What L&D can learn from The Big Short

by L&D27 Apr 2016
We have previously reported about why L&D professionals should all be storytellers.

Another example that shows the power of stories to engage audiences and explain complex ideas is the movie The Big Short, according to Shawn Callahan, storytelling consultant and author of Putting Stories to Work.

The Big Short tells the true story of how some banking outsiders predicted the global financial crisis and made a motza of cash in the process. It was based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis.

“When the book was first considered for adaptation, the word around Hollywood was that it was impossible to make because there was so much technical language and so many complex financial instruments to translate to tell the story,” said Callahan.

“One thing that intrigued me before I saw the movie was how it was going to help the audience understand things like mortgage bonds, credit default swaps, collateralised debt obligation (CDO) and synthetic CDOs.”
The director and co-scriptwriter Adam McKay addressed this by making sure that whenever things got too technical, he cut to a scene where celebrities spoke directly to the audience and explained the terminology.
“What was most interesting to me was how often these explanations were in the form of a story,” Callahan said.
One example involves Selena Gomez and the father of behavioural economics, Richard Thaler, explaining synthetic CDOs.

There are three things that McKay does to make this story work, according to Callahan.

The story is relatable

Comparing the gambling that goes on in a bank with the gambling at a blackjack table in a casino is something that most of us can understand. Even if we haven’t gambled at a casino ourselves, we recognise the scene from watching umpteen TV shows and films. Many people watching the movie, especially those in the younger demographic who might be nodding off a little at this point, would also be aware of Selena Gomez. This is a deft move by the director because we are so much more comfortable with things that are familiar to us, and we are more willing to accept what we are being told if it comes from a familiar source.

The story uses an expert

The second skillful storytelling move is using the economist and super-brain Richard Thaler to explain some of the statistics and how humans act. This lends credibility and plausibility to the story.

The story provides a surprising insight

The last element is something common to all good stories. Something needs to happen that is unanticipated, that provides an insight. That’s what makes the story interesting. So as we watch the side bets being made, we are led to believe that the 87% safe bet is a winner: it looks like Gomez has a hot hand. But as the dealer turns over the cards, everyone suddenly realises that Gomez and Thaler have lost. We’ve just witnessed a story as a metaphor. This is what will happen to the economy when the first mortgage bond fails – all the synthetic bonds will melt away. With that story in their heads, the audience can now absorb the next batch of information from the film’s characters.

It would not work as well if the characters just explained these things in the normal flow of the movie, said Callahan.

“That’s because they’re financial experts and would never need to give a novice explanation to their equally expert colleagues,” he added.

“It would seem out of place if they did. So the filmmakers use celebrity cameos to get around that problem.”

Callahan said leaders can learn some important lessons from all this:
  • If you need to explain something that is complex or highly technical to an audience that might not understand it, such as your fellow executives or the board, then tell them a hypothetical story based on something they do understand, something that’s relatable.
  • Pick someone to deliver the message who is familiar to the audience, someone who is like them and also has credibility. If these traits do not apply to just one person, use two people. Relatability, familiarity and plausibility are the characteristics you need to deliver an effective presentation, one the audience understands and where there is a good chance they will act on your advice.
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Why L&D professionals should all be storytellers