“Once upon a time there lived a smart and wealthy IT trainer…”

In this week’s column, we’ll look at the dos and don’ts of storytelling in the technical classroom. Stay with me to the end to see if the princess kisses the frog.
In part one of this series, I introduced the use of stories as a teaching method. We looked at the three basic types of stories: anecdotes, narratives, and case studies. We also talked about possible places and purposes in which to use stories, such as introduction, illustration, and reinforcement.
Getting ready to tell your story
The absolute first rule for telling stories is know your limitations. Are you one of those people that can’t tell a current joke without flubbing it? Or do you keep ‘em rolling around the water cooler? If you are anecdotally challenged, you will have to do extra preparation to use even the shortest story effectively in the classroom.

On the other hand, you may be an inveterate storyteller like me, and your biggest challenge is to know when to quit. Stories are like salt; if a pinch is good, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a pound is better.

The key to using stories effectively, then, is to have a specific purpose for using a story in class. Every story should have a reason for being, at least in a classroom setting. If the story doesn’t advance the learning process in some way, then it shouldn’t be told, no matter how good it is. One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn as a writer is when to leave something out. No matter how pleasing the phrase or how well-crafted the point, if it doesn’t move the reader or listener further down the correct path, it has to go.

One almost inflexible axiom of storytelling is that the longer the tale, the more preparation it requires. That’s why most of us stick to anecdotes; we can toss them off without very much preparation at all. A note in the margin of the teacher’s manual, a good sense of timing and of the story itself, and we’re off and running.

To use a narrative or case study, on the other hand, requires either verbal practice (for the narrative) or written preparation (for the case study). A 10-minute narrative used as the very first thing you do in class simply has to be excellent; otherwise you will do yourself more harm than good, and may actually lose the class’s respect and attention. If you prepare adequately, though, that one story can set the tone for the class like nothing else. It’s a simple case of “paying your dues” to see results.

And finally, the rule for all authors, comedians, actors, and teachers: know your audience. A tale about the “blue screen of death” will not be either funny or interesting to persons who have never seen it. A class of 20-somethings has their funny bone in a completely different place than a class of gray-hairs. And CEOs will have a set of life experiences that most IT engineers never dreamt of, and vice versa. You may have to drop or add stories in the same course, depending on who is taking it at any one time.

The tale told
You’ve decided on a purpose, chosen a story to use, and done your prep. It’s show time! But before you step up to the footlights, here are some thoughts to guide you as you do your shtick.

Be a split personality. Part of you has to focus on the tale itself and how you are telling it: your voice, your hands, your face, your body. Another part of you has to be aware of the audience as you are telling the tale: their facial expressions, their body language. And a third part of you has to be outside both of the others and constantly analyzing the interplay of the first two. Am I too loud? Too long-winded? Not connecting? In short, you’ve got to “sense the audience” and react accordingly.

Get your ego out of the way. While it is true that it takes a certain amount of self-confidence to get up in front of folks and tell a tale, the truth is that great storytellers are actually servants of the audience. They tell the story for the joy of telling the story and for the learning it can impart, not for the strokes they receive in return. If you are using stories in class simply to be the center of attention, you will inevitably overreach.

Never, never, never tell an off-color, racist, or demeaning story. If you do, you’re an idiot. ‘Nuff said.

Check yourself with the recorder. Remember, the video camera is your friend. Try this: Record yourself using the camera, then play it back first with sound only, then with picture only. Examine each without the other, and you’ll be amazed at the things you discover.

“And they lived happily ever after…”

Bruce Maples is a trainer, speaker, author, and consultant living in Louisville.

If you’ve never done much storytelling, these basic instructions on telling tales in technical training should allow you to try this method. If you are an experienced raconteur, try incorporating more formal storytelling into your teaching, such as the narrative and the case study. And in any case, drop me a note and let me know how it went! As my father used to say, “Tell me tales of your vivid life.” The most vivid might show up here!