Live Braindate: How to Use Storytelling to Engage Your Communities

We discuss with experts how storytelling can help planners and community leaders create more engaging and meaningful in-person and virtual experiences.

Categories in Learning & Impact, Tips

Here at e180, our mission is to transform the way people around the world learn—to make learning a self-directed, experiential, and collaborative experience. As part of this mission, we have launched a conversation series called “Braindate Learn Out Loud” where we invite experts to explore learning in all its forms.

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Storytelling has long been accepted as one of the most powerful means of learning. Stories make it easier to remember facts and for the mind to establish connections between two pieces of information. Not only is storytelling a great way to learn, it is also a great way to learn collaboratively. 

After all, storytelling creates a two-way relationship between the storyteller and the listener. It creates a shared experience where both the storyteller and the listener get to momentarily inhabit the world of the story. 

As the creators of a collaborative learning solution, we wanted to explore the different ways in which storytelling could be used at events. So, for the first episode of our Braindate Learn Out Loud series, we asked experts Mary Ayers, Gabriel Youssef, and Marcy Fortnow to join us for a live braindate on the intersection between storytelling, collaborative learning, and event design. 

Some of the topics we explored in the conversation included: 

  • How can you use storytelling to create more engaging events?
  • What is Lego Serious Play and how can it be used to encourage innovation?
  • How can you create a safe space where your event participants or community members feel comfortable sharing their stories and engaging in play?
  • What are some tips to become a better storyteller?

Meet our guests

Watch the full episode here:

Takeaways from the conversation:

How can you use storytelling to create more engaging events?

1. Use storytelling to create a meaningful connection between you and your participants. Telling a story, whether it’s about the mission of your organization or the purpose of your event, can help your participants really understand the reasons behind why you’ve brought them together, and what you hope to accomplish with your event. This creates a feeling of familiarity and trust, setting the stage for you to establish real, authentic connections with your participants.

It’s really important in our work to use storytelling to connect with a new school that is coming on board with us. When teachers who have gone through the process with us before share their stories, it breaks down the barriers and creates a connection that lasts for a very long time.

— Mary Ayers, Event Designer, New Tech Network

2. Use storytelling to empower learning and help your participants better-connect with the content of your event. Storytelling is not only a more entertaining means of sharing information, it also makes it easier for the listener of the story to effectively engage with the content. This is because the human mind processes information more easily when it’s presented in narrative form. It’s easier to make (and remember) the connection between a problem and a solution when it’s presented in a story. Hence, storytelling is a great way to make the information presented in your key notes and event sessions more impactful and memorable.

3. Use storytelling to break down barriers between your participants and to help them show up authentically as themselves. When you share a true story about yourself or encourage your participants to do the same, it creates a space of shared vulnerability and understanding. This makes people feel more comfortable expressing their true selves, which leads them to being more open to connection and collaboration—two ingredients that are crucial for a successful event experience. 

When I design workshops, the first thing I try to do is really show up as myself. I do that by telling a story. It’s a way to get people to engage and for them to think that if Gabriel is here and showing up as himself, I can do the same. This allows us to enter into a dynamic where we can more easily get into the core of the subject we actually want to address.

— Gabriel Youssef, Founder, GYConsulting

What is Lego Serious Play and how can it be used to encourage innovation at big and small gatherings?

Gabriel Youssef explained, 

 “Lego Serious play is a methodology that helps you think, communicate and resolve problems. What’s powerful about it is that when you bring your hands together and start touching the lego bricks, you are activating a part of your brain (the right hemisphere) which is usually asleep when you’re just speaking with someone. The right hemisphere is where we get our inspiration; it’s where the golden nuggets of stories emerge. 

When you do a traditional strategic planning session people are just thinking. They’re analyzing, they’re using their left brain. They’re not tapping into their ability to come up with creative, out of the box, brilliant ideas because it’s all about analysis. And when the ideas do come out, like when someone has a light bulb moment, they’re not able to communicate the idea in its original form. 

Why? Because our communication is affected by whomever is in the room. If there’s anyone in the room you don’t feel 100% comfortable with, you take the original idea and alter it to make sure you’re communicating it in a way that appeals to them.”

Lego Serious Play helps you connect with both hemispheres of your brain, which results in more creative, and innovative thinking. You can host a lego serious play session with hundreds of people in a room, playing, building and problem-solving together. In a virtual setting, you can adapt this same methodology by hosting a mastermind session, where people build individually, but explore their challenges by discussing them in a group. 

 

How can you create a safe space where your event participants or community members feel comfortable sharing their stories and engaging in play?

1. Whether in-person or virtually, you can create moments in your event where you engage your participants in a physical activity. This will re-connect them with their bodies and their minds, which will in turn help them relax, focus, and feel comfortable enough to share their stories and form real connections with each other.

2. Model the behavior you hope to inspire in your participants. As Marcy Fortnow explains,

You have to come at it with the expectation that they (your participants) can handle it and that it’s expected. So instead of asking ‘is it okay if we play this game?’ I go straight into, ‘here’s what we’re going to do! We’ll do a bit of improv’ You make it safe by modeling it. You don’t drop people into the deep end. You start small and you build until everyone feels comfortable.

 

— Marcy Fortnow, CEO, Engaging Play

3. In order to create a comfortable environment, you have to first understand your participants, who they are, what challenges they face, and the needs that brought them to your event. An easy way to do this is to simply encourage your participants to share stories about themselves. 

4. When creating an in-person or virtual event, design the experience for those at the margins. Mary Ayers explains, “there’s an assumption that everyone comes into the event with the same kind of feeling or comfort level. So, when you design for the people in the middle, you are leaving out a whole group of people who might be very uncomfortable in the environment you’ve created, or might have needs that you’re unaware of… by thinking about people on the edges, you are guaranteed to include everybody.”

 

What are some tips to become a better storyteller?

1. Start by telling stories to yourself. Tell yourself the story of what you’d like to accomplish in a day. When you wake up in the morning, say, today I am embracing my whole self, and I have the right to make mistakes. When you do this, you start your day by choosing to be the greatest version of yourself. When you start opening the doors to this concept,  everything that emerges in the day becomes a story in itself.

2. Practice, practice, practice. Don’t just tell someone something, try to tell that something in the form of a story instead.

3. When you tell a story, create a scene and pull your listener into it. Share more than just the facts; share sensory details like what someone was wearing, how they were sitting, what the mood was like. You practice that, you eventually get better at crafting stories, and using them to drive home the point you want to communicate. 

4. In order for your story to have maximum impact, identify the emotion you want your audience to feel and then tap into that emotion yourself when you tell the story.

 

Don’t just use storytelling tactics, instead employ a holistic storytelling approach to design more engaging events

The obvious link between events and storytelling is to use storytelling to make the event content more engaging i.e. using storytelling techniques to give better keynote speeches, to make sessions more entertaining, etc. 

That’s one way that event planners can use storytelling to make their event more interesting.In order to make their event impactful, organizers should also consider using storytelling as an approach, mindset, and philosophy to design more human-centric experiences. 

What this looks like: basing the design and content of the event on the needs of the participants attending; designing the event programming as an interconnected journey that each participant can embark on, and that can help them unlock their personal challenges; creating moments of meaningful interaction between the organizers and participants and amongst the participants themselves; sharing your stories and encouraging participants to do the same. 

To sum up, the biggest takeaway from this conversation is that using storytelling as an event design strategy is not just about creating engaging content. It’s about creating a two way relationship between the organizer and participants. More than that, it’s a philosophy and approach to event design that is very human-centric. And if we can move into the future with that approach, we can design experiences, be they virtual, live, or hybrid, that are genuinely transformational.