SIMAGES 2015.1 – Taking Storytelling to the Next Level

Taking Storytelling to the Next Level
By Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan

I have read a lot of books and articles about storytelling for trainers, facilitators, and managers. I bought audiocassettes and VHS tapes (remember them?) on story telling. I attended workshops and conference sessions on storytelling.

In my smile-sheet evaluations after my training sessions, I got straight 5’s every time I told a lot of stories.

I should not have pushed my luck, but I had a graduate student who wanted to do an evaluation project. I invited him to send out questionnaires and conduct telephone interviews with people who attended my workshops.

The evaluation report contained good news and bad. Good news: Participants’ responses confirmed their rave reviews on the smile sheets. Many participants shared my stories with their colleagues. Bad news: People remembered my stories but did not remember the learning points they were supposed to illustrate. They did not apply the new skills and knowledge to their job.

I realized that I have joined the ranks of sleazy politicians and religious cult leaders by depending on stories to let people’s emotions hijack their logical thinking.

Interactive Storytelling
This is when I switched to interactive storytelling. In traditional storytelling, I tell the story and listeners get mesmerized into a trance state. In interactive storytelling, the participants go beyond the story.

Among a variety of interactive storytelling techniques, the participants create (or co-create) their own stories and share the stories with each other. When I tell them a story, they actively analyze it, critically evaluate it, and conduct a debriefing discussion about the lessons learned. Sometimes, when I stop the story in the middle, they complete the story or conduct a role-play. They shrink the stories or expand them. They change the ending, the setting, or the characters.

I gloated because I had discovered a brand new training technique with interactive storytelling. However, like in the case of all effective techniques, I realized that many other smart people have independently come up with similar techniques. Brian Remer is one example. His interesting book Say It Quick explains how to write short 99-word stories along with 99 examples of this genre. More importantly, the book also contains a dozen techniques for using these stories in an interactive fashion.

Here’s an example of one of my interactive storytelling techniques: Ask the participants to work independently and come up with a personal story that features a significant achievement in their lives. Ask them to share this story with a partner. Later, ask each participant to retreat to a corner, reflect on their story, and throw a real or imaginary die. Depending on the number that turns up on the die, ask the participant to rewrite the story to depict what would have happened if he or she were of
(1) a different race
(2) different gender
(3) different nationality
(4) different sexual orientation
(5) different generation
(6) different personality type

Finally, ask the participant to share the rewritten story with a partner.

I use this activity (called Reincarnation) to explore principles of diversity and inclusion.

Here’s a twist on the personal story activity: Ask the participants to work independently and come up with a personal story that features a significant failure in the workplace. As in the previous activity, ask the participants to pair up and share their stories. Later, ask them to rewrite the story by slightly changing one or two of their behaviors so that the original tragedy is converted in a feel-good version with a positive climax.

I use this activity (called Tiny Twists) to increase the participants’ levels of self-awareness and personal accountability.

An Invitation
I am publishing a series of interactive storytelling techniques in my monthly newsletter. Please visit my website ( and click on the GAMEBLOG to see several other games for using stories then let me know what they inspire for your next training.

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