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Why We Tell Stories

April 24, 2020

I used to be part of a Toastmasters group. We met once a week. It was a fun group. At a Toastmasters meeting some members give speeches, others then evaluate the speeches and give feedback.

Most people join Toastmasters to become better speakers. And much of the evaluation focuses on being a better public speaker. They talk about how you walk, how to hold your hands, how to avoid all the “ums” and “ahs” that we put into normal speech.

But, there’s another side to Toastmasters. The best speeches are not given by the people who are most eloquent, or by the woman who stands in the right spot, or by the guy who doesn’t say um or ah at all. The good speaches, the best speaches, the memorable speaches, are the ones that tell a story. And the more memorable the story the better the speech.

We tell stories for many reasons. We tell them to entertain, of course. Books, movies, comics, even poems, tell stories. But, our best stories also teach us. And just as entertaining stories educate us, the best education stories entertain us.

While working at Microsoft, we were releasing a brand new email system. My job was to write training material. We needed to write a two week long course that would teach our support engineers all about Microsoft Exchange 4.0.

Have you ever sat through a two week technical training class? I’ve written thousands of pages of technical courseware. And most of it, especially new-to-product training, is boring. And it’s really hard to get people to retain any of it.

We took a unique approach to the Exchange 4.0 training. We decided that we would create a fake company. Originally we called it Volcano Coffee, but when we couldn’t get the web site for that, we switched to Contoso Corporation.

Exchange allowed for linking your worldwide email system. So, we built our labs around designing a worldwide communication system. I remember the work we spent coming up with cities in our fictional company. It’s actually harder than it looks. We neede cities that were non-controversial. If you want your training to sell in Taiwan, don’t make Beijing. If you want to sell your software in India, be careful about using Pakistani cities. Same thing goes for cities in the Middle East.

In addition, we couldn’t use any city that had two words in it. I remember how disappointed we were when we had to abandon Kuala Lumpur. New York City was out for the same reason. Chicago made the cut. As did Paris, London and to my consternation Reykjavik, which even today I cannot spell without looking it up.

The training was a success. It was some of the best training we had produced. And the idea of wrapping the training into the story of a worldwide corporation was both innovative and effective.

How effective? Go to the Contoso.com address in a browser. It redirects you to microsoft.com. And if you go to docs.microsoft.com site you can learn how to roll out Microsoft 365 Enterprise by watching the way the Contoso Corporation rolled it out.

Today, almost 20 years later, it’s still being used. I don’t know that I could tell you much about Microsoft Exchange 4.0 despite writing a book on it. But, you know what I can still tell you about? I can still tell you the story of the Contoso Corproation. I can even tell you about Volcano Coffee which came before it.

Stories help us rememeber. They teach us and they entertain us. And the best stories do all three.

Stay safe.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

(c) 2020 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved

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