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Define the Story Concept (Basic Plot) . . . and write a description of it

Outline the plot/key points of the story. The concept of the story must support the objective and relate to your audience’s goals and experiences. It must be in context for the audience, allowing for a connection to occur between the topic and the audience creating emotional attachment. When the audience feels an emotional attachment the are engaged. When they see the context the attach the concept and emotions to past experience, and they retain.

Build the power of both sides. Do not slant the argument. Compose the scenes and sequences that contradict your final statement with as much truth and energy as those that reinforce it. A protagonist and his story can only be as compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.

Questions to help you define the concept and write a description of it:

  • What is the protagonists Object of Desire?
  • What is the Controlling Idea of the story (expressed in a single sentence)
  • What is the story’s “dramatic question?” Will the girl get the guy? Will the hero reach the goal?
  • What is the desire/a need/or problem that must be addressed by a central character?
  • What action does the character’s desire lead him to take?
  • What risk does the protagonist face? What does the protagonist stand to lose? What’s the worst thing that could happen?
  • What will gain the audience’s emotional involvement? What will they empathize with?Is it believable?
  • What is the Hook? – A statement or object used to get attention.
    • What is the most unusual, interesting, exciting, or humorous part of your subject?
    • Does the hook lead to your objective?
    • Does the hook relate to, excite or interest the listener?
    • Does the hook serve better as a question or statement? Listeners usually pay attention when someone asks them a question.
    • The more dynamic the hook, the more effective the total message becomes.
    • Humor used properly is a powerful hook.
    • Best humorous hooks are anecdotes or personal experiences.
    • Sometimes the best hook is visual.
  • What are the Triggers that can connect to something in the audience’s environment?
  • Will this my story support my objective?
  • Will the audience relate?
  • Is the story original or a retelling of an old story?
  • Is this a story that everyone expects?
  • What would the opposite story be?
  • Is the point surprising?
  • Where’s the drama?
  • What realizations or insights will occur?
  • What is the over arching conflict between protagonist and antagonist?
  • Do they balance each other
  • Is the protagonist active and dynamic or reactive and passive?



In the next series of posts we’ll break down the process of constructing and drafting a story. As we have learned in a previous post (The Impact of Storytelling in Learning), many learning experts feel that the future will bring a significant rise in the use of stories in learning. Stories help with active processing, while engaging the audience through confusion, emotional identification, and anticipation.

Storytelling can also help us connect with our work. According to the Harvard Business Review article Great Storytelling Connects Employees to Their Work, “Connection happens when you see past the details of a task to its human consequences. When you feel connected to the moral purpose of your work, you behave differently.” Stories can connect the employee to the “human purpose that they serve.” The stories don’t have to be elaborate. Most impactful stories are brief. These stories should reframe a moment to give examples that attach human consequences to tasks.

So how do we construct a story? I turned to expert storytellers for answers:

  • Lessons in Learning, e-Learning and Training, by Roger Schank
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee
  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud

As I share their wisdom and experience in constructing a story, keep a few things in mind throughout your story writing process . . . ask who, what, when, where, how, why? How will the audience react to that? Does it excite them? Confuse them? Inform them?

Define the Objective

Define the problem that the audience faces and break it down to easily understandable pieces. Questions to help define the objective:

  • What problems are challenging the audience right now?
  • What are they having trouble doing properly?
  • What will be learned from the story?
  • What are the key things that the audience needs to know how to do that we are ad-dressing?
  • Why would the audience want to know this? Why would they listen? What would motivate them to listen? Do they already know this? Is it obvious? Repetitive?
  • What determines success?
  • What is the point of the story, the single clear-cut objective?
  • What is the single sentence that will best lead to the objective?



Story Structure

The character must be forced to make decisions causing effects that make things either better or worse. The audience identifies with qualities that a character reveals when they make choices under pressure. A typical story about a hero:

  • The hero is called to action, but initially refuses
  • Once the hero engages, he enters an unfamiliar world
  • Along the way there are difficult challenges, and the hero is on the brink of defeat
  • At some point, often with a mentor’s help, the hero transforms in a new way
  • The hero overcomes obstacles and is victorious, returns a hero that triumphed in both his old world and now this new world, choosing to improve both

The protagonist must risk something to gain or protect something. The greater the value, the greater the risk. The protagonist’s actions must conflict with the people and world around him. The story must have a positive idea that is balanced equally by a negative idea (e.g.- good vs. evil, success vs. failure, safety vs. danger, etc). The positive and negative battle back and forth throughout the story. Eventually one wins, that’s the story’s Controlling Idea. A Controlling Idea describes how and why the character’s life changed from one condition or value at the beginning of the story to another at the end. The story progresses by shifting between the positive and negative. It looks like this . . .

According to script writing guru Robert McKee, the gap between expectations and reality is the source of energy in the story. The audience empathizes with the character seeking his desire and has the same expectations as the character on how the world will react to the character’s response. When the gap between expectations and reality occurs for the character, it does for the audience as well. As McKee calls it “the ‘Oh my God!’ moment.”

Story Elements

A story is made up of elements – beat, scene, sequence, act. A story can be one scene or multiple acts. A beat (smallest story element) is something that happens to bring about a change of behavior, an action/reaction. A new beat doesn’t occur until a behavior clearly changes. A series of beats make up a scene.

A scene is action taking place in one location and in a distinct time. Each scene is a mini-story, with a begin-ning, middle, and end as well as its own protagonists. This could be any character, depending on the pur-pose of the scene. Just as in a story, the scene’s protagonist has a goal and faces obstacles that try to thwart the effort to achieve it. The scene keeps the story moving forward by creating anticipation, revealing conflict or true character, and/or generating an emotional response. Great scenes can do several of those at once. A scene should begin as late within the action depicted as possible, and should end as soon as possible. In each scene, the positive and negative values must change through some type of conflict from + to – or – to + thus creating change in the character’s life (Indiana Jones safely gets the gold idol early in the Raiders of the Lost Ark – positive, only to almost die on the way out of the cave and have it taken away from him by his arch enemy – negative.) A turning point is some action or event that turns the story value in a new direction. Each turning point hooks curiosity. Each scene in the story should turn the story value of one or more of the story’s plots. A scene can be turned through action or revelation. Nothing should move forward in a story unless it happens through external or internal conflict:

  • Inner conflicts – physical, mental, emotional
  • Personal conflicts – the people closest to you
  • Extra-personal conflicts – the environment around you, or other individuals

A sequence is a series of scenes that build tension to a sequence climax. An act is a series of scenes or scene sequences that build to a climax that is bigger than each of the sequence climaxes. The information revealed in an act climax (or turning point) must be new and shocking and completely change the protagonist’s situation.

Read more . . .

The Impact of Storytelling in Learning

Grabbing the Audience’s Attention: Story Basics



Your goal: get the audience’s attention

Grabbing the audience’s attention is difficult. According to Stuart Karten in his Fast Company article Five Things Hollywood Teaches Us About Product Design “Johanna Blakley, a researcher at USC Annenberg School’s Norman Lear Center, theorizes that as we’re inundated with exponentially increasing amounts of information, the competition for eyeballs intensifies. In what she calls the ‘attention economy,’ consumers access an abundance of information in the form of media, games, and advertisements. In fact, five exabytes of data are created and collected every two days!“

In Hollywood, scriptwriters understand that when developing stories, tapping into the audience’s primal emotions of fear, sex, humor, surprise, and desire will hook the audience.

Empathy is a visceral reaction of one human being to the plight of another. The ability to ‘feel’ the pain, fear or joy of someone else enables the storyteller to evoke emotional contact with the reader.” – Will Eisner, comic book artist, author

Story Basics

  • Get to the point, via the shortest path, using the fewest words & pictures. Begin stories close to the climax.
  • Bland = forgettable.
  • Match what the audience already believes.
  • Meaning, not facts. Focus on whom, why and how, rather than on what happens.
  • Make it real, relating to challenges/issues the audience faces in real life.
  • Make it emotional . . . loneliness, love, loss, death, vulnerability, confidence, acceptance and rejection. People believe other people’s emotional pain.
  • Make it surprising. Establish expectations, then twist the expectations at the end.
  • Create drama, intrigue, tension. Raise questions.
  • Confuse the audience, raise curiosity about what‘s happening, why it’s happening, what it means and what will happen next. This engages them.
  • Don’t spell things out. Withhold information that isn’t necessary. Let the audience use their imaginations to interpret and draw conclusions.
  • Build anticipation. At critical times use a suspense sentence (meaning delayed until the last word).
  • Use bold and direct words – people receive and process them quicker.
  • Don’t use the character’s dialogue to reveal all the details. It means the story is weak.
  • The protagonist’s drive for achieving his goals = The antagonist’s drive for thwarting them.
  • Every part of the story should have some purpose.
  • Intertwine multiple story lines if possible.
  • Use clear and simple language. Characters should speak in the same style as the audience. • Use Backstory (major events in the character’s past) to fill out the story.
  • Maintain the audience’s interest/engagement through Pacing/Rhythm. Fast-pace suggests urgency, action, nervousness, excitement. A slow pace suggests romance, relaxation, contemplation. Pausing allows the audience to consider what is happening (from a learning perspective, reflection is key to retention).
  • Create a Trigger – associate key points in the story with the audience’s environment and in the future their environment will trigger the connection with the story. This enhances retention. “Weekends are made for Michelob” was an ad campaign that tied weekends with Michelob. When the weekend arrived it would trigger the reminder that “I should have a Michelob.” The trigger does the remembering for your audience. Think about the story objectives that are important. Can they be hooked to something in the audience’s environment?

Read more . . .

The Impact of Storytelling in Learning

Story Structure & Elements



“Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.” — Roger C. Schank, author, cognitive scientist

“If you understand something in only one way, then you don’t really understand it at all. The secret of what anything means to us depends on how we’ve connected it to all other things we know.” — Marvin Minsky, Artificial Intelligence researcher

“Narrative imagining – story – is the fundamental instrument of thought . . . Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining . . .” — Mark Turner, author, The Literary Mind

Humans are hard wired to organize experience into narratives.” — James Bruner, cognitive psychologist

Facts, information, and data are so easily accessed via the Internet/intranet and mobile technologies that as Dan Pink says, “What begins to matter more [than mere data] is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.” Learning experts feel that the future will bring a significant rise in the use of stories in learning.

Humans can only process a few pieces of information at a time and only through two basic channels – verbal & visual. Our brains access information in a non-linear way. A key component of learning, according to the book e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, is Active Processing.

Learning occurs during processing of relevant information, organizing it into coherent structure and integrating it with what we already know.

To learn we:

  • Select relevant words and images
  • Organize words and pictures mentally
  • Integrate with existing knowledge

Stories help with active processing, while engaging the audience through confusion, emotional identification, and anticipation. We want the audience to feel fear, excitement, happiness, or sadness and experience the unexpected. Those feelings keep the maintain audience attention and allow them to associate key elements with existing knowledge.

Photographs tell stories. Movies tell stories. Songs tell stories. Games tell stories.” — Ken Levine, creative director, Irrational Games

Read more . . .

Grabbing the Audience’s Attention: Story Basics

Story Structure & Elements


In Thomas Friedman‘s latest book Thank You For Being Late, he talks about “the Big Shift,” a phrase coined by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison (Abandon Stocks, Embrace Flows, Harvard Business Review, January 27, 2009). What is the big shift? Previously, if you (country/company/individual) knew something valuable that no one else could access, you made money by selling those “stocks of knowledge.” By protecting that knowledge you could deliver  a variety of products and services. It was a time when we went through structured education (k-12, college), joined the workforce and leveraged the knowledge stocks we had acquired to generate revenue.

In the new world where the pace of change keeps accelerating, Friedman, Hagel, Brown, & Davison make the case that there’s “reason to believe that value is shifting from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows.” Knowledge flows will be more important than knowledge stocks. “As the world speeds up, stocks of knowledge depreciate at a faster rate. As one simple example, look at the rapid compression in product life cycles across many industries on a global scale. Even the most successful products fall by the wayside more quickly as new generations come through the pipeline faster and faster.

In previous times, when you learned something valuable, there was some security in knowing that you could generate value from that knowledge indefinitely. As Friedman says . . . “Not anymore. To succeed now, we have to continually refresh our stocks of knowledge by participating in relevant flows of new knowledge.” Tapping into knowledge flows is an ongoing process and it requires reciprocity. “You have to contribute to them as well to really be ‘in the flow’ and you can’t participate effectively in flows of knowledge—at least not for long—without contributing knowledge of our own.” According to Hagel, Brown, & Davison, participants in knowledge flows want to build relationships, and expect others to contribute knowledge as well. They are not keen on “takers.”

What about risks associated with knowledge sharing?  Per Hagel, Brown, & Davison, “damage from IP theft diminishes as the rate of obsolescence increases. At the same time, the rewards from knowledge sharing go up substantially.

Friedman concludes that a big challenge we face with all of these energy flows moving in many directions, is that “competition can now come from so many more directions, individuals, and companies.

Over the last few years I have accumulated multiple client stories of how we have had to move quickly to adjust to rapidly changing situations.  We had to assemble the right experts, access and make sense of the right data, and tap into the right “flows of knowledge” to create unique solutions that addressed the challenges that rapid change brought. At a recent learning conference, Learning2017, a panel of CLOs from four major corporations were asked the following question “What is keeping you up at night? All four answered “the pace and complexity of change.” Tapping into knowledge flows is one way to zero in on this challenge.


Remember when learning portals were all about giving learners access to structured learning programs/courses, and maybe some FAQs?  Learning Management Systems, built to handle the structured course stuff, tried to become the next iteration of learning portals. They tried to do it all, but with little luck. Just ask anyone that uses an LMS. Some comments you’ll hear . . . “not intuitive”, “crappy search functionality”, “clunky”, “I need performance support.” As someone that has designed and managed the development of several learning portals over the last 16 years, I have seen the shift in learner requirements, demanding that learning portals evolve. Thus, while helping a client address their learning challenges, an opportunity to take learning portals to the next level arose.

Client Challenges:

  • Rapid growth = significant challenges
  • Training = mostly classroom, some e-learning
  • Complex topics = long training/learning cycles, lots of content – massive information dump
  • Learning was separated from work. Difficult for associates to remember everything they learned
  • No formal performance support system. Support resources emailed to associates which they saved locally.
  • Manuals that were critical to the associates work were either printed and used with sticky notes, or in a series of .pdfs
  • Associates needed instant access to information for problem solving with customers on the phones & in chats
  • With customers on hold, associates waited outside the cubes of supervisors and managers to ask questions. Supervisors and managers gave inconsistent answers, negatively impacting customer satisfaction
  • There was no formal way to capture and share the collective knowledge of the team

Based on our analysis, we determined that the main focus of our proposed solution to these challenges wasn’t just about building courses, it was about performance support, knowledge sharing and collaboration. The client challenges were a great fit for a “new age” portal solution, a Learning Ecosystem that offered instant access to vetted, critical information.

Our goal was to give associates easy access to real time support resources, and to group knowledge via questions and answers, while also allowing them to more efficiently and effectively use their resources manual. Since the reference manuals that associates used to support their work were paramount to success, we would create a digital tool that would allow them to annotate (and link quickly to relevant support information for specific parts of the manual). Tying it all together would be a powerful search function that gets smarter over time. Thus, as my team and I began brainstorming on what a learning portal should look like and do, we knew we wanted to add a layer of portal technology that would work with other systems (e.g.- the client’s LMS) and open doors to so much more for the learner. We wanted it to be an incredibly valuable access point to JIT, personalized, performance support resources as well as a community for knowledge sharing/collaborative learning. For this client, we decided the cloud based learning portal must have:

  • A clean and easy to use interface and personalized view
  • A killer integrated search function that learns from users and can search multiple systems with fast accurate results
  • A cutting edge document preview function allowing associates to quickly preview the docs/pdfs/etc that pop-up in search to determine if it will be useful to them
  • Strong community/collaborative learning functionality focusing on knowledge capture that easily allows associates to share knowledge with the community, and allows the community to vet information and rate it so the best rises to the top
  • Direct access to formal learning events and courses, as well as informal learning resources
  • Document management capabilities
  • The ability to easily access mission critical manuals and large documents, annotate, share annotations, and link sections of manuals to performance support resources
  • Spaced learning delivery functionality, allowing scheduled delivery of content and resources to specific associates to improve retention
  • Important news and announcements
  • Data collection, and a management dashboard allowing realtime snapshots of who’s using what, when, what they are looking for and finding, and more importantly what they aren’t finding
  • Curation functionality to ensure content is accurate, and useful

After months of design and development work, our team has developed a Learning Ecosystem/performance support & knowledge capture system that is ready for our client to use. Phase 1 of the system is made up of 3 main components:

  • Document Management
  • Question and Answer
  • Annotations

Search is a key function. It’s powerful and fast and searches all three components both together and individually. It could also search the client’s LMS if we chose, but this system is focusing on in-the-workflow performance support, so pulling up courses in search would be of little value to the associate. We do link to the clients LMS so they can have direct access to learning events and courses, and will look at the value of integrating curriculums into the portal down the road. What’s important about this search is that it could be customized to integrate with other systems that a company may be using (e.g.- network folders, Sharepoint, Dropbox, etc). Our search is smart too, as it learns from the team’s previous searches and refines results. Did I already say that it’s super fast?

The main/landing page focuses on Search, News and Announcements, and My Activity. It’s the starting point for all associates, and each one gets a personalized view of content based on role and team permissions.

The real-time Questions and Answers component is an important part of our overall knowledge capture and sharing strategy (though other components have collaborative functions as well), allowing the community to up-vote or down-vote questions and answers. Managers and administrators have the ability to edit/curate to ensure accuracy and quality. The ability to link to other Q&As as well as resources makes this a very robust tool.

Annotations is a powerful component as this associate’s use of the manual to support their work is critical. The associates have the ability to easily annotate sections of the manual, and attach links to resources (job aids, diagrams, etc). Annotations are not shared with other associates, unless a manager (who has access to review all of their team’s annotations) finds an annotation worth sharing with the team, in which case they can. Managers can also add links to resources attached to specific sections of the manual and make them visible to all on their team. And Search not only searches the documents, Q&As, and manuals, it also searches annotations. Bam!

We are about to roll out phase 1 of our system to approximately 100 users over the next 30-45 days. We’ll then be able to start collecting usage/search data to refine the system to meet the clients needs.

Phase 2 of the system will include spaced learning delivery functionality, and an audit/curation component that will work 24 x 7 using a combination of technology and live SMEs to ensure existing content is accurate, and useful, and identify missing content.

Stay tuned, more updates to come!




A follow-up to my blog post on Agile Talent . . . In an article by the Harvard Business Review titled The Dawning of the Age of Flex Labor. The authors Andrei Hagiu and Rob Biederman share their thoughts on how “the prevailing paradigm of people working as full-time employees for a single organization has outlived its usefulness.” Their vision for the work world moving forward . . .

most people will become independent contractors who have the flexibility to work part-time for several organizations at the same time, or do a series of short full-time gigs with different companies over the course of a year. Companies will maintain only a minimal full-time staff of executives, key managers, and professionals and bring in the rest of the required talent as needed in a targeted, flexible, and deliberate way.

This strategy has been used by the film industry for years. Bring in a production team for a specific film and disband when the various roles in creating the film are complete.

How does it help workers . . .Many more people who today would be laid off from full-time positions when a recession hit and then would be totally unemployed for some period of time will find it easier to remain at least 80% employed during a downturn.

How does it help companies . . .For firms, the cost of locating, vetting, and onboarding full-time employees is very high: as much as 150% of annual salary for a management position . . . assuming these costs are, say, 50% lower for lower-level positions, spending 75% of an employee’s annual salary just to hire her or him is extremely expensive.

I can attest to this flex labor vision. More clients are approaching me to assemble teams of experts to tackle a learning project, then disband upon successful completion. Here’s a perfect real-world example of how and why flex labor works. . . .

On a recent 8 month project, I was tasked with transitioning instructor led and virtual instructor led training to e-learning. The project called for the design and development of 14 e-learning courses and 4 educational videos. My client had a fixed price contract with their federal government client, a hard deadline to meet, crazy requirements to transition the courses from ILT and webinars to antiquated Dreamweaver-based templates that would be delivered via a 15 year old home grown LMS. My client had 5 well respected subject matter experts, but no instructional designers, no developers, and no graphic designers. They wanted to include their SMEs in as much of the design and development process as possible, rather than outsourcing the development of the courses. The solution we created, at a significantly lower cost, was to design and build a cloud based, easy to use authoring/content development tool that would allow my client’s 5 SME’s along with 4 contractor IDs to easily and collaboratively (various people working on different parts of the same course at the same time) develop these courses. Due to the tight deadlines, we shifted from a typical strategy of long development cycles with SMEs, IDs, and developers all linearly working on individual courses to an agile rapid design and development model that allowed SMEs and IDs to quickly generate high quality content without having to be developers. I assembled a “flex labor” team of contractors (4 IDs, a graphic designer, a software development team) and we built an authoring tool that did all the coding and “heavy lifting” so the SMEs and IDs would only have to focus on the content, and was easy for non-developers to use. After a couple of quick webinar training sessions, the SMEs, IDs, graphic designers, reviewers, and content editors were using the tool effectively. Our solution allowed us to collaboratively produce 14 courses in 5 months. My client met the contract deadlines and stayed within budget. The contractor team that I assembled was disbanded with all moving on to other projects and the Federal government client told my client that what we did was “nothing short of miraculous.”  

Since then I have assembled and disbanded several “flex teams” of professionals (micro-learning, data analytics, IDs, performance consultants, designers, facilitators, call center consultants, etc) to successfully complete projects for various clients. So from my perspective, and I believe from the perspective of my clients, flex labor works.