What Research Says About Powerful Storytelling in Training

Allan Dodson
Posted: June 17, 2019

“Tell me a story!”

If you’re a parent or grandparent, or even an aunt, uncle, or family friend, you’ve probably heard those words shouted out around bedtime. Kids love stories!

So you tell the story, put the kids to bed, and then what do you do? Watch TV? Read a book? That’s right — you love stories, too. We all do.

Now you get up the next morning and head to your job as a corporate trainer. You’re ready to present a full day of training on changes in the company’s HR department. It’s not the most exciting material. Do you stand in front of the group with a PowerPoint deck full of copy-heavy slides and run through the material while they drift away? Check their email? Text one another across the room?

Or maybe, just maybe, you turn this dry material into stories. Tell them about a person who’s been affected positively by this change. Make analogies to real-life experiences. Give the training a human element. And now they’re awake.

Storytelling in training can be a powerful tool for engaging audiences. Better engagement means better retention, and better retention leads to increased ROI.

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If you’re not using stories in corporate training, you’re missing a great opportunity to take your training to another level.

Why Storytelling Works in Training

Stories have been around since the inception of language. They’re not just a way we pass the time; they’re a primal part of our psychological structure — ancient humans used stories to explain the very fabric of survival. According to Psychology Today, stories connect us to others, provide order, and help us collaborate. They engage our imagination, foster creativity, and increase empathy. The author goes on to say:

Social media technologies have created a demand for fundamentals: authenticity, participation, and engagement. Special effects and funny Super Bowl ads are fine, but they are expensive one-offs if they do not touch the core of experience. I don’t care how you calculate, that’s not going to get you a very good ROI. When organizations, causes, brands or individuals identify and develop a core story, they create and display authentic meaning and purpose that others can believe, participate with, and share. This is the basis for cultural and social change.

That’s real power you can never get from the most elaborately produced PowerPoint deck or online module. It’s the power of 10,000 years of the human experience.

Telling Good Stories: A Quick Guide

How do you tell a good, engaging story? Of course, some people are natural storytellers, able to spin a tale that mesmerizes young and old alike. For the rest of us, here are a few basic storytelling elements that can make a Shakespeare (or Rowling) out of anyone.

Suspense

Dramatic tension is the key to any good story. Aristotle identified the three basic elements of drama as independent players (that’s you), an audience (that’s your learners), and conflict. According to the Harvard Business Review, “If the story is able to create […] tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.”

Imagery

Even when we’re hearing a story, we have a strong desire to visualize it. It’s important to help the audience along by using visual language. Sparringmind.com uses the following example from J.R.R. Tolkien:

[…] we could say that [spoilers if you haven’t read/seen Lord of the Rings] “Frodo and Sam fight a giant spider,” but Tolkien spends an entire chapter on the ordeal, taking the time to help the reader visualize the ferocious nature of the enemy and the bravery of our heroes who persevere despite their many weaknesses (doubt, fear, dismay, etc.)

Implementing the “real” into a fantastic setting often helps create a better connection with the reader. I don’t know the feeling of encountering a spider the size of a house, but I do know what terror feels like, and I also know how hard it can be to persevere in the face of immense doubt of your abilities.

Beyond visual imagery, good storytellers use all five senses to create an environment in the listeners’ minds. What sounds are in the background? What does it smell like?

Emotions

We’re not often encouraged to show our emotions at work (there’s no crying in baseball!), but emotions are an essential part of corporate storytelling. Have you ever known, logically, that everything was okay, but you worried anyway? Most of us have; that’s our emotional side talking. It’s simple: if we want people to change behaviors, we can’t just appeal to logic. Like it or not, your audience is having an emotional reaction to whatever you’re saying. As trainers, we have to appeal to the entire brain. A Dasche and Thompson blog makes an interesting point:

Sometimes, there’s even reason to arouse negative emotions in the corporate world. When the goal is change, there needs to be some dissatisfaction with things as they currently are. When current to possible future state, the grass should look greener on the other side.

The author goes on to say that we still have to engage the “head and hands,” but “emotion (heart) provides the fuel that drives the learner to the desired destination.”

Delivery

For many trainers, delivery is the hard part. Pacing, flow, and emphasis can turn a good story into a great one, but some lack confidence and have difficulty “putting themselves out there” to tell a story effectively. If you’re an unlucky soul who can never get a punch line quite right, try:

  • Tell the story over and over to anyone who will listen (significant others are great victims). Get the story down cold, and you’ll have the confidence for a great delivery.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. Try some new activities to enhance your storytelling skills. Take an acting class or try out for a community theatre production. Try a stand-up comedy class. These activities are low-risk and high-risk at the same time: everyone is learning, but there’s pressure to perform. You’ll learn to tell those stories in a hurry!

Keeping It Human

Adding a human element to training through storytelling will make your instruction more effective — and more fun! Storytelling is great for any setting, but it’s especially effective in orientation (what’s your corporate story?), soft skills, and product training.

And don’t forget: storytelling can be a part of online training too. How about a video with a testimonial about the latest product, or a podcast about the experience of working at your company?

Related: 7 Learning Podcasts You Need to Listen to Right Now

One last thing: Storytelling is FREE.

Low-cost, far-reaching, and effective — sounds like a pretty good story to me!


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