The secret to storytelling without being condescending

The secret to storytelling without being condescending

The nerves had kicked in.

Here I was, with my laptop plugged into a TV-on-wheels, eagerly waiting for everyone to show up. 

I was the new designer, about to give a presentation to my new team, whom I barely knew. 

From my brief time with them, I knew they were pretty old-school when it came to software development. They thought they were coming to a training session on prototyping.

I'd been preparing all week. Images of dragons scattered across my desktop. There was no going back now.

Everyone was sat down, eagerly anticipating why the TV screen had the title “Blacksmith's Apprentice”.

I tell them I'm going to do something a bit different.

I tell them... “I'm going to tell you a story.”

I hit play on a YouTube video running in the background: “Relaxing Medieval, Middle Ages Music, 10 Hours”.

The first slide showed a medieval city with a castle perched on a hill - and I began to tell my fable.

Within the first minute, ears pricked up from the neighbouring desks, and soon half the floor had gathered around, listening in. 

The story featured a naive Blacksmith. A bossy King, and a fire breathing Dragon. The story concludes with a shoddily built spear failing to kill the dragon, a guilt-ridden blacksmith, a dead King, and charred ruins of a once-bustling city.

The moral of the story: If the apprentice had tested the spear and iterated his design, he would've gained confidence that it would kill the dragon. Companies spend millions on software they've never once tested with their users.

My presentation had one simple message I wanted to stick: prototyping reduces the risk of a proverbial dragon wiping us out.

As my last slide faded to black, there was a round of applause. I sheepishly accepted the kind comments, and everyone eventually dispersed back to their desks. 

But I couldn't shake a niggling feeling. Did I come across as condescending? Why couldn't I have given a straightforward presentation? Did they think I was treating them like children?

I posed this fear to a handful of people. They objected, imploring that the story had stuck with them. They recalled how captivated they were. Most of all, how they had been retelling it to others.

I thought perhaps they were telling me what I wanted to hear. But, for weeks after, whenever tension arose from people stating their opinion as fact, I frequently overheard: “remember the dragon and the spear!”. It seemed that the story's moral had echoed through the office. 

The worry about coming across as childish was an unfounded fear. You and I both know stories aren't just for children. We are enamoured by them at all ages. We tell each other stories every day without even realising it

I'll be honest, I was a nervous wreck at the time, but no one noticed. I had a choice: stay in my comfort zone and talk at people about prototyping. Or try something I've never done before: tell an engaging story that has the chance to stick in people's minds. 

As long as your motives are in earnest, a story wins every time. Coming across as condescending only happens when you talk to people like they are idiots. You know how to tell stories without talking down to people. You do it every day.

So next time you think telling a story is condescending or childish, think again.

If in doubt, tell a story.

For more story tips, check out Storyteller Tactics, launching soon on Kickstarter!

Here are the slides I created for the Blacksmith's Apprentice (including original script/speaker notes). It's no masterpiece, but feel free to reuse or adapt it for your own needs!

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