Storytelling - Part 2

Originally published 22 June 2020

In my first post in this series, I briefly explored the neuroscience behind storytelling and shared why I think we should be using storytelling for training.

In this second post, I continue to explore exactly what storytelling is and share my guidelines around what a great story must have, as I believe these may apply to storytelling for training.

If you’re interested in knowing more about storytelling, this TED talk by Andrew Stanton (the creator behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo and WALL-E) is a great place to start. Andrew talks about what we should and can do to tell great stories. He also talks about what he believes is the greatest story commandment, which is ‘Make me care’ – that is, how we can use emotion as the primary motivator to get someone to care enough about our message to take action.

In reality, my goal with using storytelling for training isn’t to write scripts equal to those of award winning movies. So, even though Pixar, arguably one of the greatest storytellers of our generation, subscribes to a set of 22 rules for storytelling, I’m thinking this may be a bit comprehensive for my purposes.

In introducing his adaptation of Pixar’s rules, Brian Greg Peters shares with us his view that even though storytelling is something we all do naturally, there’s a difference between good storytelling and great storytelling. So, consequently I do believe we need some rules here we can follow.

I actually subscribe more to Andrew Stanton’s theory that ‘Storytelling has guidelines, not fixed rules’, so here are my guidelines:


A clear structure

What do you want your audience to know, and when?

The answer to this question is the structure of the story. Pixar uses a series of sentence fragments, referred to as the Story Spine, to prompt the narrative of their stories – and this is not a bad place to start.

Once upon a time…
Every day…
Until one day…
And because of that…
And because of that…
And because of that…
Until finally…
And ever since then…

And the moral of the story is...

...and a purpose for greater impact

Why does the story need to exist?

This talks to the greater purpose telling the story serves and is at the heart of great storytelling. In the context of learners, this refers to the training need.

Why is the purpose important?

If your story serves a real purpose, it will have a greater impact. Ask yourself – is this really a training issue, or can this be addressed in another way?

A theme - and a central idea

Why is the central idea of the story?

The theme is the underlying principle or concept, the driving force that guides your decisions on what to include in the story, the truth that underscores the plot and characters. Themes are very often universal in nature and should include principles and truths that your audience will recognise.

A believable and memorable protagonist

Whose fate matters most to the story?

The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story. They are passionate about wanting something and are willing to choose to go through conflict to get it, including deciding to sacrifice their own comfort, safety, stability and peace.

The protagonist is the vehicle through which you achieve your primary learning objectives, so they need to be someone your learners connect with and whose journey they care about the most – and they need to be believable and memorable.

An emotional component - make me care

Why should I care?

Storytelling gives us the power to evoke strong emotions. Our brains react to character-driven stories with empathy, sympathy, compassion, care and connection. As your audience begins to see themselves in the story and identify with the characters on an emotional level, they will start to care about the characters, and feel motivated and compelled to learn more.

Conflict and drama - something crucial at stake

What is the primary problem that the characters are facing?

Without something crucial at stake, your learners can’t learn anything and won’t be interested or engaged in the story. Conflict brings stories to life by showing us who the characters really are through how they deal with the challenges they’re presented with.

Why is drama important?

Drama creates a safe atmosphere for individual expression of thoughts and feelings. It builds confidence, and plays a significant role in how individuals deal with real life issues and concerns. Genuine drama comes from unavoidable, escalating, internal conflict – and without this, there will be no problem, no consequence, no story.

Simplicity and focus

Great stories are kept simple and told in a language that the learner understands.

You want your audience to be invested in the story – so include creative, well-developed storytelling elements. By choosing brevity over complexity, your story will be more easily interpreted and more memorable.

So, that’s my list of guidelines as I believe they may apply to storytelling for training.