The Storytelling Workshop Approach: Getting Teams in a Creative Mindset

- Practices & Exercises

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Ian Sanders runs storytelling training programs and workshops for teams in organizations. Ian’s story-driven workshops, training programs, and coaching sessions energize and refocus leaders and organizations. In the last 12 months, he’s been running training programs for organizations, including Amazon Web Services, Ericsson, and Microsoft. Ian is the author of five books, including 365 Ways To Have a Good Day.

Ian Sanders
Ian Sanders, in one of his Storytelling Workshops

A Warm-up Activity for a Day-long Workshop on Storytelling

A few years ago, I was piloting a new training program for BBC producers and presenters in the UK city of Southampton. I was delivering a day-long workshop on storytelling and needed a warm-up activity to kick things off. I wanted to energize the participants and get them in a creative mindset so they’d be engaged for the rest of my program. I wanted them to have fun and to learn more about each other. On the recommendation of a friend and collaborator, Michael, I’d brought a pack of Management 3.0 Improvisation Cards with me.

I invited the participants to step away from their chairs and join me, standing around a table at the back of the room. There I shuffled the pack of Improv Cards and dealt myself three random images. I laid the cards down for everybody to see. I came up with an outlandish story that connected the three cards and then dealt out the cards to everyone else.

What stories could they come up with out of their three cards? 

To make it easy for everyone to come up with a story, I used this structure: 

“I woke up this morning and <this happened>, then <this happened> which led to <this outcome>.” 

It was a simple story in three parts. Made up on the spot, the images were simply to trigger ideas: there were no ‘right’ stories and no ‘wrong’ ones. It was just to get the juices flowing.

So how did it go?

Everybody loved it! The ideas flowed. There was laughter. People returned to their chairs, relaxed, in the zone, and ready to embrace what was going to follow next.

Encouraging a Storytelling Mindset

My pilot workshop was a success, and I was invited by the BBC to run over thirty more workshops from Belfast to Glasgow, London to Cardiff, Manchester to Leeds. My Management 3.0 cards became a must-have tool for the improvisation exercise that I ran with every team.

The objective of those workshops was to inspire journalists and producers in the art of storytelling. During the day-long session, I’d show them video clips, get them crafting stories and send them out into the local streets for an exercise that I called the Story Safari.

And the improvisation exercise remained a constant element.

I explained that every story has three parts: a start, a middle, and an end.

Giving them three cards – totally randomized – was an effective challenge. Could they take a random set of images (for instance, a man dancing, a crown, and some coins) and turn it into a story?!

The answer was yes!

The creativity on display in those improvisations never failed to put a smile on my face. The inventiveness, the sense of humor, the drama in the way they told them: it was so good!

And the activity revealed so much about the personalities in the room. People enjoyed the exercise so much they sometimes asked if they could do another round.

Storytelling for Leaders with a surprise

I stopped delivering the BBC training program in 2018. For the last five years, however, I’ve continued to use Improv Cards in workshops, mostly with leadership teams in big organizations. For one series of online workshops that was delivered during the pandemic – ‘Storytelling for Leaders.’

I asked my client to send out sets of cards to participants’ homes. We placed three cards in an envelope with a note not to open it until the date of the workshop. These were shipped out around the world.

Sure, we could have done the improvisation digitally, displaying images on slides, but there was something wonderful about people having these cards to open. There was an element of anticipation, enhanced by the fact they could touch and feel them.

With participants on Microsoft Teams from Brazil to Spain, the same magic happened. Here there were leaders making stories up, making their colleagues laugh.

Some participants were in far-flung places. Once at the start of a workshop, someone in Baku, Azerbaijan, told me he hadn’t received his yet. Instead, we used images on a slide as an alternative. Then at the end of the workshop, he said a courier had literally just arrived with his set of cards. He got them in the end!

Management 3.0 Improv Cards for Storytelling

We’re all Creative

The Improv Cards demonstrate the natural creativity within all of us. They have shown me there are as many ideas as there are human beings.

Of course, occasionally, there’s a moment where a participant freezes and says they have no ideas for a story. But that’s rare.

Over the years, the same cards have appeared over and again. Each time there is always a different story. No story is ever the same.

Thank you to my friend Michael for telling me about them. Thank you, Management 3.0

Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash

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