Effective Storytelling Is Both Art And Science
Storytelling is a skill that can be learned and used to teach others. In his book The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, Stephen Denning says, “Storytelling is more than an essential set of tools to get things done: it’s a way for leaders—wherever they may sit—to embody the change they seek.” TED talks are great examples of storytelling. Memorable TED talks are the epitome of storytelling: they are short in length (a TED talk can be 18 minutes or less), evocative, credible, and inspiring. While TED.com provides branding guardrails and guidance on training TEDx speakers, the responsibility lies with the organizers.
Over the past decade, I have designed a 10-week boot camp to train diverse groups totaling 47 men and women to deliver winning TED talks at 5 different TEDx events (TEDxNicosia and TEDxDAU). In this article, I share three storytelling tips you can use to make your eLearning modules more engaging, memorable, and inspiring for your learners.
While there are many ways to structure the story arc of your eLearning module, the tried and tested structure that I teach speakers to use in their TED talks is simple and consists of three parts: first, the opening, consisting of the big idea; next, the middle, consisting of three supporting elements; and finally the closing, or call to action. To build this structure, I borrowed from Simon Sinek and his “why, how, what” premise and from Aristotle and his teachings of ethos, logos, and pathos .
The Opening: The Big Idea
First, let’s examine the opening. This is the “why” of the TED talk or the learning module. The big idea answers the questions “so what” and “what’s in it for me.” What are you proposing to your audience through your talk, and why should they listen? What’s in it for them that they should spend time listening to you? The same questions apply for your eLearning module: what are you teaching the learner, and why is it important? How will the learning module add value to the learner? Will it help them change behavior, solve a problem, or mitigate risk? Your big idea needs to be stated crisply, engagingly, and compellingly. You have to grab your audience’s attention from the start, so that they join you on the journey of explaining your big idea. If you are persuasive, your audience will focus on your talk or your eLearning module until the end, when you state your call to action.
The Middle: The Three Supporting Pillars
This section will support the big idea with three supporting pillars. In her book Design is Storytelling, Ellen Lupton discusses how the “rule of threes” is widely used in life, literature, product marketing, and learning. Each of the three pillars must be compelling, credible, and crisp to strengthen your big idea. Your goal is to persuade your audience, whether you are delivering a TED talk or designing an eLearning module. I teach my speakers to structure each pillar to demonstrate the talk’s ethos, logos, and pathos. I borrowed these tips from the 2,500 year-old teachings of Aristotle, the influential philosopher and polymath who lived in ancient Greece and was Alexander the Great’s teacher and mentor. Aristotle’s three quintessential tips for persuading are ethos, logos, and pathos.
The first pillar should demonstrate both the speaker’s values and character and your big idea. “Ethos” is the Greek word for “character.” No matter how good your big idea is, it will not stand on its feet unless it demonstrates credibility. Does the eLearning module you are designing deliver what it promises? Is the module value-adding, compelling, and meaningful? Are the learning objectives clear? Are the learnings significant and add value for the learner? Ethos ties to Warren Buffet’s quip about reputation—”it takes a lifetime to build, and a few seconds to crumble,”—so guard your organization’s ethos and the eLearning modules you design for your learners and customers.
The second pillar represents the logic behind your big idea. “Logos” is the Greek word for “reason” or “word.” The word “logic” derives from logos. So, this pillar requires that you have credible data and research from reliable sources to demonstrate your big idea. Can you cite similar examples and show graphs, images, or videos to illustrate the points supporting your big idea? All the supporting assets you use, including any data, images, videos, and research, must be credible, accurate, and verifiable; otherwise, you are compromising the credibility and ethos of your learning module.
The third pillar represents the emotion behind your prime. “Pathos” is the Greek word for “passion.” Here, you want to make an emotional connection with your audience. You want to inspire them to think differently and join you on the journey to explore your big idea. Pathos is about the highs and lows of the emotional journey. As Nancy Duarte demonstrated in her legendary TED talk, successful talks leverage and build on the tension and the distance between the lows and the highs, between what is and what can be. Here, I recommend that my speakers share a personal story that strengthens the big idea. For example, the speaker can shepherd the audience’s energy and emotions, making the audience feel emotions like curiosity, surprise, and determination. Personal stories are more relatable and can help you build empathy with your audience. A more empathetic audience is a more persuadable audience.
The Closing: A Call To Action
For the third and final part of the TED talk, the big idea supported by the three pillars culminates in a call to action. Here, I teach TED speakers to state a clear and compelling ask. The speaker must decide what they want the audience to do differently as a result of their big idea. The same concept applies in the case of designing an eLearning module. What change in behavior will each audience member be inspired to implement due to the eLearning module you are designing?
In my experience with storytelling, TED talks aim to inspire us to think differently, to learn something new, or to change our behavior in small or big ways. Similarly, eLearning modules also aim to teach so that learners think differently and change their behaviors to drive better personal and professional outcomes. Storytelling done well can be a powerful mechanism for learning, organizational change, and culture change.
 The Rhetorical Triangle: Understanding and Using Logos, Ethos, and Pathos