Photo: Christine Butler –  Creative Commons license

“Storytelling is dangerous.”

I wrote this in my chapter in Sakile Camara’s book for trainers Communication Training and Development (Kendall Hunt Publishers, 2017) that is about to be published. My article is titled The Savvy Storyteller: A Guide for Trainers.  I assume that if you read this blog and do any teaching, you value interaction, engagement and learner-focused objectives. Storytelling is a great tool for that. But then I realized that there are still trainers who value control over interaction. I decided I must warn them. In their case, storytelling could be very risky.

(My husband says to warn you that in the following I am writing tongue-in-cheek in case my aberrant humor doesn’t come through.)

8 reasons not to use stories:

Storytelling lessens our control. 

I once taught 45 four-year olds at a time in a bi-lingual Ecuadorian pre-school. They spoke only Spanish. I was told to speak only English. I could never figure out who was Paco and who was Pancho. That’s where I learned the mantra: “Control is everything.” Forget the job of teaching the little ones English during the hour I had with them. My real job, I was told, was to keep them in their seats. (“Buena suerte.” Good luck with that.)

So trainers, remember the mantra. You need to keep people tracking on your  agenda. You’ve divided it into ten minute sound bites to make sure that nothing goes askance. You’ve spent hours creating those lectures and exercises which will drive home your message, so beware: with storytelling people get to discover their own meanings from the stories. That could be chaos!

Just think about Jesus, probably the world’s most famous storyteller. He told stories over two thousand years ago and people are still debating what he meant!

That’s too inefficient! Couldn’t he have just handed out a rule book? Save your students time and just type up the golden rules they need to follow. Remember, who wants to be crucified or fired for failure-to-meet-pre-determined-training-metrics.

Storytelling asks us to listen.

First, you have to listen to an audience to make sure that they’re listening to you. If not, talk louder. If they still don’t listen, walk out. Watch it though, because great storytellers are likely to be really great listeners who value other people’s stories. You can’t afford to do that. Do you have ten minutes free during your work day? No? Then, how can you even think about listening to someone else’s story? As you read this, your colleague Jeremy is walking over to you, smiling, with a cup of coffee in his hand, looking like he has something to share. On your mark, get set, RUN while you still have time!!!

Storytelling asks us to be vulnerable.  

Beware the “V” word. It’s too bad that author, researcher, and speaker Brené Brown made it sound like allowing yourself to be vulnerable was a good thing. Our rule should be: Vulnerability is OK for other people, but NOT for us! Do you really want to share your failings in public? Unacceptable! Did you hear what happened to Brené when she started becoming famous: people sent her nasty-grams telling her she was too fat! This is why you should never show any vulnerability–or at least not until after you go on a starvation diet.

Storytelling validates the truth of other people’s experiences. 

This includes dead people and people you don’t like. Our job as teachers is to establish OUR expertise. That’s why we are paid. Do you want to put your job at risk by acknowledging that the folks you are training already know a lot about your subject–maybe more than you–and might have their own stories to tell? The best defense is a good offense…talk more.

Storytelling ignites change. 

Creative storytellers have been known to let audiences make up their own creative endings, or invent alternate scenarios about how a scene can go (like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed). Some storytellers even invite audience members to tell their stories and help act them out on stage. (Playback Theatre). Audiences discover their power to become agents of change inventing their own futures. But change is risky. Think about it, our training programs haven’t changed, and why should they? If someone suggests one of these co-creative methods on stage, ask whether he or she is planning to bring trees on stage to tell their stories about the environment. This has to stop somewhere.

Storytelling invites audiences to create their own meanings.

This happens especially when learners are encouraged to reflect. There are three reasons not to do this in our trainings: 1) It takes time; 2) They might come up with meanings we didn’t intend; and 3) It is harder to measure meaning as categories on multiple choice exams.

Storytelling doesn’t dance well with powerpoint. 

Storytelling asks us to remember emotions, reconnect with them, abandon our scripts and speak directly to the hearts and minds of our listeners. Just because national leaders can go off script doesn’t mean that we can!  Stories have a pesky way of changing as they are told and adapted to the needs and listening of different audiences. Stories refuse to stand still and they don’t like being reduced to bullet points.

But that shouldn’t be a problem since we can’t add anything to the slides that we created three years ago.

Storytelling connects us with our hearts. 

We can wax sentimental about hearts, but here’s the real scoop about what they do: make us get angry, feel really sad, or experience compassion for people we don’t even know. Don’t you have enough to worry about without thinking about the workers in China dealing with your electronic waste? Or what’s happening to polar bears? Our students need to stay focused. On our bullet points. From the talk we planned in 2014.

So please help me to send out the warning. And let me know, if you’d like to read the real chapter about what great trainers do!