By Alexander McWilliam

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How Arbor Education used improvisation to develop their persuasive storytelling

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How Arbor Education used improvisation to develop their persuasive storytelling

Learn more

How Arbor Education used improvisation to develop their persuasive storytelling

Learn more

Hilary chose to try a different approach. Would a bespoke training day based on improvisation help her product team communicate more effectively in presentations?

“We really struggled with storytelling and often got bogged down in the detail. Yet, our goal is to achieve buy-in and confidence about our products,” said Hilary.

Head of Product at Arbor Education, Hilary Aylesworth sets the vision for her team of 12 product designers, managers, and researchers. Presenting and live demonstrating every week, effective communication is crucial. And, according to Hilary, you can always get better.

Transforming the way schools work

Scaling rapidly, Arbor Education helps over 6,000 schools and multi-academy trusts use technology to improve workflow and gain greater insight from their data.

Enterprise level, the business draws on 50 modules to create effective management information systems. Arbor saves schools time and enables them to focus on their core purpose – working with kids.

Arbor’s products are complex and technical. Presenting to investors, government, education authorities, and head teachers, Hilary’s team must convey lots of information concisely. They must ensure their audience understands the product, whilst persuading them to support it.

“It’s a really specific type of public speaking,” explained Hilary. “It’s storytelling and it’s also persuasion. You want them to be clear on why they’d pick this versus another product.”

Not telling their story

Technical engineers have great product design skills. Yet, they tend to get bogged down in the detail. Presenting to stakeholders and customers demands macro communication skills. In other words, the bigger picture, in language that motivates them. Many product teams get stuck here, unable to communicate what’s fantastic about their design.

“When you’re not able to communicate effectively, you demean all the good work you’ve done. You’ve built this great thing but if nobody can understand the benefit and get excited about it with you, your message lands flat.

Poor communication means you miss a trick in terms of customer confidence. You miss a trick in terms of internal team confidence. And you miss a trick in terms of landing the hard work you’ve done. It hampers business success in many ways.

By telling a great story they can imagine it for themselves and gain confidence in you,” said Hilary.

Nobody in the team felt equipped to do this well. Everyone struggled to bring a product to life and captivate their audience.

As Hilary was the only comfortable public speaker in the department, it fell on her to do most presentations. And yet, she needed everyone happy to get involved.

Getting ‘out of the box’

Hilary’s team had completed presentation training before. But they’d struggled to put the rigid process they learnt into practice.

She explained: “Every product manager has a different role and speaks to different stakeholders. We therefore needed a flexible approach to our presentations and public speaking.

Our previous training had been ok, but it was too stringent in how we should apply the principles day to day. I don’t think it landed as I’d hoped.”

Hilary first saw Alex from Improv4Business in action on a live webinar. His approach struck a chord with her.

“He was really approachable, engaging, and fun. He had a way of instantly putting people at ease. I know how hard that is to achieve,” she said.

She knew to combat her team’s presentation struggles she must find a different approach, so decided to have a chat with Alex.

“Improvisation appealed to me. My neuroscience degree taught me there are two things when building a new skill – managing your emotions around the skill and practice. Achieving both makes a massive difference to your outcome.

Communication holds much fear for people, so we had to break that down first. Traditional methods couldn’t do this, so we needed something ‘out of the box’.

When you’re having fun together and being silly, you’re capturing exactly the positive emotions to break the fear down,” said Hilary.

Scoping a bespoke training day

Hilary told Alex where her team was at, and what she ultimately wanted to achieve. The two discussed how they could move towards this outcome and tackle her team’s biggest challenges.

“The first thing was to help bust peoples’ fears about public speaking and make it fun. They needed to accept making a mistake was ok - it’s human.

People put too much pressure on themselves to be perfect. Live demonstrations can be nerve-wracking too. What if my child starts crying or the internet goes down? I wanted to start by helping them reframe all this,” she explained.

As for creating bespoke training, Hilary felt it was crucial, given the specific needs of her product team.

“Achieving bespoke training was key. People had suggested we needed sales training but it’s not about trying to land a sale, it’s about persuasion.”

Once the day was scoped, Hilary told her team. But she kept it vague.

“I told them I’d planned some communication training. But I didn’t explain it was based on improvisation. I knew they’d feel nervous if I did. So, I think most of them were expecting to be talked at for the day!”

“Everyone was buzzing.”

A pacey programme, Hilary and her team spent the morning on their feet enjoying a series of activities. After lunch they focused on visual presentation – what wasn’t working for them, and how they could develop.

“This was a fun way to learn, given we spend much of our time in front of computers,” she explained. “Non-traditional in approach, that’s its strength. Everyone was buzzing for days afterwards with jokes flying across our Slack channel.

Suddenly, the entire team started owning our need to get better at this. It was a massive relief for me that we could now collectively develop our skills. Since the training I’ve seen everyone present. They’ve all improved how they tell a visual story. And their confidence has grown too.

We had two new-starters on the training – for one, it was their first day! We also had some very shy people who loved it and really flourished. We’re a remote-working team, so spending a day together learning and laughing strengthened our bond no-end. Nurturing your culture is hard as you scale so it’s great to have an opportunity to achieve this.”

Hilary is already talking to Improv4Business about future training days on specific communication areas. For example, handling difficult customers. Whilst not a presentation scenario, it’s a key communication skill to perfect and she believes improvision will help.

The new approach paid off

Professional development training is always a speculative investment. The risk is not knowing the outcome before you start. Hilary chose a different approach, and it paid off in droves. She’d encourage others to get ‘outside the box’ to achieve their communication goals.

“Improvisation is a fun way to explore how to communicate better. Our training day was no more expensive than any other bespoke session and its uniqueness will stick in peoples’ minds, helping to move the dial.

You get what you put in, though. I led by example so everyone felt they could participate fully and be a little silly. It absolutely worked and was worth every penny.”

So, what’s Hilary’s final word for anyone considering this refreshing approach to presentation training?

“Go for it. Absolutely do it. You’ll have a lot of fun and learn new things that improve the quality of your presentations for years.”

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