The anatomy of a story

Enormous TurnipMy favourite story for use with teams, in a team building setting is “The Enormous Turnip”. When using this story, once I have read it out, I have used the following questions to stimulate a discussion:
“If you could take one character out and the story remain the same, who would it be?”
“Who would you be in the story?”
“Who is the most important character?”
“What does this teach you about team work?”

It is amazing the discussion that these questions and the story have sparked off. One person suggested they were the mouse while another, the dog. They thought teams are full of very different characters, each bringing something different, but when focussed on a common goal can work miracles!

So what is it makes a great story and one you can use in training? This is probably teaching my grandmother to suck eggs but at the risk of overlooking such a fantastic tool, here goes……..let us dissect the story, revealing it’s anatomy….

They all have a beginning, a middle and an end. It is great if they have suspense, surprise and intrigue to keep people engaged.

In the beginning we learn about the “issue” or the problem and more often than not, who the protagonist is.  We then move onto the meaty middle…. “Then one day…….” and this is where you explain the “shift” that happens, or the beginning of the resolution, we may even discuss the “villain” of the piece. And finally the “happy ever after” or the cautionary tale that teaches us a lesson.

The beauty of a story is that in this world of multi-media and access to data, stories are a familiar pattern to us. We grew up listening to stories at home, at school and TV. The brain knows what a story is about, the model is familiar, so the pre-frontal cortex (that part for of the brain concerned with new learning), which is limited in its capacity, is not under too much pressure.

When we weave in emotion into a story, the right hand side of the brain is engaged. Recognising the pattern and processing the words takes part in the left hemisphere and we all know if we can engage both hemispheres during learning, it makes it a more engaging and memorable experience.

I sometimes write my own stories – taking examples from past stories such as one I wrote about the barriers to learning, using two characters called Quasimodo and Esmerelda. Of course Quasimodo is the underdog and Esmerelda the kind heroine! Familiarity, mixed with some humour and a little imagination can even make the dullest of subjects come to life!

Try playing around with unusual phrases to arouse interest and shock the brain into thinking differently. If I told you the plan was as “ugly as a rumour…..” what would that mean?

If you have never used stories, they appeal to all sorts of learners because the words produce images in our brains, evoke emotions and the language can be used to stimulate discussion and curiosity. Try small existing stories to start and maybe progress to writing your own.

I had the privilege of working with and attending training run by Margaret Parkin, who has written a number of books on storytelling in business. I can thoroughly recommend them if you need a starting point!

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