By Rao, Ph.D.
“The difference between real life and a story is that life has significance, while a story must have meaning. The former is not always apparent, while the latter always has to be, before the end.” – Vera Nazarian
Companies are now focusing on leadership development among their employees to ensure organisational excellence and effectiveness, spending a huge amount on trainings to upgrade their skills, abilities and knowledge. This article will discuss the significance of storytelling and techniques to help educators and trainers to achieve desired teaching and training takeaways.
Leadership and Storytelling
Since time immemorial, human beings have been fascinated by stories. They enjoy listening to stories that help them relate fictional content with real life. It helps them to visualise things through pictures and connect with the content faster, thus creating an impression that lasts longer. The human brain can quickly retrieve information as and when needed when information is imparted through storytelling.
Storytelling is indeed an art. Not everyone can speak fluently with clarity. Although storytelling is a skill that can be honed by training, it basically needs a lot of passion on the part of the speaker to put an effort into telling tales. It involves various things, such as analysing the profile and mood of the audiences. Understanding the duration, time, cultures and context make a lot of difference. Hence, storytelling involves a lot of many things that are not easy to enumerate. Above all, what is essential is the ability to articulate content as per the context, and the ability to inspire audiences by getting the message across aptly.
When we look at charismatic leaders, we see that their forte is storytelling, although there are various other ingredients, such as charm, communication, etiquette and dress code that form the core of charismatic leadership. They make extensive use of stories to impress their audiences and share several anecdotes to connect with their audiences quickly. They attract and impress audiences through the use of metaphors and analogies. The founder of the cosmetics company Mary Kay Inc. used metaphors extensively to get the message across effectively.
Storytelling is an important ingredient in effective communication, especially in leadership development programmes. It is a powerful leadership development tool as leadership is a learning skill.
During leadership training programmes, trainers tell tales to connect with their audiences to impart leadership skills and abilities. Trainers speak in a language that fits the level of the audience and roll out appropriate tales to inspire their participants. There are companies that hire storytelling consultants with expertise in telling tales, and unveil anecdotes before their senior executives. However, a few top business leaders themselves know the knack of storytelling. For instance, the late Steve Jobs of Apple knew how to connect with his audiences through storytelling. He was a charismatic business leader who emphasised innovation. He continuously worked for changes in technology and innovated to stay ahead of the competition.
Stories provide mental pictures through which the audience can relate easily to the information. The stories must focus on the leaders who hit rock bottom and bounced back from failures, as they inspire the audience. In addition, it must also convey the messages that stem from failures in leadership.
During storytelling, keep your language as simple as possible. Craft your own stories, rather than taking them from others. You can also take the things that happened around your life and weave them into beautiful stories with well-defined and meaningful messages.
Russell Banks noted, “Storytelling is an ancient and honorable act. An essential role to play in the community or tribe. It’s one that I embrace wholeheartedly and have been fortunate enough to be rewarded for.” Professional speakers learn the knack of storytelling as their sessions are incomplete without it. Film stars are often expert in storytelling, as it is part of their profession to deliver dialogues.
Storytelling is an age-old art of attracting and inspiring people. It is also an integral part of leadership development programmes, where leaders must learn this art to inspire their people at the workplace. Storytelling is an art that is partly learned and partly inborn. Donna Tartt once remarked, “The storytelling gift is innate: one has it or one doesn’t. But style is at least partly a learned thing: one refines it by looking and listening and reading and practice – by work.”
Merits of Storytelling
The merits of storytelling include grabbing the attention of the audiences quickly; connecting people together; establishing rapport with the audiences; getting the message across quickly; and helping in the pictorial presentation of information and in retaining it for a longer time.
Tales help connect with the audiences quickly as they contain emotions and imagination. Successful educators or leaders know the knack of telling stories.
Humour Quotient and Teaching
The current complexity and ambiguity call for a Humor Quotient (HQ). It seems that people are so busy with their daily chores that they often forget to smile. This is one of life’s ironies. Even students are not spared from this complexity and ambiguity. They come under lots of pressure while studying, and sometimes find it boring and taxing to listen to the educators. Hence, there is a need for HQ on the part of the educators to lighten the classroom environment to refresh them. Learners get charged up once they enjoy jokes. However, this should not become too frequent as the classroom would then turn into a mockery.
Humour plays a crucial role as it breaks the boredom in the classroom. It wakes the learners up and enhances their attention levels. Therefore, it is essential to include humour while teaching to refresh the students. But the humour must be timely, apt and relevant so that the students can enjoy it and then return to the listening mode in the classroom.
Teaching and Cooking
Teaching is like cooking food. As a cook prepares delicious food by mixing all the ingredients proportionately, the educator must cater the content by blending various styles and types in tune with the tastes and temperaments of the participants. The educator must blend lecture, audio-visual pictures, interaction, role play, and other ingredients to impart knowledge to the students. In fact, students like to be served tailor-made teaching and content on a platter from educators.
Educators must encourage research, and analytical, conceptual and decision- making and leadership skills among the students. They must create case studies on a few topics and give the students assignments so that the latter can carry out their own research on topics related to the case study and come out with viable and feasible solutions.
When we observe the learning styles of students, we find that there are visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners to name a few. The visual learners require more of board usage as they prefer to learn through pictures; auditory learners enjoy listening to lectures peppered with stories, anecdotes, and examples; and kinesthetic learners learn through hands-on activities. The educators must learn the learning styles of students before imparting knowledge, as it will help get the content across quickly and effectively. Additionally, culture also plays a crucial role in deciding the learning styles of students. Therefore, there is a need to structure the teaching style as per the learning style and culture of the people. Given below are a few more teaching tips:
The educators must demonstrate friendliness and warmth vis-a-vis their students to build rapport in order to ensure effective takeaways.
• Cue cards help educators to structure the teaching content; otherwise, they lose the sequence. It also helps them not to forget the key contents during teaching.
• While teaching, emphasse key ideas three times to reach the various types and levels of the audience. If required, they must quiz, question and grill students to get the best out of them.
• They should not load students with too much information at a time. They must provide the information to students piecemeal so that the latter can ruminate over what had been discussed and taught in the class.
• If students yawn, it is time for the educators to pull up their socks. It is time to shift the gears of teaching to other levels so as to get students back on track.
• Any teaching should be student-led, not teacher-led. Include a questionnaire or self-assessment exercise, or tales that contain comedy, tragedy, fun, and frolic to provide an extra touch to teaching.
• As after every training programme, a Kirkpatrick evaluation is done. After every teaching session, it is vital to take informal feedback for further improvement in teaching.
After the teaching session, it is essential to reinforce the learning. There are several ways in which educators can reinforce learning. For instance, they can ask students to summarise what had been learned. It helps the students to dig deep within to what they had learned. In addition, when a student summarises, other students listen to the content and this reinforces their learning as well. It has multiple benefits for students and educators, too, as the latter gets feedback on what the students had assimilated. It helps educators learn the content from a new perspective and changes their style of teaching methodology further, and is also useful for further research in that specific area.
Twenty-First Century Teaching
Students of the twenty-first century are more mature than those of the twentieth century as they are more exposed to technology and modern gadgets. They are highly receptive to technology and expect their educators to be technology savvy. Hence, a bigger challenge lies ahead for educators in the twenty-first century.
Twenty-first century educators should not get complacent with traditional teaching and training methodologies.They need to upgrade their skills and abilities continuously and constantly to match their teaching tools and techniques with the learning styles of their students. Additionally, diversity is another issue in educational institutions as students of different cultures, ethnicities, religions, regions, and races come together. Educators need to compete with themselves rather than with their colleagues to stand out in teaching.
Twenty-first century teaching demands new tools and techniques that are relevant in the current context. What worked in the past may not work in the future. Hence, there is a strong need to reinvent teaching and training methodologies to create leaders and managers.
The twenty-first century belongs to knowledge workers. It is they who will lead the world and guide humankind successfully into the twenty-second century. Twenty-first century education calls for knowledge creation, knowledge sharing, knowledge dissemination, knowledge application, and knowledge reinvention. Those who do not contribute creativity and innovation in twenty-first century education can perhaps be called illiterates.
Role of Educators in Shaping Students as Leaders
Nikos Kazantzakis said, “Ideal teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own.” Hence, educators must serve as bridges and help students become confident and independent. They must prepare students to assume leadership roles and responsibilities. They must share several leadership lessons they learned the hard way with their students in order to groom them as leaders. Presently students are likely to face much bigger challenges than their predecessors. Hence, educators must equip students with knowledge that will help them face challenges squarely.
Henry Brooks Adams said, ‘A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.’ It requires a lot of courage to become an educator as it is not for everybody. If a parent is unworthy, children are spoiled; if a doctor neglects his duty, the patient dies; if an engineer performs poorly, the infrastructure collapses; and if an educator makes a mistake, an entire generation is ruined. To summarise, the twenty-first century needs educators who are passionate and who can walk the talk and constantly reinvent teaching tools and techniques to make a difference in the lives of others in this century, as well as handholding humankind successfully into the twenty-second century.
Note: This article is an adapted excerpt from my book, “Secrets of Successful Public Speaking: How to Become a Great Speaker.”
About the Author
Professor M.S. Rao, Ph.D. is the father of “Soft Leadership” and founder of MSR Leadership Consultants, India. He is an International Leadership Guru with 38 years of experience and the author of over 45 books including the award-winning ‘21 Success Sutras for CEOs’. Most of his work is available free of charge on his four blogs including http://professormsraovision2030.blogspot.com. He is also a dynamic, energetic, and inspirational leadership speaker.
21 Success Sutras for Leaders by M.S. Rao (Pearson; 1 edition, 25 September 2012)