Thursday, April 12

Are "inspirational stories" the crack cocaine of our industry?

I have an unpopular suggestion for rebooting the formal learning industries. Let's put a one-year ban on "inspirational stories."

You know what I am talking about: these are the pithy, well rehearsed, well honed, fiction-presented-as-truth stories by "experts/gurus." In these stories, a variation of the hero's journey, an unlikely person is given a daunting task. They are first overcome by the weight of the responsibility, but then rise to the occasion, apply cleverness and fortitude, and end up with a surprising result. They are as accurate to reality as Frank Miller's Spartan story of "300."

Conferences and executive programs are chock full of "inspirational stories." And don't get me wrong - I love them. They are intellectually delightful concoctions, the equivalent of a buttery croissant with fresh preserves - so unbelievably tasty going down, and yet so useless to the system craving nourishment. They make us feel good and full of hope for just long enough to fill out the speaker survey.

I noted in 1999 that corporations were making e-learning content decisions based on bulk (the more courses, with a lower cost-per-course, the better). Then, in 2002, the same corporations complained that e-learning was vacuous. D'oh!

Likewise, we are currently demanding, through buying their books and praising their speeches, some of the smartest people in business to constantly take real-world anecdotes, fluff them up with some best practices, toss in some faux humility, hone their structure and humor in their delivery, and create a steady stream of "inspirational stories." Then we complain when organizations, after digesting a diet of this white bread from both conferences and management training programs, don't do anything different. Double d'oh!

There seems to a group of "story-fanatics" that fit mostly the same, general description.

  • About 45 to 60
  • Love story-telling, and may have studied it, or theater, as a major.
  • Fascinated by the "hero-journey."
  • Don't play computer games or engage in social networking, or have minimally so they can say they have.
  • Adore the medium of video, the constructs of cinema, and, if pushed, will reluctantly agree to the effectiveness of a branching story type of simulation.
  • View the story as the most effective form of learning.
  • Have reams of studies at their fingertips to "validate" their passion.

I am more excited and intrigued by the double aspect of user participation and non-linear content as the cornerstones of effective content. Perhaps the most pithy research for the first, user participation and activity, not just exposure, is cognitively necessary for learning, comes from an old study:

In a famous experiment, Held and Hein (1963) exposed two kittens to nearly identical visual information. This was done by placing one of the kittens (the passive kitten) in a little gondola, and linking it up to a harness worn by the other (active) kitten so that as the active kitten moved about and explored its environment, the passive kitten was moved in exactly the same manner. The result was that only the active kitten developed normal depth perception. The passive kitten, even though its sensory input was nearly identical, did not. (

Stories are always a good start. They are critical for building caring. We are as genetically predispositioned to listening to good stories as seeking fire and shelter. But they are just a first, tiny step, the appetizers to real learning's main course.

So, let's go a year without any inspirational stories. Let's push ourselves as the formal learning industries to give up our golden crutch. Let's carefully study the works of people like Thiagi.

There are some people who just can't imagine a learning program without a steady stream of inspirational stories. To these, this very post will get their blood pumping with righteous anger. I have, in their view of the world, slapped my white glove across their face. It is these addicts that most of all need to go without, if only for 12 months.


Anonymous said...


I really enjoy your work and contributions… usually. In this case, however, I think the early hour of your posting (5:56a?!) may have clouded your regularly sharp powers of insight. :-)

Actually, let me rephrase and soften that – I, too, share your distain for “pithy, well-rehearsed, well honed, fiction-presented-as-truth stories”, but I think you may have gotten carried away with your suggested ban and ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Not to be too dramatic (in the other direction), but stories are at the core of what most (effective) learning is all about. Story-telling is the oldest and most time-tested method of communicating information from expert to novice. Stories are part of our DNA. Dare I say, stories are who we ARE.

Some of the recent attention that Jay Cross has generated related to Informal Learning speaks to this fact directly – it’s not the formal stuff that is ultimately understood, remembered, and applied on the job by learners. The Trojan Horse of content that sticks more than a few days (hours?) is the information that is embedded in “tales from the trenches” – of both success (“the documentation didn’t mention how to fix it, so this is what I did that worked”) and, more importantly, failure (“I’ll never forget when I tried X and it blew up in my face”).

I agree with your distaste for “inauthentic/canned” stories, and I think most learners do, too. People are extraordinary BS detectors and, like most things related to trust, once you are seen to be delivering a less than honest account of the world, you’ve lost the ability to get your audience to accept whatever you are pitching. But a moving tale about a real event (or a clearly fictional story) that sets a motivating and relevant context which answers the learner’s ever-present (but often subconscious) “WIIFM” question can be an amazing skeleton key to improved attention, comprehension, retention, and application.

To suggest that (inspirational) stories should be eliminated from our toolbox of instructional options, simply because there are those that wield them in a ham-fisted fashion, is like saying that eLearning should be dropped from the list of delivery options because there are those who are (still) pumping out text-based page-turners. As you well know, it’s not the tool that makes the art – both Ansel Adams and Larry Flynt have made (very different) names for themselves using a camera.

You can try to lump me in with the ‘story fanatics” you jokingly(?) describe (although I didn’t major in Theater – I got my MS in Artificial Intelligence), but I think you’ve got it wrong on this one, Clark.

Stories aren’t the “appetizer to real learning’s main course”, they are the utensils used throughout the entire meal.

Clark Aldrich said...

Hi Jon,

Thank you so much for your post. I am not saying we should get rid of them all together, just take a year off!

I really enjoyed reading this,


jay said...

Clark, great to see you in Boston this week. The answer to your question about putting a moratorium on inspirational stories is "No, not at all."

You are the kitten in harness. Most people are kittens in the gondola. The people lurk; the stories inspire.

And who's to decide which stories are legit and which are vacuous? These days it no longer matters what we ban, because the people make their own choices. Try to quash a story and it will pup up on YouTube or BoingBoing in an instant.

If we're trying to clear the learning landscape of garbage, why not go after the silly little parable books? These slim volumes are set in such a large type typeface that you can finish one while waiting for the bus. These tales of fish, seagulls, piglets, or penguins present advertising slogans (Raving Fans!) as profound truth.

Clark Aldrich said...

Hi Jay,

It was great to see you. Thank you for "processing" the kitten experiment and using the terms in such a great way. You have turned a posting of a dry experiment into a pair of phrases that has tremendous currency and utility. I can't wait to use them.

The reason for a one-year ban (and obviously, it's not going to happen) is to challenge all of us as professionals to break out of bad habits, and form some new muscles.

What would a "keynote" of a conference look like if the speaker couldn't use "inspirational stories"?

I advised one client, an executive vice president, not to speak at his next staff meeting. The point was not that he should never speak, but that some resistance to his own "path of least resistance" would make him both a better listener AND a better speaker.

And yet, back to the original idea, what if we can only learn through participation? The more one lets that thought bounce around (actually considers that idea for a full 24 hours before rejecting it), the more one sees new opportunities for all of us.

Thiagi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thiagi said...

I am glad that I do not fit the profile of story fanatics (since I am 92 years old).

I agree with your diagnosis and support your call for the moratorium on mindless inspiration.

However, as the ancient Hindu saying goes, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

I must confess that I make extensive use of stories in my training and performance improvement activities. However, since I was inspired from my infancy by the story of the two kittens, I use stories with a difference -- to leverage participation, activity, and nonlinear content. I let participants come up with stories, exchange them with each other, and dig through them to find the meaning of life.

In an activity called story exchange, for example, I ask participants to pair up with people from other tables and share a positive story (a la appreciative inquiry) and then return to their table and narrate two stories – their original story and the one borrowed from the other person at the other table. Before telling the stories, however, participants plagiarize and personalize the other person’s story and tell both stories without identifying which one is which. The task for the other people at the table is to listen to the two stories and guess which one is the storyteller’s original story. (This is just a trick to encourage attention to the stories.) After all people have narrated all stories, the people at each table tease out the common themes that contribute to the story’s positive tone.

I use another cheap activity in which I provide two short paragraphs of a story that is related to some procedural model (such as human performance technology) and invite participants to grow the story, one short paragraph at a time, using the steps of the procedure as a rough plot line. Talk of nonlinear content …

I believe there is more to stories than telling them: listening and analyzing, for example.
In addition to inspiring, stories can serve other purposes: informing, instructing, interacting, and entertaining (looking for a synonym that begins with an I).

So, let’s have a moratorium. And, to keep us gainfully occupied, let’s explore other aspects and outcomes of stories.

Peter Isackson said...

You may be right -- in spite of the mixed metaphor -- about stories being "appetizers" and "the first step". I'd say they're more like apéritifs, which is the first step of enjoyment of a lot of good meals.

But why propose suppressing either appetizers or first steps? Starting on the second step is usually a guaranteed way of throwing people off rhythm. And rhythm is the great unexplored concept at the heart of all real learning.

Rhythm is achieved through antiphonal dialogue, a balance of input and output. That's one of the points Lucinda Roy makes (cited in my most recent posting). It's the informal part. Thiagi's example goes back to the reality of story-telling within cultures. The "final" story is the result of an ongoing dialogue among storytellers. Homer was most likely not a single person. And Shakespeare found his stories everywhere except in his own imagination... and completely transformed them.

The problem isn't in the type of input; it's in the role the instructor or trainer assign to any input, i.e. canned wisdom and knowledge. Thiagi's approach does one monumental thing: it provides learners with concrete experiences (like the kitten in the harness) that in turn become part of their own internal library of "story lines" or elements from which stories can be created and transformed.

In other words, anything we throw at people believing they will learn from it, whether a story or a simulation, is "just" an appetizer. It's the beginning of a much more complex activity that requires action and interaction (much of it, of course, informal). If we spend all our time thinking about the ideal appetizer and excluding the non-ideal ones, we lose focus on the meal itself, which may link back to the formlessness of Lucinda Roy's "plate so ugly you wouldn't want to eat it".

Anonymous said...

I would most heartily agree that stories are great teaching tools particularly when they come with a moral. I enjoy a good yarn too but I am a firm believer that truth is much better than fiction.
Most of my writing is based on personal experience and even my spoofs about bad executives are based upon personal observation.
A good story told by the particpant in an event is much more interesting to me than canned fiction. It just seems more believable - even if the event that the story is retelling seems unbelievable.

Clark Aldrich said...

To clarify, I am not talking about nor in any way criticizing anecdotes or best practices. I am specifically talking about the so-called inspiration examples.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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