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Are "inspirational stories" the crack cocaine of our industry?


Thu Apr 12 2007


I have an unpopular suggestion for rebooting the formal learning industries. Let's put a one-year ban on "inspirational stories."

You know what I am talking about: these are the pithy, well rehearsed, well honed, fiction-presented-as-truth stories by "experts/gurus." In these stories, a variation of the hero's journey, an unlikely person is given a daunting task. They are first overcome by the weight of the responsibility, but then rise to the occasion, apply cleverness and fortitude, and end up with a surprising result. They are as accurate to reality as Frank Miller's Spartan story of "300."


Conferences and executive programs are chock full of "inspirational stories." And don't get me wrong - I love them. They are intellectually delightful concoctions, the equivalent of a buttery croissant with fresh preserves - so unbelievably tasty going down, and yet so useless to the system craving nourishment. They make us feel good and full of hope for just long enough to fill out the speaker survey.

I noted in 1999 that corporations were making e-learning content decisions based on bulk (the more courses, with a lower cost-per-course, the better). Then, in 2002, the same corporations complained that e-learning was vacuous. D'oh!

Likewise, we are currently demanding, through buying their books and praising their speeches, some of the smartest people in business to constantly take real-world anecdotes, fluff them up with some best practices, toss in some faux humility, hone their structure and humor in their delivery, and create a steady stream of "inspirational stories." Then we complain when organizations, after digesting a diet of this white bread from both conferences and management training programs, don't do anything different. Double d'oh!

There seems to a group of "story-fanatics" that fit mostly the same, general description.

  • About 45 to 60

  • Love story-telling, and may have studied it, or theater, as a major.

  • Fascinated by the "hero-journey."

  • Don't play computer games or engage in social networking, or have minimally so they can say they have.

  • Adore the medium of video, the constructs of cinema, and, if pushed, will reluctantly agree to the effectiveness of a branching story type of simulation.

  • View the story as the most effective form of learning.

  • Have reams of studies at their fingertips to "validate" their passion.

I am more excited and intrigued by the double aspect of user participation and non-linear content as the cornerstones of effective content. Perhaps the most pithy research for the first, user participation and activity, not just exposure, is cognitively necessary for learning, comes from an old study:


In a famous experiment, Held and Hein (1963) exposed two kittens to nearly identical visual information. This was done by placing one of the kittens (the passive kitten) in a little gondola, and linking it up to a harness worn by the other (active) kitten so that as the active kitten moved about and explored its environment, the passive kitten was moved in exactly the same manner. The result was that only the active kitten developed normal depth perception. The passive kitten, even though its sensory input was nearly identical, did not. ( http://mind.ucsd.edu/papers/pisml/pismlhtml/pisml-text.html) Stories are always a good start. They are critical for building caring. We are as genetically predispositioned to listening to good stories as seeking fire and shelter. But they are just a first, tiny step, the appetizers to real learning's main course.

So, let's go a year without any inspirational stories. Let's push ourselves as the formal learning industries to give up our golden crutch. Let's carefully study the works of people like Thiagi.

There are some people who just can't imagine a learning program without a steady stream of inspirational stories. To these, this very post will get their blood pumping with righteous anger. I have, in their view of the world, slapped my white glove across their face. It is these addicts that most of all need to go without, if only for 12 months.

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