How to practice storytelling while getting real work done

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 17, 2016
Filed in Business storytelling

Twenty years ago, psychologist Anders Ericsson conducted research on what it takes to build expertise. Mere practice is not enough. If practice is all it takes to be great, taxi drivers would be the best drivers in the world. Ericsson discovered it takes a special type of practice to build better skills.

He called it deliberate practice.

Inspired by Ericsson’s research, we began incorporating deliberate practice into our story programs a few years ago. It was clear to us that merely attending a storytelling workshop was not enough for someone to change their behaviour. Sustained effort was needed, and ways of staying motivated to practice the newly acquired storytelling skills.

How to practice storytelling.
Now all our training modules include a six-month deliberate practice program, to help embed what people learn in the face-to-face elements of our sessions. It’s a mixture of online, teleconference and video coaching. We’ve seen tremendous results, but there is a particular challenge to overcome in truly embedding these new skills in a workplace.
For years, Anders Ericsson’s research could only be found in journal articles and weighty tomes such as The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Then his work became famous thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, especially the 10,000-hour rule (Gladwell penned this snappy but slightly inaccurate aphorism to remind us that it takes about 10,000 hours practice to be an expert in something).

Yet the general public only heard a small part of Ericsson’s thinking – like Gladwell, they missed some of the important features of deliberate practice.

Earlier this year, Ericsson and co-author Robert Pool brought these ideas to the public’s attention by publishing Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which tells you what you need to do to practice deliberately.

The essential features of deliberate practice are fourfold

  • You must be motivated and willing to exert yourself to improve.
  • Practice tasks should be designed to build on pre-existing knowledge and skills.
  • You must repeat the same or similar tasks.
  • You should receive immediate and informative feedback.


Let’s focus on the last point. Clearly, feedback, and by extension coaching, are vital for successful practice. But the problem with most workplaces is that people rarely have time to attend practice and get feedback from a coach. So how can you find ways to practice while getting real work done?

Here’s what we suggest when we teach storytelling to sellers (something similar was mentioned in Peak). Just before a seller gives a presentation to prospects, they should share with their colleagues how they’re going to use the opportunity to practice and improve their storytelling. For example, to begin with, this might be as simple as saying, ‘I’m going to tell two stories in my presentation’.

As they progress, the seller can make their goal more challenging: ‘I’m going to make my story quite visual so the audience really feels like they’re there’.

After the presentation, the seller’s colleagues give feedback on what they liked and what could have been done better. In this way, the seller’s storytelling skills will keep improving – though only as long as they keep challenging themselves. Feeling challenged is an important indicator that learning is happening. If what you are doing is a breeze, chances are you’re not learning.

Practice storytelling and it becomes more natural

I used to teach eight-year-olds how to play basketball. For many kids, it was their first experience of the game. One vital skill they had to learn was the lay-up. The way I taught them was to get each child to stand to the right of the basket (if they were right-handed), hold the ball in their right hand and rest it against their right ear. Then I’d ask them to push the ball from their ear up into the basket. At first the kids found this difficult but very quickly they started to get it.

When they could do that, I’d get them to take a couple of steps back and then step towards the basket start with their right foot, then left foot, then shoot. When they got that, I’d ask them to repeat the drill while taking a few bounces before their steps. Pretty soon they could all do lay-ups. Each stage of the learning process felt clunky to them to start with, but before long it all felt natural.

We aim for a similar progression of learning with our storytellers. They have to be willing to feel clunky at first, knowing it will feel natural soon enough.

You won’t get better at storytelling by simply talking about it. True, stories are memorable and meaningful, and yes, they each have a beginning, a middle and an end, but discussing this is virtually useless in building the skill of storytelling.

You only get better by telling stories and getting feedback, ideally where it really matters – in the workplace.
As a sidebar, if someone purports to be a storytelling expert but they don’t tell any stories, don’t waste your time with them. If you want to know when stories are being told, check out our story spotting framework

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

Comments Off on How to practice storytelling while getting real work done