"It was about 7 o'clock on a breezy Monday night. I was knocking down a Scotch and soda before the cab ride home when the wind blew in a tousled blonde too lightly dressed for the weather. In that outfit, she was begging for a chest cold in several places at once so I did what came naturally - I asked if she had insurance."
So began an insurance underwriting course with a detective theme.
What is a story?
We can all recognize a story when we see one - from "Little Red Riding Hood" to Who Moved my Cheese?
While exposition is straightforward explanation, a story or "narrative" is a series of linked events that unfold over time. It has characters with their own motivations.
Storytelling is an ancient practice that has been adapted to various fields and each new type of media: from books to film to the Internet. As soon as you hear someone say, "Did you hear the one about?" or "What happened at work today?" you know you're in for a story. We all inherently tell stories. And our learners respond to them. Yet, they aren't always present in training materials.
The trick is to find or create stories that are relevant to the topic being taught, to the audience, and to the overall goal of the training.
Books such as The Goal and In the Land of Difficult People have used an overall story structure to convey their content. Shorter stories can also be embedded within a larger work.
Use stories as examples. When it comes to training, we can think of stories in a few different ways. If you want to teach someone how to carry out a task, such as how to build rapport, you would do well to show a specific scenario, such as a prospect call for a new apartment. Life is full of stories, but when life doesn't provide you with the right one, make one up.
Use stories for practice. Another way to use stories is for student practice. This should be a different scenario from the example. In the case of practice, a student is presented a scenario or case study to which they have to respond. In CallSource's "Telephone Performance Suite," students listen to prospect calls and evaluate them.
Ruth Clark and I created a course for ASTD called "Designing Learning." In it, we featured one video that set up a problem of a client who needed to reduce the number of customer complaints. Students worked on how to collect information about this problem. A second video featured an interview that gathered content for a course designed to solve the problem. The student's assignment was to write a lesson based on this second video. This was a running case study, or story.
Use stories to build relationships. Some instructors will tell a story to introduce themselves - to establish credibility and start a relationship. A story that shows how someone with knowledge of the course topic succeeded, or how someone without this knowledge failed, can help students see the relevance of the course topic to their work.
Use stories as metaphor. Some stories are metaphorical. An example is Who Moved my Cheese - a popular little book about change set in a strange maze where humans and mice compete for food. Its uniqueness helps students remember the story.
Find stories everywhere. If you are developing courses in your own area of expertise, you can probably draw from your own life experiences. Otherwise, you can rely on subject matter experts. You can gather stories from industry publications, or you might be able to use a story from the popular media. For example, in an election year, assessing the presidential candidates could be compared to hiring employees. Another source of stories is company data such as help desk calls and customer complaints. If you teach, you can ask your students to share their stories with you.
Why it works
Are our brains wired for stories? Some of the proposed ways in which we store information include "knowledge networks," which are interconnected nodes of related information, and "scripts" of how-to procedures. Roger Shank, in his book Tell Me a Story, proposes a third structure - episodic memory - where we house stories. Robert McKee, author of the book, Story, says that we like stories because they help us to figure out the patterns of life, to predict what will happen again. And we tend to remember the ones that help us to learn something new.
Jeremy Hsu, in his article, "The Secrets of Storytelling," says that a narrative engages its audience through "psychological realism" or recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters.
Don't be afraid to tell stories in your training. You have a story in you. We all do.