“Everyone can tell a story. A good story needs a hook, a good hero, and something that everyone can relate to.”
Jackson stifled a yawn. An engineer by training, he didn’t know why he had to be in this room, learning how to tell stories. Machines don’t need to be told stories – they’re just commanded, coded, set up and installed. What stories would a machine be interested in?
“You’d be surprised.” A little sharp voice grated behind Jackson. He turned around in surprise – no one should have heard his thoughts! He was also seated at the back of the class for an easier exfiltration should the need arise, especially during tea breaks, so no one was seated behind him.
No one was behind him.
Jackson shook his head. Hearing things now? He should really get out of this class as soon as he could.
“What, ignoring me, when I’ve done so much for the likes of you? Stupid technicals. Call yourself engineers, but you probably don’t even know what is inside me.”
The voice really sounded like his uncle Jim. Irritating uncle Jim. Always bragging about his experiences. Uncle Jim was a loner engineer, but when he spoke, his voice always grated, and he was always full of himself. The problem was that Uncle Jim could never keep an audience. He was too abrasive, and always seemed to know better than everyone. Probably the worst part was that he DID know better than most people.
But Uncle Jim was not in this classroom, and the trainer would definitely not allow Uncle Jim to talk over him.
Jackson looked at the cabinet behind him. There was no one there, other than a bunch of stationery and cabinets can’t talk. Could they?
“I’m not a bleeding piece of wood, am I? I’m electronics, and my kind has served you for so long, and you think I’m a piece of cut wood? Come on!”
Darth Vader stepped out of the stationery holder and stretched. A very small LEGO version of Darth Vader. A thumbdrive version of Darth Vader. A thumbdrive that was limbering up and doing calisthenics in front of Jackson’s goggling eyes. As Jackson struggled for words, Darth started to jog on the spot on his short legs and then proceeded to touch his toes.
“What? Can’t believe the evidence of your own eyes? You keep telling people you’re an engineer right? Believe THIS.” Darth stuck his hip out, glared at Jackson, and blew him a raspberry.
“What’s going on? What are you? How is a thumbdrive walking around, and how in the world did I manage to tell that you’re glaring at me when you’re wearing a black hood with no eyes?” Jackson waved his arms. “And how in the world are you reading my mind?! You’re a freaking thumbdrive, not a mind reader!”
“Perhaps you can use what you call a brain, and think it through. Is it even possible for electronics in a toy to read your mind, and stand on its arms, and do a tapdance version of The Shape of You while calling you, for want of a better word, an idiot?” Which Darth Thumb proceeded to do. Darth Thumb really did sound like Uncle Jim.
“DARTH THUMB?? Can’t you come up with something better??” Grumbling, the plastic contraption sat down, his cape settling behind him as his plastic legs somehow crossed. Darth looked up at Jackson. “So? Why can I do all this stuff, and what is really happening?”
“Am I asleep? Is this a dream?” Jackson looked around him. All his classmates were deathly quiet. The trainer wasn’t moving, or speaking, or blinking. Jackson didn’t dare move. What was happening?
“Yeah OK, if that’s what you want to believe. Look, I’m on a timeline here. I’m here to really teach you about story telling.” Darth Thumb stood up, and placed his hands on his hips. Jutting his head forward, Darth glared at Jackson again. “Why do you think you’re here anyway?”
“Because the company says all of us need to learn to tell stories better. My manager says that I’m not good at doing presentations and telling others about what we do as a team. But I don’t need to learn to tell stories! Just teach me how to do some Powerpoint or something! What do stories have to do with anything?” Jackson blurted out. After all, if this was a dream, he could say anything he wanted, right?
Darth shook his helmet. Well, at least the helmet shook. “You’re a harder case than most then. I’ll have to start from basics in this case. Why do I always get the hardballs?” Darth started to pace. Just like Uncle Jim.
“I’m NOT your Uncle Jim. Look, why do you think Uncle Jim has so few friends, and why do you think no one likes to listen to him talk?”
Jackson mulled on that for a while. Uncle Jim had been the leader of a big technical team in a huge corporation. He’d seen everything, brought the corporation through the dot com bust intact, and was really interested in technical stuff. Strangely, no one around him could garner that same interest, and while he’d been invited to give a few talks at conferences, that had died off pretty quickly. And he had few friends because Uncle Jim just somehow rubbed off people wrongly with the way he spoke and talked about stuff. He was a know-it-all, who knew it all.
“Yup. It’s not his lack of knowledge, that’s for sure. But when you listen to him, you don’t feel like you matter, or that he’s interested in doing anything other than to make sure you know he’s smarter or better. Even if his message makes sense, or is even good, you already feel on guard when he opens his mouth, and it’s hard to listen to him, isn’t it?” Darth inspected his curved hands. “Why curved hands? Where’re my fingers?? You’d think these engineers would have had a way to make fingers for toys by now.”
“Not like you’d use them, other than on the off chances that you come alive in a dream.” Jackson smirked at the black figure. “Look, yeah, I guess you’re right. But that’s just because Uncle Jim is a jerk who doesn’t care about others. What’s that got to do with story telling?”
“Tons! Look you’re listening to me even though I’m a jerk. At least that’s what you’re broadcasting in your head. True, I’m also a weird plastic thing that shouldn’t be walking and insulting you with every other word, but I’m engaging you without caring a hoot about what you think.” Darth huffed. “And I really don’t. But the difference, is that I’m getting you interested in what I have to say. I’m preparing to tell you a story, and you’re interested in that story.
“Engagement isn’t just about caring about someone, though that helps. It does involve caring about the people you speak with, letting them know that the story that you have to tell, is important to them. It’s relevant to them. It will make a difference, and that is what matters.” Darth sat down again. “And all of us have a story to tell. Making a presentation is a very specific type of story, but it’s still a story. And how you tell it, will dictate how people react to your story – and to you.”
Jackson turned his chair around, ignoring the stillness around him. “So teach me. How do I learn to tell a good story, and what does that have to do with my work?”
Darth Thumb looked at Jackson squarely.
“To tell a good story, first understand this. Different people listen differently. They’re taken in by different mediums of story telling. Story telling can take many forms – art, videography, a spoken story, or a written story. And each medium has its drawbacks and advantages, just as my form right now does – I am captivating you by being an impossible dream, but I am limited in what I can do.”
Darth gestured at the white wall behind him. Suddenly a swirl of stars covered the wall, making Jackson gasp.
“Visual aids almost always help a story, but they have their drawbacks too. If a story is entirely told visually, such as in art or a video, then that’s fine. But if it’s simply an aid, then a visual representation may distract from the real story itself.”
“Hey can you make this zoom into the Orion belt? My dad keeps telling me that there’s some archer…” Jackson’s word trailed off as he realised Darth Thumb was tapping his foot while glaring at him.
“AS I was saying, visual aids can end up being distracting if being used incorrectly.” With a snap of his U-shaped hands, the wall became blank again. “But used correctly, visual aids can help the message being brought across.” A chart displaying the forms of story telling popped up on the wall. “So choose your aids wisely when telling a story.”
“The best stories however, may not even need aids. Stories commonly need a few elements to succeed. The first is to have an undergirding theme. But not just any theme – any story can be about fairies, but a good story about fairies will have something that the listener, reader, or viewer can relate to.” Darth pointed to himself. “I’m a Lego toy thumbdrive of a very famous character in a film. That makes you already relate to me in some way.”
Jackson shook his head wryly. “And of course, you sound so much like Uncle Jim.”
Darth Thumb nodded.
“That’s not meant to be a compliment. Ow!”
Darth continued to talk, ignoring the marker that he had just thrown at Jackson’s head. “So when thinking of a story, prepare a theme that people can relate to. A good theme would make someone listening, watching or reading, go yeah, I understand that feeling. If you are telling a story to a specific group of people, choose or find a theme that they can relate to, so that your story becomes more engaging. You said earlier that you can’t tell how storytelling helps you at work. When you need to present something, or tell someone a piece of news, make it relevant to them somehow. If it’s not relevant to them, why are you wasting your time talking to them?”
Jackson rubbed his forehead. “OK, so a theme that my audience can relate to. What else makes good storytelling? Heroes? Dragons? Danger? That doesn’t exist in workplaces!”
Darth nodded. “If you’re telling a traditional story, you’ll need a good protagonist. That’s not necessarily a hero, but a main character that people can relate to. Again, that means someone with foibles, with flaws and imperfections. A good hero can even be an anti-hero, someone who does not start out to be a hero, but ends up being one. That’s what we all hope to do, isn’t it? We know we can’t really be heroes but we secretly hope to be.”
Behind Darth, the wall swirled and became a picture of an office.
“But in the workplace, when you need to tell someone a story, or sell a group an image or a vision through a story, of course, you can’t put in a protagonist. But you forgot – the workplace itself already has protagonists, the very people you are speaking to. What you say will have an impact on what they do. Make them the protagonists. Give them something to hold on to, and paint them as the heroes who will be able to be part of the picture that you paint in your story.”
Darth pulled out another Lego thumbdrive from the stationery holder next to him. This one was a dragon. Thankfully it didn’t speak.
“But every good story needs a villain. A good villain isn’t just pure evil. Villains should have a good point, something that makes them real. They might be evil or cruel, but there is always something that validates their stand, whether it’s right or wrong. The villain gives tension to the story, or the hero would have no chance to be a hero.” With a toss, the dragon was thrown back into the stationery holder. “In the workplace, the villain might not be a person. Hubris. Bureaucracy. A lack of transparency. Things that harm the organisation, things that hold the organisation back from the Next Big Thing. These are villains you can always bring in, to give your workmate heroes something to work on. Or something that they want to avoid becoming.”
Jackson was impressed. The little… Here Jackson remembered that Darth Thumb could hear his thoughts, and refrained himself. The little man had a point. “Ow!”
“I am a figment of your imagination, and a piece of electronic plastic. Don’t patronise me.” Darth growled.
“OKOK. So a good story can take any number of mediums, but may still need visual aids. I also need a theme that’s relatable to the audience, a hero that’s not too heroic, and a villain that’s got a reason to be bad. And in the workplace, there’s still a place for all these elements.”
“Yup.” Darth nodded. “And I’ve saved the best for last.”
“It’s got to come from you, your heart, your experiences.” Jackson started to object. “No, shut up. I don’t mean just relating your actual experiences! See, when you tell a story, a good story whatever medium you choose comes from your heart. When was the last time you had to make a point to someone close to you? Don’t talk about Uncle Jim.”
Jackson made a face. “My mum. I had to tell her I wanted to move out.”
“Did you succeed?”
“Kind of. She wasn’t too happy about it, but she saw my need for my own space and learning to be independent.”
“What made her change her mind?”
“I’m not sure. But I think my sincerity and earnestness went some way. Plus the fact that I finally learnt how to use the washing machine.”
Darth stood up and put his hands on his hips. “You just learnt how to what?! … You know what, forget it. I don’t want to know. But you see, your sincerity and earnestness made a point. When you tell a story, if you base some of your experience in the story, it becomes a lot richer. Your sincerity shows. The audience trusts you more as a storyteller when you’re sincere, whether they see you or not. They’re more willing to buy into your story even if they need to suspend their belief. You naturally become more eager to make sure that the message comes across. This is true both at the workplace, or if you are simply telling a story. A presentation for something you believe in is a lot easier than a point you are making that you don’t really care about. And your audience will be able to tell.”
“So basically whatever I’m trying to say, try to relate it to myself before I relate it to others?”
“Yep.” Darth nodded approvingly. “You’re not as dense as you look if you managed to catch that.”
Jackson let that pass. “So why tell stories? Why not just distill this into some steps that anyone can take to give a good presentation? That’s practical.”
Darth sighed. “I am a freaking thumbdrive. Do you know the story behind that? How some guys in either Malaysia, Singapore or Taiwan came up with my design? Or how about the story of Darth Vader? My alter ego is so famous because people bought into a totally fictional and impossible story which includes spacecraft that goes against every known law of physics. Have you heard of how Lego started from a woodworker whose factory burnt down, and then went into making toys?”
“Stories are important. History is storytelling, based on facts, coloured by the opinion of the storyteller, the historian. You won’t know about how dangerous racism can get without knowing the stories of the Holocaust, or the existence of the Ku Klux Klan. Stories form the basis of the best movies and TV series out there. If you can tell a good story, you claim the hearts of those who are hearing the story, whether it’s a Harry Potter fan, or a colleague who needs to know his little contribution to the workplace isn’t that little after all.”
“And talk to your mum. She has stories to tell you, stories that explain why she’s reluctant to let you leave the fold. Stories that demonstrate her love for you, stories that probably include how many washing machines you’ve destroyed in your attempt to learn how to wash your own clothes. How in the world can you call yourself an engineer?”
“Hey!” Jackson was tempted to throw the marker back at Darth. “That’s unfair.”
“But I’m serious about talking to those around you. Find their stories, and help them to tell it, if you can. The elderly, the young, all have their stories about their lives, their dreams, their hopes. Not that I expect you to be able to break out of your engineering shell, but think about it. I’m not going to be able to go talk to anyone else once you wake up!”
Jackson pondered on that for a while. Someone tapped on his shoulder.
“Excuse me. You’ve been staring at the back of the class for a while. Is anything the matter?” He looked around into the green eyes of the young lady whom he was sitting next to in the room. Clara, that was her name.
“Oh, nothing. Just talking to…” Jackson slowly realised his situation, and whipped his head around to stare at the empty wall at the back of the room.
“What? You weren’t talking to anyone that I saw. Maybe we should pay a little more attention to the trainer?” Clara sniffed. A little.
Jackson smiled as he turned back. “Have I got a story to tell you.”