Storytelling is a hot topic these days in business. Forbes says entrepreneurs who tell stories win more business. And that marketing professionals are embracing the power of stories in order to get their messages across.
What Is a Story?
There’s no agreed-upon structure for a story. A child might describe a story as having a beginning, middle, and end. A novelist might tell you that a story must have a protagonist, an antagonist, context, action, a rise and fall of conflict, and an ultimate transformation.
In this short video, Ken Burns describes “real, genuine stories” as being about “1 and 1 equaling 3.” An effective story offers perspective, which is a form of manipulation. He believes that there are multiple truths, and story is a framework to expose those truths. Is the storyteller a medium or a puppet master? It’s a fascinating thought.
Stories Help Us Learn
Aside from entertaining or persuading us, how can stories help us learn? Stories are actually the foundation of how we learn throughout our lives, and we share them quite naturally. Think of the cautionary tales you heard when you were young—the ones that stick with you to this day. The Three Little Pigs. The Ugly Duckling. The one about how you shouldn’t eat Pop Rocks and soda, lest you suffer the fate of Little Mikey (totally untrue, by the way). The stories we hear when we’re young have the power of shaping our beliefs, fears, and dreams.
Why are stories so universally compelling?
- Stories activate neurons in our brains in a comprehensive way—as if we’re actually experiencing the story.
- We’re hard-wired to tune into stories. In fact we think in narrative form all day long, from deciding what to eat for breakfast to completing household chores.
- They help us form an emotional connection with our audience, which helps us communicate a message.
- When we’re in story-audience mode, we’re listening and receptive. This is the ideal state for learning.
- When we hear a good story, we’re inspired to share it with others.
- Stories communicate insight, which is motivating—especially when we can draw connections to our own goals, dreams, or experiences.
- They are easy to remember.
Building Stories for Instruction
One of the reasons story-based learning is so effective is that it offers learners a realistic context to relate with. For ideas on using a narrative structure when creating training, compare traditional and story-based approaches for an elearning course below.
|Ask SMEs to give you existing resources, like PDFs and forms that relate to your topic.||Use probing questions to ask SMEs for stories, such as “Tell me about a time when an employee suffered the consequences of bad communication.” Turn these insights into stories for the course if appropriate.|
|Use generic silhouettes as characters in the course.||Create composite characters or personas inspired by your SME/audience interviews. Consider involving the learner as a character who can help play the “hero” role in resolving the conflict.|
|Work with SMEs only at the beginning of a project.||Check in with SMEs and possibly representatives from the learning audience throughout the project to make sure your context is authentic.|
|Organize content by topic and subtopics.||Organize content according to story-inspired structure, like setting, plot, action, climax, and resolution.|
|Present the learner with content.||Actively involve the learner in unfolding the story.|
|Use the training topic itself as the theme, such as “Communication Skills for Leaders.”||Frame the learning experience around a scenario or conflict that relates with the topic, such as “John Larson’s Communication Breakdown.”|
|Include multiple-choice quiz questions that align with learning objectives.||Give learners a branching exercise with built-in consequences and constructive feedback.|
|Conclude the training with a summary of the learning objectives.||Conclude the training with a resolution of the conflict.|
If you’re an instructional designer, do you incorporate elements of story into your training? As a learner, how have you experienced story-based learning?