Whether told around a campfire or in a YouTube video, stories can help teachers and leaders engage an audience. But not all stories are equally effective for all purposes. Just as there are different genres of books and movies, there are different types of learning and leadership stories, each with its own conventions.

Here are five types of learning / leadership stories, and when to use them:

  • Vision: These stories often begin with “imagine a world where…”, then invite the audience to imagine a better status quo. Usually the pattern is to describe something that seems unattainable, then show how, by working with your organization or backing your proposal, the audience can bring it closer to reality.

    To paraphrase a promotional video from semiconductor manufacturer Qualcomm: “Imagine a world where a street lamp wasn’t just a street lamp, but also a solar power collector and a hotspot for Internet connectivity…” 

  • Problem-Action-Result (P-A-R): This is the classic “case study” narrative. It begins with a problem (“In the 1980s scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer, which shields Earth from radiation”), outlines the actions taken to address the problem (“in a 1987 treaty, the world’s governments banned the chemicals responsible for the damage”) then gives the results (“by 2018 scientists confirmed the ozone layer was healing and on course to fully recover by the 2060s”).

    P-A-R stories are often used to validate a proposed course of action or demonstrate the ability of your organization to solve a certain type of problem.

  • Journey: The point of a “journey” story is to introduce the audience to new people, places, ideas and things through a linear narrative.  It could be a story about a literal journey (like a mission to Afghanistan), the “journey” that a patient takes from diagnosis to recovery, a scientist’s journey to discovery or the journey that a meal takes from the farm to your table.

    Done right, it can be a great way to introduce new ideas or cultivate a new appreciation for what goes into mundane things.  However, a journey story needs to be carefully mapped out to avoid rambling off topic or getting mired in details. At every step, ask “Will my audience appreciate this information, and see its relevance to my larger point?”

  • Human Narratives: Telling relatable stories about the people you serve or work with can make your organization’s impact tangible for stakeholders who rarely get to see it up close (e.g., donors, shareholders, office support staff).

    These stories can take the form of an extended narrative (like this excellent profile on the website of Charity Water) or quick, one-line vignettes.  To paraphrase a Free Press article on the Boston Marathon: “When I think of the marathon, I don’t think of the champions who run it in two hours. I think of the ordinary woman who lost a family member to cancer and is using the race as a fundraiser.”

  • Cautionary Tales: Every one of the stories above has an “evil twin”. The Vision Story becomes a doomsday scenario, outlining all the horrible things that will happen if the audience does not change its behavior. The P-A-R story results in failure. The Journey of Discovery turns into a nightmare (e.g., exposés of conditions in slaughterhouses) and the Human Narrative only leads to greater suffering.

    Should you choose to “go negative”, just be aware that the human mind is wired for denial (“It will never happen to me / within my lifetime!”). To be effective, cautionary tales should segue quickly into lessons learned, a call to action and – ideally – the promise of redemption.

If your organization is interested in making better use of storytelling in learning and communication, feel free to contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.