One of the readers of my newsletter recently asked how to become a better storyteller.  So let me provide part of an answer here with a story, and I’ll share how I crafted it later in my newsletter.

Story – A Surprise While Training

Once, I was asked to fly across the USA to teach a group of engineers agile approaches to improve how they run their projects.  Most of my fellow trainers at the time were reluctant to take it on because this was a group working for the U.S. Department of Defense.  Such engineers tend to be serious skeptics who are not quick to adopt new techniques without proof.  They have a good reason. Taking on something new can pose a security risk with many unknown consequences.

But these were my people!  I started my career in this community.  I helped many teams in similar environments take a more agile approach and maintain security. Now that I had worked in several industries, I was thrilled to share new learning with my old community!

I entered the training room early and prepared.  Then I waited.  A couple of people trickled in just as the class was to start, but the entire group was not there.  No problem. We waited because we were to learn together!  Eventually, the rest of the group came in a few minutes after the start time for the course.

But there was one problem.  No one looked happy or even excited to be in the class. I asked if there was a problem. Steve, one of the senior engineers, shared with me, “We were forced to come here.  This is a waste of our time!”  The others nodded in agreement with Steve.  

I had an unwilling audience.

Shifting Focus to the People and Not the Goal

After a short pause to allow me to think, I proposed the following, “Someone paid for me to be here for two days to help you learn agile approaches to run your project.  I will assume that if you skip the class, someone will be unhappy with you.”  Again, there were head nods.  “So why not share your questions about agile approaches and even why you are skeptical? Maybe I can answer those questions for you.”

Everyone got a few small pieces of paper and wrote one question or one concern on each piece of paper.  I collected them and asked if we could take a 15-minute break.  They were happy to agree to that.  Some of them missed their morning cup of coffee.

When they returned, I had their questions stuck up on the wall in a grid similar to Figure 1. 

Three frowning students stand in front of a board of topics with vertical columns: To Explore, Exploring, Possible Answers, Epiphanies and Actions, and Done.  Only the To Explore column has lists of topics on seperate cards.  To the left, the students have placed difficult questions on red cards with one question per card.
Figure 1 – Before training, the unwilling audience submitted some skeptical questions.

I explained, “I think I have an approach that will help us answer your questions and allow me to deliver the course I was paid to deliver.  But I’ll need your help.  I’ve put our topics up on this board.  Next, I’ll put your questions next to the topics that I think will provide the best answers.  But I need you to tell me when I’ve answered your questions.  If you find something useful, we’ll put another note under the Epiphanies column.  If there is something for any of us to do from what we learned, we’ll put it under actions.  Or, if you just feel the question is answered, we can put the topic and question under the Done column.  But we will not consider a topic done until you feel I’ve answered your questions we put on that topic.  This will allow me to speed through some topics and spend more time on topics to help you answer your questions.  How does that sound?”

They were still skeptical, but agreed to this approach.

So I quickly read through the questions, got clarifications on a few of their notes and placed questions on the board to show where I would answer some of their questions.  The board looked like Figure 2.

Three frowning students stand in front of a board of topics with vertical columns: To Explore , Exploring, Possible Answers, Epiphanies and Actions, and Done.  Only the To Explore column has lists of topics on seperate cards.  To the left, the students have placed difficult questions on red cards with one question per card. Each Topic is on a card under the To Explore column and also placed in a horizontal lane on the same board to associate student questions posted as cards under the Possible Answers column.  In looking at the whole grid, only one question is associated with Topic 1, four questions with Topic 2, two questions with Topic 3, and three questions with Topic 4.
Figure 2 – As training starts, showing where their difficult questions will be addressed by specific topics.

Answering Their Questions On Day One

They still seemed a bit grumpy as they saw that I would not get to the bulk of their questions until the second topic.  However, I quickly covered the first topic.  I even skipped some slides and told them what I was skipping to keep my promise to them.  We focused our discussions where most of their questions were.  I focused on helping them find answers to their questions.

By the end of our first day of class, the board and my audience looked like Figure 3.  Some people in the group were becoming curious.  Steve said he actually appreciated the agile approach to addressing their questions.  Some maintained their stern look from the morning.  We adjourned for the day and agreed to meet the same time in the morning.

Training grid board at end of day 1 shows Topic 1 in the far right Done column, with a question card and idea card next to it.  This shows the students first question was answered.  Topic 2 is in the Exploring column of the grid with four question cards near it and at least one to two idea/answer cards next to each question.  Topic 3 and 4 are still in the To Explore column with associated questions in the Possible Answers column showing they have yet to be covered in the class.  One of the students is now smiling, one student still has a frown, and the third student show indifference.  Three question marks are between the first and third student indicating they are curious to learn more.
Figure 3 – Day 1 of training ends, some questions answered, some students becoming curious.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in the morning.  Would I have half of the people back?  Would most of them return?  To my surprise, they all returned close to start time and they already had their morning coffee with them.  Steve even arrived a bit early to ask a straightforward question. So I reviewed where we were with our questions from the end of the first day and asked if any new questions popped up for them overnight. We added a couple of new questions to the board. I even added Steve’s question and my answer on the board to keep all the learning visible. Then, we launched back into our remaining topics with a focus on their questions.

A Surprising End of Day Two

By the end of day 2, the board looked like Figure 4.  I answered most of their questions, but they added even more as we got deep into some topics.  To keep us moving along, I promised sending them some additional reading on these deeper questions within the week. They agreed that receiving this additional information would move the last two topics to Done.

Training grid board at end of day 2 shows Topic 1 and Topic 2 in the far right Done column, with multiple question cards and idea cards next to their associated topic cards.  This shows the students agreed their first set of questions were answered.  

Topic 3 and 4 are in the Exploring column of the grid with multiple question cards near the associated topics and at least one to two idea/answer cards next to each question.  There are also action item cards in the same horizontal lane of their associated topics showing a follow-up action after the course.

Two of the students are now smiling and the third student show indifference, indicating that most of the students were satisfied by outcome of the course.
Figure 4 – All questions addressed by reluctant students and most of them are satisfied.

I didn’t get through all of my training material, but I did address each of their questions.  I served this group of people.  By the end of the class, some of them thanked me for the class, including Steve.  Some still seemed unhappy spending two days in a course they didn’t want, but I still heard “thanks” from these individuals.

I never heard from this group again.  They didn’t respond to the extra reading material I sent.  They didn’t order more training from my company.  However, I planted a seed by showing how to pivot in the moment to serve your customers.  Why did I think this was worth the effort?  Because this was not the first time I had to pivot in a training.  Sometimes you may not find out until months or years later that one seed of knowledge you planted grew to something surprising and useful.  That is another story for another time.

Some Questions to Consider

If you read this far, thank you.  If you read this to understand the storytelling, here are some questions to consider as you reflect on this story:

Questions to consider:

  • What did you notice in the story?
  • Could you see yourself or someone you know in a story like this?
  • What was the challenge?
  • How was the challenge overcome?
  • What was the outcome?  Was there success?
  • What was the purpose of telling this story?  Who was this story written for?
  • What parts of this story do you think actually happened?  Could any parts be fabricated?  Why would they be?

I will answer some of these questions —- and others you might have —- in my newsletter in the coming days.  I hope to find you there and look forward to your questions.

If you liked the story, let me know in the comments section below.