Formula Stories

(Interactive Storytelling)

Storytelling is a powerful tool for trainers. Unfortunately, however, traditional storytelling encourages the participants to become passive listeners. In contrast, interactive storytelling encourages them to interact with the stories and with each other. Different types of interactive storytelling techniques invite the participants to create their own stories and share them with each other. Even when the stories come from the facilitator, the participants modify the stories, change the beginning or the ending, change the characters or the setting, expand or shrink the stories, make decisions at critical junctures, analyze the stories, and roleplay them. The result: More engagement during the session and more learning after the session.

Story Formulas

I read (and listen to) several stories every day, ranging from tweets to multi-volume epics. I also watch videos and movies to increase the daily dosage of fiction. If you are a consumer of stories like me, you are probably aware that most stories fall into different genres and they all can be reduced to a few tried and true plot formulas.

The term formula stories is often used in a pejorative fashion. However, consciously or unconsciously, most authors use a set of standard formulas. You too can use these formulas (just like templates for framegames) to efficiently generate stories for presenting the training content. You can also train your participants to use these formulas to create and share their own stories.

Story Spine

Kat Koppett, author of  Training to Imagine

Kat Koppett, author of Training to Imagine

The story spine is a versatile formula. I learned it from my colleague Kat Koppett in one of her excellent improv workshops. She attributes the formula to Kenn Adams. It is also associated with Brian McDonald and Pixar Studios.

Here are the seven sentence stems that constitute the story spine. To create an instant story, you just complete each sentence and string them together:


Once upon a time...
Every day...
But, one day...
Because of that...
Because of that...
Until, finally...
And, ever since then...

Try your hand at creating your first story-spine tale right now. Fill out the sentence stems without spending too much time on each. Remember, this is supposed to be an improv exercise.

Here’s my spontaneous output (while waiting for a flight connection at Chicago O’Hare airport):

Once upon a time, there was a private investigator called Ken Steele. Every day he worked on boring cases involving fraudulent insurance claims. But one day, he found a corpse in front of his office desk, inside locked doors. Because of that, the police warned him that they were going to arrest him within 24 hours. Because of that Ken had to employ his amazing sleuthing skills. He decided that the dead person was murdered by her husband for the life insurance money. Until finally, Ken was able to clear his name and identify the real culprit. And, ever since then, Ken was in big demand for homicide investigations, making more money than a performance consultant.

I can use this story in its raw form as a part of an interactive storytelling activity. I can treat it as an outline and ask the participants to expand it.

Obviously, not too many of my sessions deal with homicide investigation as the training topic. So let me try my hand at applying the story spine to a workshop on diversity and inclusion. Here’s another story (created during the short flight from Chicago to Indianapolis):

Once upon a time, there was a corporate trainer called Chris Hamilton. Every day, he conducted technical training sessions at a high-tech company in San Jose, California. But one day, he was transferred to a branch office in Chennai, India to train the local employees on Agile software development technology. Because of that, he decided to learn as much as possible about the cultural values and norms of people in Chennai. He found the information from online searches to be inconsistent and confusing. Because of that Chris asked one of the Indian programmers in his San Jose office for some help and advice. His colleague gave lengthy lectures on what not to do in Chennai. Chris continued to get confused. Until finally, Rajiv, the programmer, said, “Chris, you are taking this too seriously. Remember there are more similarities between you and the programmers in Chennai than there are differences. Find the key similarities and build upon them.” And, ever since then, Chris stopped confusing himself with all the books on cultural differences and focused on the fact that all human beings like blue jeans and masala dosai. He was a great success in Chennai with his focus on the shared experiences and common challenges.

Another Formula: Double Jeopardy

Whenever I introduce a new principle or procedures to my training participants, I take great care to warn them against the mindless misuse of what they learned in the session. To drive home the point that the overuse or abuse of any technique could result in more problems than it solved, I use engaging stories. I noticed that these stories fall in a standard formula and I specified this formula. I call this formula Double Jeopardy. The reason for this name will become clear as we explore the formula:

1. First problem. The protagonist faces a problem.

2. First solution. The protagonist masters an effective technique for handling the problem.

3. Backlash. Carried away with the impressive success in solving the problem, the protagonist begins to misuse, overuse, and abuse the technique.

4. Second problem. The misuse of the technique results in a set of new problems.

5. New and improved solution. The participant thinks through the limitations of the first solution and comes up with suitable modifications to the technique.

6. Conclusion. The new and improved technique prevents the types of problems created by the mindless application of the original technique.

Here’s a train-the-trainer application of this story formula:

First problem: Participants are bored by my technical training workshops. Most of them multitask while I make my presentations and some of them even fall asleep.

First solution: I discover the power of training games.

Backlash: I begin the training session with an icebreaker in which each participant discovers which animal he or she most closely resembles. Later, I insert a bridge-building activity in the middle of the session. In addition, I repeatedly use a set of engaging games throughout my training sessions.

Second problem: The participants are engaged. They run around the classroom like headless chickens. They focus on completing the activity and winning the game. But they don’t learn anything useful. They soon discover that they are wasting their time in all this fun and games.

New and improved solution: I think through the advantages and disadvantages of using games in training. I discover the relevance of the activity to the training topic is a key factor. So I select or design activities that clearly and directly incorporate the principles and procedures taught during the session. I highlight these principles before the activity as briefing, during the activity as coaching, and after the activity as debriefing.

Conclusion: As long as I link the game to the training objectives, the participants are engaged more and learn more. The instructional and motivational effectiveness of my training improves significantly.

Glenn’s Seven Sentence Formula

Glenn Hughes, creator of  Photo Jolts!

Glenn Hughes, creator of Photo Jolts!

My mentor and co-author Glenn Hughes ( uses a seven sentences story formula as a no-B.S. approach to influencing people by using stories.

Here’s Glenn’s formula:

Opening. Specify the when, where, and who.

Context. Provide important background information

Conflict. Select among man vs. man, man vs. machine, man vs. nature, and man vs. society.

Proposed Resolution. Explain what attempt was made to end the conflict.

Cliffhanger. Explain how the outcome was at risk.

Actual Resolution. Explain how the conflict ended and who won.

MIP. Present the most important point of the story.

For more explanation, an example, and a job aid, see Glenn's 86k PDF at . You can also watch Glenn demonstrating his technique on YouTube at

Here are my seven sentences based on Glenn’s formula:

A month ago, my colleague Matt told me that one of our potential clients decided not to hire us because our web site looked antiquated.
This was not the first time that Matt has complained about our web site.
In a meeting with Matt and Raja (our webmaster), we had major differences of opinion: Raja was a pure technologist, Matt wanted more modern look and feel, and I wanted to maintain the quality of our content.
We decided to outsource our web redesign to a group that specialized on the use of the latest platforms.
We plunked down an advance payment and the design folks walked us through the initial design. Matt and I were impressed but Raja was not because of the limitations imposed by the platform.
We told Raja that he could talk to the designers and resolve his concerns. In the meantime, I came up with suitable workaround solutions for transferring the text and graphic content. We are at a temporary ceasefire and my prediction is that everything will eventually work out fine.

This is why I always say that it is difficult to bring about a change because different people have different needs, standards, and perceptions.

Notice I cheated. Some of the seven “sentences” are more than a sentence. But Glenn says that's okay.

Using Story Formulas Interactively

Invite your participants to create their own stories using one of the formulas. Whichever formula you choose, begin by demonstrating its application and by sharing a relevant story you created.

To increase the interactivity, invite the participants to work with a partner or in a team. Ask them to take turns applying different steps to co-create a story.

Here are some additional approaches for increasing interactivity in creating formula stories that are relevant to the training objective:

Story comparisons. Ask different participants to write individual formula stories on the same topic or theme. Ask them to share their stories with each other. Finally, ask groups of participants to identify the common elements in the stories they shared.

Best of the Best. Ask the participants to work independently on the same topic and write a formula story. Divide the participants into groups of 3 to 7. Collect the stories from each group and give them to the next group. Ask the members of each group to jointly review the collection of stories and select the best one. Ask the best stories to be read and conduct a poll to identify the best among these.

Debriefed stories. Ask the participants to take turns reading their stories to a group. Ask the group members to debrief themselves and discuss their emotional reactions, the learning points in the story, and their implications for personal action.

Prompted Stories. Provide the appropriate information related to one of the steps in the formula. Ask the participants to complete the other steps and assemble the final story. For example, here’s the information related to the until-one-day step: Until one day, Ramon came to the meeting after only 3 hours of sleep during the previous night. He sounded totally incoherent during the discussion.

An Assignment for You

Choose a training topic. Use one of the three formulas presented earlier to create a story related to the topic. Also generate a set of debriefing questions to follow up the presentation of your story.

If you want a wider and appreciative audience, email a copy of your story to me at .