous consequences but which have clearly not affected their rise up the corporate ladder.  People lower down the pecking order may be less open to paint potentially disastrous scenarios.

Make sure your characters arouse interest.  How many times have you read a book and not given a monkey’s about what happens to any of the characters because they are all so one-dimensional?  Give them a bit of background; their likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses.  Base them on people you know or have met along the way.

Use humour with caution.  All equality and diversity training courses say, “make jokes we can all laugh at”.  This is, of course, easier said than done and it comes back to knowing your audience.

Avoid rights and wrongs.  Most decisions are not clear cut.  Don’t over simplify or make the right answers to situations that you paint painfully obvious.  People and the systems they interact with are complex.  Encourage further questioning, research or validation to uncover more nuggets of information that may have a vital impact on the scenario you are painting.

Test your dialogue out loud.  Photo or audio stories that use direct dialogue must have resonance with reality.  There are some shockingly badly written dialogues out there.  Read out loud the words you have written.  Does it sound clumsy or is it difficult to read?  Then it is.

Photo story or not photo story?  Photo stories can work well.  They add another dimension to the written word and can be particularly helpful if you cannot use audio.

By pgstips