Long ago, the king of Syracuse suspected that his crown was not made entirely out of gold and asked Archimedes to figure out a way to verify it. The ancient scientist thought long and hard about it before figuring out (while taking a bath) that if he dipped the crown in water and measure the displacement, he could say how much of the precious metal was in it. Upon realizing this he shouted ‘eureka’, a word we are still very fond of today and use it when we discover or accomplish something.

In the 15th century, Columbus set sail for the Indies to get precious spices but got lost and landed in America, changing the known geography of the period. In a more recent time, Napoleon set about to conquer all of Europe but he was defeated by the Russian winter.

These are all things most of us know even though we are not necessarily specialized in physics, geography or history. It’s general knowledge and it sticks with us because it is backed up by good stories.

Stories are as old as time

Storytelling is in our DNA. From the caves in Spain and Africa we find that even primitive humans painted the stone walls with tales of epic hunts or battles. Children grow up and learn from stories, Hollywood thrives on them and every time we go out with a friend for a cup of coffee or a pint of beer we share our more or less spectacular stories.

Our memories are made of them; we don’t really remember every single day of our life but there’s always a special place for those days with a tale – a trip, a meeting, an accident, anything with some tension and a resolution. The unresolved ones have the ability to haunt us for a long time and they are great material for therapy sessions.

All in all, narratives are important to us humans and they have the potential to teach, change and make us better.

Using storytelling in training (whether it is soft skills or technical) is a great way to improve participant engagement and information retention.

The 3 types of stories that work in training

A story is basically is “a report of connected events, real or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words, or still or moving images, or both. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, “to tell”, which is derived from the adjective gnarus, “knowing” or “skilled”.

Indeed it takes a little know-how to make up entertaining narratives but it’s nothing a library card can’t fix. There are very many types of stories, of points of view and of construction modes. As with all that pertains to human imagination, the possibilities are endless. Arabic wisdom tells of how Scheherazade managed to save her life by telling stories for 1001 and nights in a row and thawing the Sultan’s cold heart with her wild and adventurous tales.

Even if in corporate training the situation is not exactly a ‘life or death’ one, storytelling can save everyone from boredom or wasted time. Out of the many versions that narratives have, three stand out as having great potential for learning: parables, example stories, and ‘what if’ scenarios.

  1. Stories that make a point

    Parables are stories that are meant to teach a lesson. Their roots are in the Bible, the book that gives pastors something to preach about every Sunday and never run out of material. Of course those stories have more to do with morals, general conduct and faith. They are a bit too much for today’s all-inclusive corporate environment.

    The model however is one that can be replicated in order to convey new information or general company policies. My favorite example to use in courses that have to do with time management or efficiency is about the lumberjack who cut trees all day with very little success. When he was asked why he didn’t stop for a while to sharpen his axe, his answer was that he didn’t have the time because he needed to meet his quota. When eventually he did have to take a break and sharpen the blade, his efficiency greatly improved.

    I obviously never trained anybody who came with an axe to work or whose job was to cut down trees but the message did get through – that’s how a good parable works.

  2. Learning from example

    Example stories work great when they are told in the first person. Personally, I vote for people telling their own stories, directly to the audience or via video. In customer care training programs I have noticed that the biggest impact was given by real customers talking about their own experiences.

    It is one thing to write on a flip-chart “people need to be listened to” and another to play a video with an old lady who is not really knowledgeable with computers and the internet and yet managed to file online for returning a product because the operator who took her call understood her plight and filed it in for her instead of endlessly repeating something about company policy and the digitization of all customer requests.

    It’s also helpful in technical training programss to know why things, apps or procedures are the way they are. Usually all these get created or modified according to some requirements that don’t come out of the nothingness of the universe. If people understand what the reasons are, they are a lot more likely to remember and act accordingly.

  3. The other side of the story

    What if stories are meant to appeal to participants’ imaginations. They work best if they are not merely told but constructed with the people in the room. Especially with Millennials, the status quo gets constantly challenged. They will always question, seek to understand and improve, and that ultimately works for the best since it is how innovations are made.

    Inserting this type of ‘what if’ stories in the training sessions will help create an alternative to whatever is taught and regardless if that other version turns out to be better or worse, the official one will still stick and that is the wanted end-result of any learning intervention. The trainer may have their own models of ‘other ways’ but still stay open to what may come from the room. If this is used in e-learning, it’s best to construct it in such a way that the user may choose between different versions so that they really feel like they can use their own imagination.

In the end

As I have mentioned before, the possibilities of storytelling and pretty much endless. Using them right in training will lead the participants to at least think if not yell “eureka” at the end of the course.


Also read: Why storytelling works for businesses.


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