You often hear about the benefits of storytelling to engage learner attention and emotion. Stories have a unique power to grab our attention, and we tend to remember stories longer and with far greater detail than facts. But are there drawbacks?
The short answer is yes. But the degree to which stories present problems range depending on the offence. Best-case scenario, stories can create confusion; worst-case, they can explode in your face and result in the opposite intended effect.
Some of the negatives outcomes of poorly used stories include the following:
- Distracted or confused learners
- Bored or disengaged audience
- Poor teacher ratings
- Negative presenter evaluations
- Stakeholder distrust
- Triggered or emotionally reactive students
- Personal embarrassment
As storytellers, none of us start our tales hoping any of these happen. What can we do to prevent disaster? The first step is recognition – to see what exact problems can arise when using stories for teaching and training purposes. Only then can we ideate potential solutions to prevent it.
Here are some of the most common flaws with using storytelling as a learning modality.
Having an unclear point.
Every story contains a hidden moral – an underlying message listeners take away from the events you recount. When I say every story has one, I mean it.
When you don’t have a clear sense of your story’s underlying moral, your audience will interpret the message in whatever way that makes the most sense to them. The brain is expert at filling in gaps, so even if you leave out a moral to your story, listeners will make something up.
If you let listeners take away whatever they want, you lose control of your story. This can spell disaster – with the best case scenario being shoulders shrugged in confusion and the worst case that learners take away something that conflicts with your intended goal.
A mid-level manager was recounting a sales exchange he had, but wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted his audience to take away from the story. It was a humbling story about a time he failed to deliver on a client’s expectations. These are normally great when they end in a way that ties initial failure to a subsequent success. But there was no happy ending. There wasn’t an ending at all because he didn’t think through the message enough. Because the point was unclear, all he could do was awkwardly stop talking. His face was beet red as he sat in silence, and the meeting continued. All of this could have been avoided by knowing where he wanted to end up prior to telling the story.
When using stories for learning, they should always support the underlying message you want to convey. Stories are basically the proof that supports your point, told through actions, events, and images. So keep a clear directive for what you want to convey to your audience. Write it down. Everything in the story should support that underlying point.
The way to ensure your point is clear is to define what is called a Core Premise. The Core Premise is a pithy statement that describes what your story is really about. For example, in Shakespeare’s Othello, the Core Premise is “Jealousy destroys the object of its affection.” It neatly ties together a Character, an inherent Conflict, and a Conclusion in a linear way.
Character → Conflict → Conclusion
The Core Premise resembles the morals of Aesop fables, but they require a specific structure if they are to work within a learning and development context. This is something Sage Academy often workshops, but here are the basic steps:
- Reverse the order, determine what happens if your learning objective is NOT achieved. That’s your conclusion. (If you want to tell a cautionary tale, where employees learn from others’ mistakes, then choose a sad or negative ending. If you want something uplifting and aspirational, choose a happy or successful ending.
- Based on your ending, create a character based on a virtue or vice. If the ending is sad, your character fails to overcome a detrimental vice. If the ending is happy, then they manage to adopt a helpful virtue that makes success possible.
- When thinking of virtues and vices, pick human characteristics rather than concepts. So rather than “leadership,” choose virtuous words like “trustworthiness,” “honesty,” ”courage,” or “compassion.” For negative leadership traits (vices), consider “dominance,” “ruthless ambition,” or “distrust.”
- If you’re having trouble picking a vice without it being cliche, take a positive quality and push it to the extreme. Someone who is frugal could be seen as admirable, but it becomes a vice when they’re so frugal it causes them suffering.
- Now put the pieces together into a clean sentence, such as “Distractions lead to disaster” or “Authenticity leads to reward.”
The story’s point is too obvious or even bombastic.
While a story’s underlying message should be crystal clear to you, the writer, it shouldn’t be obvious to your audience. People are generally resistant to unsolicited advice – especially if it appears condescending or preachy.
This is often why engineers and technical people get irritated with stories: they see through the obvious point and just want you to save time by getting to the point. I remember a woman listening to a story on a sensitive subject. It was clear the story was aimed at her and the message was a little too overt. She screamed a bunch of expletives at the storyteller before storming out of the room.
This happens in stories where the message is too overt. Master storytellers hide the underlying message really well, so people never see through the core point or feel they’re being “taught” anything.
Speaking to the emotional outcome you want from your listener will help you avoid coming off as preachy. What is the psychological effect you want to achieve through your story? How do you want your audience to feel? Are you telling it a way that will produce this intended effect? If not, what can you change so it does?
The story’s metaphor doesn’t support the moral of your story.
Stories rely heavily on metaphors and symbols to pack in lots of detail. This is actually one of the benefits of using stories, especially visual stories. You can help viewers draw conclusions that are abstract or simply difficult to follow.
From a learning perspective, stories are naturally aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy. At the peak, you have creative synthesis – the highest level of proficiency. If I teach you a creative writing technique for novels and you use it to write a resume and cover letter, you’ve demonstrated creative synthesis. You’ve learned the underlying rule and are applying it to a novel circumstance.
Stories kind of do the opposite: they force listeners to translate the events of a novel circumstance and apply it back to their own lives. Let’s say you want to teach your employees negotiation tactics. Rather than showing them a video that takes place in an office with two CEOs having a business conversation, try making the setting less familiar. Like watching a parent putting their child to bed using negotiation techniques. This stimulates their brains’ desire to figure out, “How does this apply to me and my job?” You’ve conveyed the same negotiation principles, but the neuronal connections are stronger because the viewers did the work to relate it back to their lives.
When metaphors are poorly designed or mismatched, audiences can read into the wrong message. For example, watch this commercial:
It tries to show how their attentive staff catch mistakes. But if the waitstaff are supposed to be metaphors for bank personnel, doesn’t that also mean the bank staff could cause potentially catastrophic mistakes that, thankfully, are caught by another team member? Had the dinner been a disaster, it would’ve been entirely the bank’s fault. If the end goal is to build trust, this ad fails.
The worst part about failed metaphors is that audiences won’t even realize it’s happening. They won’t tell you, “Hey, this commercial actually builds less trust.” They’ll just leave and, often, they’ll walk away with an association you didn’t want them to have.
Map out your metaphors and make sure they line up. Are there features of the metaphor someone could easily misinterpret? If there is, change the metaphor or find ways to distinguish its features from those that would create parallel thinking or confusion.
If you’re having trouble, split a document into two vertical columns. On one side, list all the features your metaphor has in common. On the other side, list things that could be misconstrued.
METAPHOR = RESTAURANT
|Personalized experience.||Level of customization.|
|High-end customer services.||What trust looks like.|
|Menu of options/products.||Expectation of quality.|
|Reservations and wait times.||Automated services.|
Unrelated or tangential details.
Stories are causal: nothing happens randomly. Novice storytellers go off on tangents they think add to the listening experience, but that don’t serve the causal relationship between the events. If the elements in your story aren’t relevant to the point you are trying to make, listeners will shrug their shoulders and tune you out. Everything must have a reason for being in your story and serve the purpose of drawing a clear conclusion from what a character does to the ultimate outcome.
In some cases, tangential details can trigger a thought process that leads audiences down a rabbit hole where they effectively stop hearing you. I call this distracted thinking story liability. Story liability is when a listener’s mind wanders based on something you may deem irrelevant, but that has a dramatic impact on their interpretation.
Here’s an example of a story liability I encountered recently:
The details in your story should be necessary and relevant to your underlying point. The best way to make sure they have a clear sense of why they’re listening to your story is to view stories as the proof of your point. “Don’t take candy from strangers” as a message should be personified by either a cautionary story of what happens if you do take candy or an inspirational tale of when someone survived because they heeded the advice of not taking it.
What is the least amount of time you need to tell your story? If you cut everything out, except for the essential details, how long will you need to convey the point? There’s a fair amount of subjectivity involved here, but the length of a story should correspond to the value and importance of its message. Spending 20 minutes to tell you a story about the importance of brushing your teeth would be maddening.
Because stories act as the real-life proof of our points, they should reflect the level of detail necessary to convey your position. In this way, stories are much like research: how many papers would I need to cite to convince another person that I’m right? Movies that need 3+ hours to tell their stories often carry a level of nuance that takes time to convey.
In 1924, Erich von Stroheim made a masterpiece called Greed that was nearly eight hours long. It was an adaptation of Frank Norris’s book McTeague, and it kept true to the novel. The novel’s eponymous character goes from a loving, gentle giant to an outlaw after killing his wife out of rage. The film needed that much time to follow the arc of its main character. Otherwise, the extreme change in his personality would seem too big a leap to an audience. In fact, you can see this in the current iteration of the film, which was gruesomely chopped down to about two and half hours by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executives – who destroyed the now-unused footage. The 12 people who saw the uncut version considered it the greatest film ever made, but the shorter version resulted in the story being a failure.
This is certainly the exception. Most stories run far too long. So keep your stories only as long as they need to be.
Lack of thorough editing.
There’s an old adage: “Good writing is bad writing, edited.” One of the most common mistakes I see with novice writers is they call their work finished too early. I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read from budding filmmakers that were first drafts. Professional screenwriters will write upwards of 20-60 drafts minimum. After that, another three to six writers will do their own drafts. It’s next to impossible to see a film in theatres that was written by a single author: most are the result of a team of writers.
Keeping your stories lean will help you eliminate potential diversions that confuse audiences and, subsequently, lose their engagement. The easiest way to do this is to look at all of the elements within your story and ask yourself, “If I removed this, would the story still make sense?” If it does, take it out.
A great tool is to record yourself reading the story into your phone or an audio recorder. Even if you don’t play back the audio, reading aloud helps you hear what works and what makes sense. Pause the recording to edit minor things and clean up the flow. If there are more extreme structural changes to make, just jot down notes and come back to them later. Repeated readings will help you refine your story so that it flows well.
A character’s actions should drive the story forward, nothing else.
How a story ends is as a direct result of the main character’s actions – whether they overcome their inherent flaws or fail miserably as a result of not changing their ways. Macbeth dies because he is ruthlessly ambitious. Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star because he trusts in the force.
The familiar phrase from Parmenides, “Nothing comes from nothing,” springs to mind here. A character’s actions are motivated by very specific reasons that stem from their underlying traits. Their behaviors aren’t random. Because Ebenezer Scrooge is greedy, he would absolutely stop in the street to pick up a stray coin – even with the risk of getting trampled by a horse.
On top of this causation, stories should predominantly be about what characters do and what we, as the audience, see. Too often, novices tell stories about what characters think and feel, which doesn’t have the same impact. As listeners, we assign meaning to their actions. If a character laughs at a funeral, one could interpret laughing as a mask for deep grief or because the character is psychotic. In trying to figure out which it is, audiences engage their emotional intelligence to parse who that character is and why they chose to act the way they did.
Lack of actual story structure.
Story structure is a lot like a tile mosaic. There are lots of patterns and arrangements you can choose that would be visually appealing, but randomly laying tiles while overhauling your bathroom is risky. You may end up with a disjointed, cluttered mess. Same thing applies to stories: they have a very clear symmetry that revolves around a central, underlying theme to drive the point home.
I like this tile analogy because choosing how many acts you want your story to have is much like sketching a design for a mosaic. There’s no right or wrong reason to use three acts over four, or to use Dan Harmon’s story circle instead of Freytag’s Pyramid. They’re all valid in certain cases.
What’s most important, no matter your structure, is that you have an underlying foundation that ties everything together. This foundation is the moral you want your audience to glean from your story.
Impersonal delivery or material.
Telling stories is a delicate balance of sharing just enough of what makes us human to be relatable to audiences, but not so much like they feel the need to bill us for the impromptu therapy session. The point of a story is to give listeners something emotional to anchor onto so that they remember why they need to heed the advice hidden within.
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is, “How much of my personal life should I put into my stories?” Given how many LinkedIn posts related to insanely personal stuff go viral, I could more easily answer, “What’s the meaning of life?” People seem to like enough to engage, but what’s the business impact of openly discussing a messy divorce or a harrowing drug addiction? Hard to say. Similarly to telling stories, there are many variables to consider: audience demographic, severity of the content, context, environment, and listeners’ personal history – to name a few.
An easy rule-of-thumb is if you’d feel comfortable sharing this information to a stranger on a plane or train. A slight embarrassment in front of a person you may never see again is one thing, but don’t let the story be so personal they might get up to request a seat-change halfway through you telling it. Beyond that, be comfortable leaning into your weaknesses and embrace that you are human like the rest of us.
Think of what might trigger distractions, or even offences, in your audience. Stories are a lot like jokes; ask yourself who in the audience could possibly feel offended by your story. Are there cultural nuances you may be missing? Recently, I saw this video joking about religious intolerance. While many may find it hilarious, others may find it offensive. Knowing your audience will help a great deal.
Obviously, there is more nuance that can be covered, but hopefully this gives you a general idea of where to watch out for storytelling disasters.
Have more questions?
I’m also happy to answer questions and share resources around storytelling for learning. Just send me an email.