Engage Like Iron Man: Start in the Middle of a Story

September 17, 2019 1:27 PM | Lovina Akowuah (Administrator)

Written by Derrick Van Mell

Founder and CEO of the Center for Management Terms & Practices


The 5,000-year-old secret to training success

I went to an expensive training conference last month, and it opened with a professional emcee, loud music and two CEOs humiliating themselves (in my opinion) doing some kind of skit. My immediate reaction was the trainers knew the content wasn’t interesting enough on its own. I left early.

I get it, though. In training, you engage or you fail. We live in the Age of Distraction, so you need to get people’s attention in 15 seconds. A room of unengaged learners is an empty room with the lights off.

But if you’re delivering something important and you know your stuff, you shouldn’t need to trick me into paying attention. I should know what you’re teaching is going to help me get recognized for doing better work.

So, how can you get people bought in 15 seconds? The answer is about, oh, 5,000 years old. Everyone loves a story—particularly if it’s about them. A story is always the best way to get people engaged. Here’s the first tip: open with your own story. You don’t need a deejay or a pile of merch. Just sit on a stool and tell it.

In media res (“In the middle of things”)

Great storytellers often open right in the middle of the action. Iron Man starts with Tony Stark speeding through some secret desert in a string of camo Humvees. It doesn’t start with Robert Downey, Jr. sitting on a chair in his workout sweats telling the audience what the movie is going to be about.

Start immediately with your own relevant story. Don’t even pause to review the agenda or tell people where the bathrooms are. Let’s say you’re training people in Excel. Start with a story like,

“On a Sunday morning in August 2017 my wife and I were sitting at my kitchen table rummaging through a shoebox full of receipts for a home remodeling project. We were frightened we were going to be $20,000 under water, but couldn’t figure out what to do. On Monday, just before our morning management meeting, I was telling our CFO about it. She said, ‘Make a spreadsheet with columns for the vendor, date, amount and, oh, the kind of work. Then sort it in different ways and see what you see.’ That night, our son opened Excel, created the spreadsheet and threw in some pie charts. In five minutes, we saw that we’d spent too much too soon on finishes and not enough on infrastructure. So we returned the $15 cabinet handles and brainstormed with the electrician how to get the rough-in done two weeks earlier. We’d not only solved the problem, we were now confident we could solve the next problems.“

Not only have you engaged them with your story, you’ve modelled how to tell their own stories. Which is the next step.

Then get them to open their stories

Organize into small groups. Go around the table asking, When was this subject an issue in your life? Don’t let the learners get away with generalizations. Dig for a real instance. When did this happen? Who else was there? Where were you when in happened? Draw out the details, the sights, sounds, the people. Each person’s story will enrich everyone else’s picture of why the topic is important to them. Sharing stories connects people, which also binds them to the topic.

Now that they’ve got their own full-color mental movie playing with themselves as Iron Man, they’re ready to listen and learn. Now you’re ready to start delivering content…

….Keep them engaged after the session’s over

Close by getting people to write their story for the future. Ask, How will your day be different now that you’ve learned this new thing? This doesn’t take long, but it keeps the learning alive until they’ve turned this little piece of make-believe into a rewarding reality.

In 2001, a friend of mine took over the accounting department of a 1,000-person medical research company (he’s now CEO). But back then he said to his team of three, We’ll know we’re successful when people come into our office asking for our opinions on big decisions—not just to complain about their statements. It was a story: it had setting, characters and action. Everyone could picture it and everyone wanted to make it come true. And it did come true! Now that’s a story about Excel everyone would want to be part of!

About the Author

Derrick Van Mell is founder and CEO of the Center for Management Terms & Practices (www.theindex.net). The Center is the standards body for general management. It is responsible for providing managers around the world with standard terms and tools so departments can work cross-functionally and everyone can enjoy meaningful work. The Center trains managers at all levels to use its 1-page planning and project tools, which lets executives delegate with confidence. Derrick is the published author of two books and dozens of articles, and he speaks internationally about leadership and management. He has a BA in Economics, an MBA and an MA in English. He is a member of both ATD-SEWI and ATD-MAC.

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