The notion of storytelling as a workplace learning tool is neither new, nor particularly mind-boggling, but we have seen a noticeable increase in the subject on conference agendas and in blog posts for the learning field. Is something driving a renewed interest in perhaps the oldest form of communication among learning organizations? It's even a relatively hot topic for those in other fields.

"We come at it from a very systematic perspective rather than just saying: 'Hey, we tell stories and they are fun,'" explains Craig Dockery, creative director for TiER 1 Performance Solutions. Dockery will be presenting a session on the topic at the upcoming Greater Cincinnati ASTD Fall Conference.

"Stories can be fun and they can be interesting, but they have to be right," Dockery adds. "It probably isn't the right approach to create a medical rules compliance training piece as a story. But there might be an opportunity to use a character in the training to help present the message. We are doing work with a neighborhood health center on the East Coast to create medical records training. One of the issues for the center is that for many of the learners, English is a second language. They are in an unfamiliar environment of electronic learning, so we have created a character that is essentially a stock photo. The character is there to couch the content into something they can more easily understand."

In some cases, what Dockery and his associates provide is simple storytelling. "We have done work for a talent management company that is both aimed at clients and is used in some cases as a sales piece. Our client works with organizations using the Strengthfinder concept to identify talent. Sometimes they are perceived (as being there) to make people re-interview for their jobs, and that's not how they want to be seen.

"We wanted to help them tell their overall story in a way that would be useful (and disarming). One of their people is an amazing storyteller himself who has wonderful examples of how they have taken people out of a wrong position and helped put them in the right job. And how much the people have loved it. Or, how they staffed a new hotel just by using their concepts. We ended up shooting video of the guy telling these stories in front of a green screen. Then we animated the story around him to literally illustrate his tale. We used those as a context to set up the learning objectives."

Pushback?

For some C-suite executives, the notion of putting a business-critical learning effort in the hands of storytellers might not be an easy sell. "We don't get a lot of pushback using stories as a learning tool," explains Dockery. "And maybe that's because you can call it a lot of different things. You could call it scenario-based learning, if you wanted. Sometimes it's just using a metaphor.

"One thing that is unique about the way TiER 1 works is the collaboration between our learning group and our creative team. In a lot of organizations, someone writes the storyboards and hands them off to the developer. We have a lot more of a painful process. But that is a good thing. Our graphic designers are very focused on the end goal: what are we trying to teach. We know how to make it compelling, but we also know how to make it smart. We have instructional designers who have a big toolbox as far as their creative vocabulary goes and the means toward getting to the end."

A recent blog entry from Team Training Unlimited notes that storytelling is nothing new.

"People have been telling stories to communicate for as long as there have been people. People have only been shooting bullet points on PowerPoint slides at each other for a couple of decades. Which do you think people are more naturally 'tuned in' to? Storytelling is slowly but surely being resurrected as a leadership tool because metrics only tell one part of the story. Stories can inspire, and can connect people emotionally with the vision of the organization or the team. The stories that you and your colleagues tell can provide an interesting window into what is really going on for people. What stories are you telling? Do they agree with the stories that your metrics are telling? If not, why not? If you change your stories, you can change your team culture."

Tech people love the idea

Many of the most enthusiastic writers in support of storytelling have been technology people. Have the hard edges been rounded by the need to have much more human content? Does the hope of new devices in tablet and handheld form promise to enhance the experience of storytelling?

"I hope to bring a new style of telling stories to the blog," notes The New York Times researcher and writer Nick Bilton when he took over as lead writer on the NY T's Bits Blog. "I don't believe storytelling is an art form of words alone. It's ocular, auditory, interactive, and asynchronous. As I settle in and take off my training wheels, you can expect more graphics, audio slide shows, videos, and data visualization on Bits. Why? People pay for experiences, not content. Great storytelling and extended relationships will prevail and enable businesses to engage with customers in new ways that go beyond merely selling information, but instead creating unique and meaningful experiences."

The web and the ever-expanding array of communication devices provide a rich field in which storytelling may grow.

"The web is a storytelling medium," writes Bran Ferren. Before founding Applied Minds, Ferren held various leadership positions, including president at Walt Disney Imagineering, the company's R&D division. "Most people function in a storytelling mode. It's the way we communicate ideas richly, as well as how we structure our thoughts. I have never known a great teacher, a great political leader, or great military leader who wasn't also a great storyteller. Education is a storytelling problem. Leadership is a storytelling problem. Ultimately, being a CIO is a storytelling problem. However, most CIOs don't understand that."