Powerful storytelling and workplace learning

Posted by on 6 March 2017

An interview with professional storyteller Ben McEwing from Carben about storytelling as a tool in eLearning.

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Transcript

Robin:
I'm Robin Petterd, the host of the Learning While Working Podcast. In the last podcast, Erin and Mick talked about the importance of storytelling to learning. Erin even finished with a suggestion about bringing in a storyteller. I thought it would be really interesting to follow up with that particular podcast with someone who is actually a professional storyteller. In this podcast I'm interviewing Ben McEwing from Carben. Ben's core expertise is storytelling. In the last few years he's been working with video as his main medium doing projects like internal communications and training videos.

He has a really interesting background, including some time in advertising and has spent some time working in HR as well. Ben seems to have an amazing ability to tell stories that are about our workplaces, that have a real emotional impact. In digital learning we often talk about stories and about scenarios, but they're often bland and don't sort of have the sort of emotional impact of the storytelling that we see in other parts of our lives.

Often in digital learning there are stories and scenarios, but they often just really don't have this emotive impact that so much other stories in the other parts of our lives do. In this interview, Ben talks about his process of how to get to the spot of emotional storytelling.

One of the interesting things for me is again, we end up talking about questions but Ben's approach to questions is a little bit different. Hope you enjoy this podcast. It was really great to have Ben on.

Ben, welcome to the Learning by Working podcast. It's great to have you on the show today.

Ben:
Thanks Robin.

Robin:
There's a lot of talk in digital learning and eLearning around storytelling. Quite often, it's really quite mechanical. There's something about the work you do when you're telling stories, doing internal comms work and finding stories in organisations that's really different. The results you get end up having this emotional impact and go beyond a simple, "Oh I'm putting a character in here." What do you think is one of the really important things to be able to set up, to really find and tell emotional based stories rather than more mechanical things?

Ben:
One thing I'm really passionate about is understanding the audience, really respecting the audience and meeting them where they are rather than where you're coming from. It's about taking the time to do whatever kind of research you need to understand that audience, whether you do direct qualitative or quantitative research or you speak to people closely related to that audience as well, just to get an idea of what makes them tick and what's driving them on an emotional level themselves. I come from a qualitative research background, so I'm what you call an insight hunter.

I'm always looking to understand people and, in this case, an audience of any kind on a deeper level. Once you do that, then it becomes easier to create a story that's going to speak to them directly and help them feel something about themselves. That's ultimately what you're doing. Regardless of what you're communicating, you want them to feel something about themselves. When you do that, you know because there's more of an emotional response and a higher level of trust, I'd say, that you create between yourself and the audience.

Robin:
There's a couple of interesting words there that we don't hear a lot in the learning area, especially around that sense of someone feeling something in themselves. Quite often, there's talk about behavioural change. People do talk about the fact that for change, there needs to be an emotional impact. People don't get to that sort of level. I'm interested in getting that insight. What do you think some of the really powerful tools are around trying to get that sort of, I’m going to call it the emotional insight rather than conceptual insight?

Ben:
I'm a big fan of great questions. Asking a question, "Why?" If someone gives you a response, "I do this XYZ," and you say, "Why? What's behind that?" If you keep asking the question "Why?", you get deeper and deeper to more root causes of behaviour. Most of us are driven by something other than what's on the surface. We're all looking to experience a feeling of some kind, whether it's a sense of achievement or love or connection or growth or whatever it is. We may not present that on the surface level, but there is that underlying driver.

In terms of tools, it's about how can we uncover those? Yeah, questioning definitely and observation as well. I mean if you spend time with someone, for example, I used to work in advertising. When we do research, we do these things called depth interviews where we'd maybe walk around a supermarket with someone and watch them shop. Stuff that they're just doing so automatically, once you start questioning them about it a bit more, you find out there's these complex things going on underneath the surface. That's where you want to be connecting with them. If you reach that level, then there's this ability to actually affect them rather than it's being filtered out by our brains, which are just filtering out information all the time to make things easier.

Robin:
Depth interviews are a really nice example of a different type of tool, because essentially I can imagine you're getting people into a spot where they're feeling comfortable. You're observing, you can then drill into the questioning and the reasons why in a different context, and probably get really different insights from that.

Ben:
Yes. The other thing around that too is also just getting a sense of past, present and future. We often do this when we're writing testimonials, if we're creating testimonial videos for example. You find out what was happening before, what's happening now and what the vision is for the future. Again, that's very revealing as well of someone's emotional state, their mental outlook, their goals and desires. Again, understanding do we have to make a big shift for this person? Are they at the place already where we want them to be? If they're not, then what are the gaps there? Finding out in their own words is always really helpful as well, because then you can also shape your language and your messaging to speak to their own style of learning and communicating as well.

Robin:
That framework of past, present and the future, it's a really nice one because it puts the whole thinking in terms of a narrative structure as well and time, and even if you're thinking about what's happening in the future, you're putting that into that spot of language.

Ben:
Yes.

Robin:
I mean the why is really interesting because it's - I mean essentially the notion of asking why five times came out of Toyota’s lean thinking. I think there's something about what you must be doing that's really different to a lot of the way people use that sort of why technique. It feels like you're fishing and you're actually looking for that emotional driver first. Is that a fair assumption to say, Ben?

Ben:
Yeah, absolutely. I think that the most important thing, I think, first of all when you're asking the why questions, is to have a genuine curiosity about the response. When you do have that, then there's this ability to go deeper. I guess it comes from experience as well. I've been taught to read between the lines and to trust an intuitive response or perception of someone based on asking the right questions. You might get a response from someone and that's what, like I said before, they say on the surface but underneath, there's something else there.

If you can sense that, then just keeping asking that question, where they're saying why or why is that important to you, then it just uncovers itself. It's like being a detective, like when you're on the case and you get a clue. That takes you to the next clue, and then you can feel this quickening happening because you're like, "I know I'm onto something here." You know it when you hit it too because either the person, they'll breathe differently, they'll laugh, they'll cry. Something will happen where there will be a release of some kind. I guess that's what I'm always on the hunt for, because then I know I've connected with them. I've made a difference to them.

Robin:
It's almost like being the emotional detective. I know sometimes there's two different ways I personally use for that keeping on doing why. And when I've done it in a fairly mechanical way, where I've just said, "Why is that?" It doesn't work particularly well. It's when it's actually that more thinking through what the response was and going further into it and trying to - yeah. It's a nice way to put it, reading between the lines and what that is.

Ben:
Yes.

Robin:
Yes.

Ben:
Also that thing of just being really conscious of the language people use. Everyone, I'm a believer that everyone speaks a slightly different language. I don't mean different foreign languages. I mean in every industry, there's a language around it. There's a way of communicating within that industry. Then there's people within those industries who communicate a certain way as well. Again, picking up on that language and understanding where that's come from is also very helpful in detecting how they want to be communicated with, which is ultimately what we're talking about, right?

We're trying to convey some kind of information to someone. We're trying to help them learn. If they've got a mode of thinking and receiving information that we're not tapping into, then the message will be lost. It's like you just turn on all your senses up to 11 and really pay attention, really be curious, open and willing to adapt to that rather than, as you said, be mechanical about it. Like, "I've just got to get through this, I've got to get this information." It's like, "Let's really explore this human."

Robin:
Yes. That's a really different response to a lot of how people think about corporate communication and communicating in organisations, emotional first. Once you've got that, calling it, the emotional driver and the language of the audience, is there another step after that? What happens then for you when you're building these stories?

Ben:
I guess this is the fun part where you start to go, "Well how can I wrap this up creatively? What's something that's going to grab attention?" We all know that attention spans are on the decrease. We need to capture people's attention very quickly. I just go into a brainstorming phase from there around ways to go, "Okay. Does this need an approach that's very direct? Or do we need a metaphor of some kind? Do we need to make it more visual?" Just to again open myself to possibilities of how to present this information, this story. I'll give you an example.

Sometimes starting at the end of the story and then working back, so you could start with something where this person died on this day and it's quite a shocking thing to hear. Then you go back to find out what led up to these events, rather than it might be more interesting in some other time to start it at the beginning and delay that reveal to the end. It'll sound a bit cheesy, but I often just find out what the story wants. I'm a believer that when you're creating work like this, when you're creating either training content or a video or whatever, it's like it already exists.

It's like an archaeological dig. It's like there's things under the surface and it's my job to uncover those things. I feel that a story knows how it wants to be told. Again, it's about me being open to following that guidance. Again, it's also being open to different types of input. You might read an article or watch a programme or have a conversation with someone that sparks an idea that goes, "Ah. That's it. Yes, that's the way to do this." In that creation phase, I remain very open to things.

Robin:
Just to - being open, you were doing that with the clients and stakeholders as well? Or is that more of an internal process for you?

Ben:
It's a bit of both. I like to ask the clients lots of questions until I feel like I've gotten everything out of them that I need, just to make sure that the message we're trying to convey is clear. Yes, the fundamentals, the audience who we're speaking with is clear, the message is clear, the objectives are clear. All those things. I'll have lots of discussions with the client as much as I need to until I've captured all of that information. Then it is more of an internal process.

I will go away and I'll brainstorm. I use mind maps, that's my way of brainstorming ideas. I can see the overall context of what we're doing. I put all the information down in mind maps, so I'll write who the client is, what's the objective, what's the outcome, what's the audience etc etc. Any other research information that I've done I put in that mind map, and then I just make a little tab that says ideas. As they come to me, I jot them down. Ultimately, one might become a hybrid. That actually happens a lot, especially with clients.

We pitch five or six concepts and then the client will say, "Oh I really like the idea of concept one, but the messaging in concept five feels better. Can we combine the two?" Now that happens all the time. Getting to that stage where I give them some - they give more input and then we refine it some more. It is a back and forth, but there is definitely a portion where it's just me immersing myself in that world and getting - yeah, and just letting the ideas come to me as they do.

Robin:
I've actually got a diagram that came from a front of a sketchbook up on my wall at the moment that's got this really nice sense of - you have ideas that divert, then they come back in together, and then they sometimes divert again. That's a really nice description of what you're talking about there as well.

Ben:
Yes.

Robin:
It's also really interesting that, as a video maker, that you're working with a mind map which is a really interesting spot where it's a visual way of organising text. It's actually you're not sitting down doing storyboards to start with. You're actually getting the conceptual framework of the story, the big picture level, really right before you move forward as well.

Ben:
Yes, I think so. I'm a big stickler - I mean I love language. I love the written word. I love writing myself, so that comes very naturally to me. I can't draw. My storyboards are not worth showing anyone. I have help with that. I get people to help me, because I've realised that my own super power is that I have a strong vision for something, I articulate it very clearly with language. Then I need someone else's help to move that into a storyboard phase.

I just use the tools that I trust, the things that naturally work for me and that's something I'd encourage other people to do is find the things that you naturally are drawn to. I've tried lots of different ways to develop ideas. I've tried drawing and sometimes I do, but it's so dismal that I don't really use it that much. The mind map feels like - it almost doesn't feel like text to me. It feels like a drawing, because I'm seeing that whole world.

Robin:
Ben, just on a slight tangent, so something I want to ask at this particular moment, where do you find inspiration for some of this brainstorming and for stories that can work in workplaces?

Ben:
It's similar to what I said before. It's just remaining open. I think, I mean we've all had those kind of kismet moments where you're trying to solve a problem and it's not coming to you. Then you're literally sitting on a bus or a train or something, and you look up at a person or a poster that says three words and something just clicks. I guess that's the thing. I spend a lot of my life doing things to help develop myself, like meditation, exercise, mindfulness and things like that. I guess there's this thing to make me a conduit for these kind of ideas and inspiration. I do what I can to remain open to them. Yeah, it comes from so many different sources.

I love watching Netflix, so there's always programs on Netflix that inspire me whether it's visually I see a shot that I like or the way subtext is used in a show or costuming or something like that. There's so much stimulus around us that can be combined. I guess that's where having a mind map or some kind of capturing tool is great. You could use the audio recorder on your phone and be like, "Oh I noticed this." Those things, I think as long as you're collecting all that information, then something happens internally, for me personally, where it gets fused and something new comes out of it. Or an idea sparks out of that.

Robin:
What's really interesting is a lot of the time, we see people looking for inspiration in the same medium. Looking for, in your case say, corporate storytelling and, in our case quite often, looking at other learning, eLearning products. What you're talking about is actually looking beyond that for the ideas and inspiration that are actually all around us all the time, that are actually possibly the triggers, rather than looking for examples of things that are actually in the same area. It's almost that triggering of things that are outside of a discipline that sometimes actually are the things that really make for powerful impact.

Ben:
Yes. Here's the thing. It's like an East versus West conversation. The Western mind, and I am a Westerner, is mostly focused on specifics. We will go into, "Oh I've got to solve this problem for this person, so I'll think about that person." There's this very direct way of operating. Whereas an Eastern mind is much more holistic of looking at context of the forest before the trees kind of thing. I guess I've adopted that style of approach and it's so intrinsic to me now, I don't even see it as anything else. I can be very specific, but I do remain open in that way.

I think, especially when you're developing some kind of learning content or storytelling for corporates, it's easy to go, "Oh. It's in this world and these are people at work, so I've got to deal with people at work." Those people at work are also people who have social lives, who have home lives, who do a whole bunch of other stuff in their lives that might inspire them much more than their job at work. Why not tap into what else is going on in their lives, and bring that in as possibly as a metaphor, as a way of conveying the information you want to tell.

An example is my brother-in-law is an accountant, right? Now I can go and talk to him about numbers, spreadsheets, reconciliations and stuff like that, but he also loves sport. He loves golf, he loves rugby. Maybe I could create a metaphor for him around golf to convey the information, because it's something that he enjoys. The reason I know that is just because I've asked him a few questions about what he's into. It's not that hard to capture that information, but it's also very, very useful to use when you're creating some kind of creative concepts.

Robin:
It's that lovely sense of treating people in their workplace as a whole person rather than segmenting them out into different things. It's a really nice way of being able to think about storytelling and emotional storytelling in a really different way.

Ben:
Yes, and especially in the corporate context. It's so easy to go, "Okay. This person is at work, this is their role," and just cut the rest of them off. I've never been a believer in that. I worked in human resources for four years and dealing with people every day on every level in a workplace, you realise very quickly we are emotional beings. We're not robots at work. Of course, there's professional conduct and things like that, but we are very rich complex beings with lots going on. It would be a loss to not tap into that part of ourselves as well.

No one is their role at work. They do that role, but they're not that. They're much more than that. Having that respect for that person, that audience, is very important to me. I take it very seriously. I think that's why any work that I create has that level of connection, because I've considered the whole person. I encourage anyone else to do the same. You'll be surprised. It'll be very insightful, very, very insightful about what you discover.

Robin:
Just noticing what the time is Ben. Thank you so much for joining me today on Learning By Working podcast. I think that's a really rich set of ideas and a different way of thinking that you've really brought together today. If someone wants to get in contact with you about working to improve their storytelling or to work with you to tell stories, what's the best way to get in contact with you?

Ben:
At the moment, that's through my video production company called Carben which is spelt C-A-R-B-E-N. It's carben.com.au. They can email me at ben@carben.com.au. We can take it from there.

Robin:
Cool. I'll include some links and some contact information for Ben in the blog post that goes along with this podcast as well. Thank you very much for joining me today, Ben.

Ben:
Thanks Robin. It was great.


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