Winning attention: translating children’s books to the workplace
How children’s books can help you tell better stories at work
Unless you’re a parent or teacher, you probably haven’t looked at a children’s books lately. Maybe you’re just weird and you have — that’s your business. Regardless, this post explains how adults, who pay adult bills, attend adult meetings, and have adult responsibilities, can borrow the storytelling techniques used in children’s books to be more effective communicators.
Why children’s books? The diversity of thought, plots, characters, and general creativity that manifests in children’s literature shows how dynamic this style can be for telling all kinds of stories.
Also, from visiting classrooms of seven-year-olds, I’ve learned that if you can hold their attention for 15 minutes, you’ve already spoken five minutes too long. Point being, children’s books have tough audiences. They need to balance engaging storytelling with direct messaging in order to be effective. Whether you know it or not, you need to strike that balance too.
Any credibility I have on this topic comes from the fact that I am an adult who pays adult bills…etc., my background includes a stint as a congressional speechwriter, and I’ve written and published a children’s book (My Friend, Failure — available on Amazon). Additionally, as an innovation consultant, I often have to present messy information to clients in a way that engages them, and I have been successful in doing that by applying the advice that follows.
Use pictures and visuals — Many successful books rely on the “show, don’t tell” strategy, which encourages storytellers to illustrate or visualize their story or main point. These visuals can support your point or deliver the message for you. Either way, make your message visual.
Keep it simple and clear —As the saying attributed to Einstein goes, “Everything must be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
The stories told through children’s books are constrained by kid-friendly page limits and readers with beginner comprehension skills so they tend to be more direct. By skipping story detours, like hypotheticals and tangential points, children’s books maintain a clear message. When you get the urge to include details you think are important but don’t directly serve your main message, leave them out and see how it feels.
Use a logical arc and structure— The framework of great stories is simple and well-documented: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
As story consumers, we expect a beginning, middle, and end, with exciting obstacles and characters to whom we can relate. This framework isn’t the obvious packaging for stories told in professional contexts but to the extent you want to entice and engage your listeners, you should try to structure your story with this arc and these elements in mind.
(Note: You don’t need to use the phrasing, “Once upon a time,” etc. This prompt, for instance, just reminds you that as a storyteller, your first responsibility is to introduce your characters and setting.)
Incorporate emotion —Children enjoy reading books with characters and situations they identify with — adults are no different.
The people listening to your story want to hear something to which they can relate. Incorporating aspects of the human condition (growth, aspiration, or conflict, to name a few) allows your listeners to put some emotional skin in the game. It provides them with an opportunity to sympathize or empathize. And it gives them another reason to care about what you’re saying.
Share an actionable lesson — There are two key components to this:
1. Make the knowledge you’re sharing with your listeners actionable by providing examples of when and how they can use the information. The next time you have to present a strategy suggestion to your colleagues, for instance, write down your main point and organize the message with a clear story arc. Then, develop visuals and relatable, human elements to keep your story compelling so that listeners want to hear your takeaway.
2. Help your listeners by making the lesson easy to remember. In children’s books, we see mechanisms like alliteration, rhyming, and repetition helping make the message memorable.
Add narrative to your non-fiction — Biographies written for children have evolved from sharing facts in chronological order to using narrative with biographical information sprinkled in.
For example, there’s an important difference between saying Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929…and sharing a fictional narrative about a girl who finds a box in her grandma’s attic and learns MLK Jr. facts as she looks through the contents. For stories that don’t demand a strictly serious delivery, including humor and playfulness can also make your facts more memorable.
Adopting storytelling techniques used in children’s books may sound like a stretch for professional contexts but to me, that signals why it’s all the more necessary. Whether you borrow from children’s literature the commitment to clarity, the use of visuals, the “once upon a time” framework, the humanness, or a combination of it all, these techniques will help you tell more compelling stories and communicate more clearly.