This fall we’re celebrating 20 Years of DevLearn. As part of that celebration, I’m reflecting on the insights I’ve gained from some of my favorite DevLearn keynote speakers over the years. I kick off this series by revisiting The Magic of Storytelling and Learning from Penn Jillette, from DevLearn 2016.

The essence of Penn Jillette's keynote, "The Magic of Storytelling and Learning," can be likened to a well-crafted illusion, where the art of deception is used to reveal deeper truths. Jillette's journey from a truth-obsessed juggler to a magician comfortable with deception offers a captivating narrative that holds valuable lessons for L&D professionals, and really anyone who uses stories in their work.

At the heart of Jillette's message is the power of storytelling. He demonstrates that, much like a magician's performance, effective learning experiences are crafted from engaging narratives. These stories, although selectively told, can ethically captivate and teach, making the learning process more impactful. Jillette's career itself is a story of transformation and adaptation, one that resonates deeply with the ongoing journey of a learning professional.

Throughout his career, Jillette has embraced what he calls 'ethical lying,' a concept where the magician and audience share an unspoken agreement about the illusion. This idea parallels the creation of learning environments where boundaries are usually clearly defined. There's a structure that the experience takes place in, and yet within these boundaries, the magic of learning and discovery unfolds. It's a delicate balance between illusion and reality, not unlike the balance L&D professionals strive for between engagement and practical application.

Penn Jillette at DevLearn 2016

Jillette's staories of his own failures on his journey are a testament to the importance of resilience in learning. His shift from juggler to magician wasn't smooth; it was filled with many trials and errors. This underscores the value of embracing failure as a stepping stone to mastery, a lesson vital for anyone in the pursuit of professional growth.

One of the most striking aspects of Jillette's approach to storytelling and magic is his emphasis on mystery and self-discovery. He advocates for an approach where individuals are not just passive recipients of information but are actively engaged, drawing their own connections and conclusions. This mirrors his own approach to magic – starting with an idea and building a trick around it, echoing desires to create personalized learning experiences centered around an individual's unique needs and environment.

In a world increasingly reliant on technology, Jillette offers a critical view. He warns against the overuse of tools like PowerPoint, advocating for more human, direct connections in presentations and learning programs. His viewpoint is a call for us to prioritize human interaction in an era dominated by screens and virtual worlds. This is one of the key lessons I find myself revisiting today as we navigate an increasingly AI-enhanced future.

I don't smoke, but I make an exception when Penn Jillette asks me to light a cigarette off a flame he's blowing from his mouth during the closing of his keynote.

Lastly, Jillette's commitment to continual learning and improvement, even at the pinnacle of his career, serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of lifelong learning. This mindset is essential for anyone in the field of learning and development, where evolving skills and adapting to new challenges are part of the daily magic.

In essence, Penn Jillette's keynote is not just a series of insights but a narrative that intertwines the art of magic with the practicality of learning. His journey and insights offer a guide to creating more engaging, effective, and human-centered learning experiences. It's a reminder that sometimes, the best learning comes from the magic of storytelling, the courage to embrace failure, and the pursuit of lifelong improvement.

Want to revisit Penn Jillette’s keynote yourself? This recording is just one of the many keynote recordings that are available as part Member+, our newly enhanced member subscription service.