Tag Archives: stories

Visual Storytelling Is More Than Pretty Slides

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You have a message that you want your audience to take action on. A new direction for your organization, a change in processes, a new way of doing things. Leaders, facilitators, sales people, instructional designers, presenters of all kinds face the same challenge.

Your audience may passively hear what you say and choose to ignore the call to action. They may walk away wondering what you were talking about. Or they may be on the edge of their seat, soaking in every word and leave the experience convinced that they can and will make a change. The way you communicate your ideas will make the difference.

Visual storytelling illustrates for your audience what they can do to implement your ideas. It makes your message crystal clear and leaves less room for misinterpretation. And in a world of content overload, there is still a differentiator that will stop people in their tracks: a good story.

You may use PowerPoint, Articulate Storyline, Prezi or flip charts, but visual storytelling is a set of principles that transcends an application or authoring tool. Let’s take a quick look at the four principles.

Visual storytelling starts and ends with action.

Discover the Action

Your message is for a specific audience. Spend some time describing who that audience is and what you are asking them to do. Likely, you already have a load of great content. You want to get that content out of bullet point format and display the action. What exactly are you asking the audience to do? Write it down. If you have a new direction for your company, what should employees do to implement that change? If a process is changing, what are the new steps you are asking them to take? No action, no story. No story, no action. It begins with you identifying the action you want your audience to take and ends with them taking action on your message.

Storyboard–it’s not that difficult.

Storyboarding is not a mystery. Simply take the key characters and actions from the discovery phase and place them in the first column in a table. In the second table, describe how those key elements may be repStoryboardresented, especially the action. For instance, if I ask leaders to promote a culture of coaching and mentorship by setting up a bi-weekly meeting with each of their direct reports, what are the key elements of that action? The leader, their staff and scheduling a bi-weekly meeting. How will each of these elements be represented visually? List each separately and describe how you would represent each one. How do those key elements interact with one another? In this case, The leader is sending something to the employee. As a result, a new relationship between the leader and the employee is being formed. Can you visualize what that might look like on a screen as you deliver your message? Write that down too.

Build objects–an achievable skill

Now you have a storyboard with all of the key elements andBuild Objects their relationships to one another. It’s time to build those visuals. If you are a graphic artist, no problem. For the rest of us, there’s PowerPoint. Using shapes, one can create simple flat design objects (like the ones that appear in this article) that successfully represent the key elements in the story. Look at your second column. Is the action to send an email? What would that look like? Hint: go to a search engine and type “send email icon” and peruse the images for inspiration. I don’t recommend using the image in your presentation, but you can definitely copy it, insert it into PowerPoint and use it as a template for your own creation.

Tell your story–it’s your content…supercharged

Before, your audience was reading bullet points and only halfway listening to you. Now you have the objects that can take the place of all the text on your slide so your audience can listen intently to your story while it is being reinforced visually. Speaking of which, let’s talk about the story. It’s fine to simply describe a new way of doing things using objects, but you can take it to the next level by telling a story that places relatable Tell Your Storycharacters into strong conflict. Let’s take the example from above. If you are asking leaders to schedule a bi-weekly meeting with their employees for coaching purposes, you may want to use a case study of a manager who didn’t coach her employees or introduce a fictitious story of a manager who failed to schedule the bi-weekly meeting and the negative results of that action. Following the story, you may ask the audience what the manager could have done differently. If well-told, the story will solicit responses that align with the actions you will be asking them to take throughout the presentation, which will motivate and stir your audience to make the change, because you will have mastered the steps of visual storytelling.

The steps are simple, and you can do it. It requires practice to master. You can receive deliberate practice and immediate feedback from me by registering for an online Visual Storytelling master class. You will be presenting ideas for a long time. You won’t regret the investment. Hope to see you there!


Why Talent Development Pros are the Best Storytellers

Jake Comic

Stories give audiences the upper hand when it comes to remembering your message. The dilemma is not that we don’t believe this, but that talent development professionals generally don’t know how to compose stories for training and communications. Story Design is the answer to this problem.

You, the TD pro

In the comic above, Jake, who is struggling to build a tricycle, represents your learner. The instructions, a step-by-step method of assembling the tricycle, represent the list of performance objectives (I call it an action list) you want your learners to be able to do after they’ve taken your training. It’s not working out so great for Jake. Somehow, the training has fallen short.

You have a specific audience, like Jake, that needs to take action on a specific set of objectives, like building a tricycle. Who is that audience and what are those actions? Instructional designers and consultants are great at getting answers to both of these questions. And that’s good, because without them, there is no character, there is no action, there is no story. Here’s what I mean:

Stories for learning have two main components: relatable characters + strong conflict.

Let’s look at both of these components of a story and what you’re already doing to make writing the story easier.

Relatable characters

Jake represents the learner

Characters in a story must give your audience reason to care. As a designer of training, you are already collecting information to create an audience profile…or you should be. The makers of the tricycle probably didn’t do a very good job figuring out who Jake was. Ask some questions of your audience, or someone who knows your audience well. Questions that reveal their:

  • Values
  • Current circumstances
  • Reactions to surroundings
  • Fears
  • Challenges
  • Favorite things to do in their spare time

Answers to these questions begin to reveal possible characters. For example, if my audience:

  • Values quality work
  • Works for a company entering a new international market
  • Enjoys stability, not variety
  • Fears losing their job to overseas
  • Struggles to adapt to change
  • Likes to hang out with their families, play baseball and go to church in their spare time

Characters start coming to mind. Perhaps a proud foreman who is embarrassed that he doesn’t understand a new process. A perfectionist operator whose quality scores are suffering because she’s challenged by a new way of doing things. The more information you have about the audience, the easier it will be to create relatable characters.

Strong conflict

If you haven’t been collecting information about who your audience is (please start doing that), it is doubtful that you have neglected the second story component: the action list.

Action list
The tricycle instructions represent the action list

What is it that stakeholders want the audience to do? Likely, you’re doing a lot better job than the tricycle company. You’ve conducted extensive interviews to find out if training is the answer. You’ve met with subject matter experts and created a detailed list of actions that must be performed to reach the goals of making a business impact. As you compose the action list:

  • Use strong, positive action verbs (Avoid Avoid…)
  • Put the actions in a logical order, such as an outline
  • Ask questions of stakeholders that unearth real stories that are happening in the workplace

You’re already do all of this, right? What you may not have realized is that you’ve just outlined the conflict for your story.

You, the storyteller

Let’s put all of this together. Below are the two components of the story. Do you see how they relate to the components of instructional design? Relatable characters come from your audience profile. The strong conflict comes from your action list.


If I were to write a story premise about the comic above and apply it to what I’d like you to do after reading this post, I’d say it was a story about a tricycle company who struggled to know who their audience was and had a hard time writing instructions in a way that their customers could make sense of their product’s assembly.

Do you see the story here? It’s a metaphor. You’re the tricycle company! And here’s what I’d like you to do:

  1. Know your audience and you’ll know who your relatable characters should be
  2. Know what you want them to do and put the characters in direct, strong conflict with those actions

If you’d like to master Story Design, sign up for a master class series at needastory.com.

What People Say About Stories

Where learning is concerned, you may be hard pressed to find a better context-builder than stories. The power of stories to increase learning retention are outlined by almost every person who writes on the subject of brain science and learning. Below are a sampling of quotes from 5 authorities on learning/motivating for change.

“We like stories. We learn a lot from stories, and we seem to have a particularly good memory for them. A really well-told story can stick with us for years, even if we’ve only heard it once.”  (Design For How People Learn, Julie Dirksen)

“Stories have been told for thousands of years in order to transfer cultural lore and values. When a great story is told, we lean forward, and our hearts race as the story unfolds.”  (Resonate, Nancy Duarte)

“A story is powerful because it provides the context missing from abstract prose…putting knowledge into a framework that is more lifelike, more true to our day-to-day existence. More like a flight simulator. Being the audience for a story isn’t so passive, after all. inside, we’re getting ready to act.” (Made To Stick, Chip Heath & Dan Heath)

“In context of ethics and values, stories help make abstract issues concrete and accessible, especially when we can sympathize or identify with one of the characters.” (Modeling the Message: Communicating Compliance through Organizational Value and Culture, Scott Killingsworth, Social Science Research Network, Oct 1, 2012)

“The best way to unite an idea with an emotion is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy… If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.” (Storytelling That Moves People, Harvard Business Review, June 1, 2003)

I have yet to meet anyone in the training field who has said, “Stories just don’t work for learning.” Though the evidence is abundant both in the context of learning and in everyday life, that stories are incredibly powerful and effective, it is surprising that they are somewhat underused in training. At least in my interactions with other learning professionals, stories seem to be forgotten or inserted as an afterthought or so watered down that they lose their punch. But why not craft a training experience with story as the centerpiece? More on that to come.

What has been your experience with stories in training, both as a trainer and as someone who takes training? Is there a particularly memorable training experience when the story really worked? Are there aspects of story-telling that are problematic for you when it comes to putting it into practice? Please share your thoughts and comments then check out How Stories Connect To Learning.