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
"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
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."