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How to use stories for workplace learning

Humans have been storytellers since the beginning of time. Old Native people who preferred the oral tradition as a means to pass on knowledge to the next generations knew what they were doing. The Druids, for example, (you know, those lovely chaps that left us Stonehenge and not a clue about how they built it) had the highest regard for the spoken history and knowledge of the tribe. They organized an entire order of Bards who had to be schooled (for twelve whole years!) in the art of sharing legends and ballads before becoming the masters of over three hundred and fifty stories each.

Story making is not the exclusive preserve as authors just as telling them is not limited to skilled tellers. We all tell stories about us, about others and we certainly enjoy a good anecdote or joke.

Story telling is probably the most powerful means of teaching.

It represents knowledge transmitted personally and has a lot more chances of being remembered and applied than something that was just explained (even if there were the most eloquent pie charts and animated presentations to support the exposition).

Stories are a biological need

The reason why humans are so good and respond so well to storytelling is grounded in the field of biology. It is no secret that children greatly enjoy stories – both hearing and telling them. Even from a very early age, they have an exceptional grip of what is the basic structure of a narrative: beginning, middle and end. If you try to juggle with the information they will quickly call you on not telling it right.

Human beings have the ability to learn language built into their DNA, just as they have the predisposition for learning crawling and walking. Story telling follows closely probably because learning semantics, grammar and story structure have provided an enormous evolutionary advantage. The oldest stories in the world are about how this was created, where we came from and what our purpose is. They were born from our basic need to explain things around us and ultimately our own destiny.

What makes a good story

Even though we all enjoy stories, not all of us are good story tellers. Maybe it doesn’t take twelve years of training like in the case of ancient Druid poets but it’s still a skill needed to be learned, practiced and polished. The basic three things you should do if you want to tell a great story are:

  • Prepare the story in advance, be very familiar with the flow;
  • “Hook” the listeners by arousing their interest;
  • Verbal pacing (pausing, speaking rates varied).

The flow is important because the main reason why stories captivate us is because they organize events, information and actions into a coherent narrative structure with a beginning, middle and end. Basically, stories tell us how something originates, how it develops further, and where it ends.

The narrative structure itself gives a good reason to keep on listening. This structure manages to pull the listener forward. Right from the start, the events, the actions, and the characters in them become interesting to us as listeners. We feel something about what is happening. Narrative structure provides a meaningful order for events and thus the listener is motivated to pay attention, anticipate, and once the whole story has unfolded, be able to learn from it.

Ultimately it’s a lot easier to remember, use and share the information presented in story form.

Narratives in corporate training – a success story

Turning training objectives into story-like units means being able to organize the information into a narrative that has the ability to drive the listener forward.

The ways of organizing the information will depend on what the goals are and how the content looks like. It can all be organized in a temporal manner: narrate the steps of a process for example. Another way to do it is the functional approach: showing how a certain piece of information fits into the larger picture.

Keep in mind that the best stories are those that pull the learner forward, set up expectations and give birth to questions that should be answered in the next unit or at the end of the training session. Essentially this is the goal of a narrative structure. The audience constantly want to find out more, to learn what happens next and to understand how everything finds its place into a larger scheme.

Training should definitely capitalize on how using story telling can enrich the learning experience. The ultimate purpose of corporate training is to generate change – mostly concerning improvement of performance. Every training unit has set, written objectives that usually state “at the end of this training session, the learners will be able to …”.

What better way to get somebody to perform a certain task than showing how it starts, what the desired outcome is and how it all fits with all the other processes in the organization?