Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. — Robert McKee
Humans need stories to understand and accept the world they live in, to find meaning, and the ability to change realities. This may all sound awfully artistic for an article on storytelling for business training.
That is supposed to be about entrepreneurs starting with nothing and building empires, corporations on the verge of losing everything over one uninspired product, and then managing to rise from the ashes like the phoenix, and about executives who believed in their companies so much, they invested all their personal money into them. Right?
Well, no. Those stories can undoubtedly be uplifting and motivational, but that is not all that storytelling for business is about.
The origins of “The Story Theatre Method”
Doug Stevenson started out as a (not so successful) actor in Hollywood and after over a decade of being immersed in the workings of the glamorous film industry, decided to use all the insights he gathered to put together a practical guide of how stories have the power to make information stick and change behavior.
He noticed (and brain science confirmed his observations) that when people are asked to remember something from their past, the first things that come to mind are a series of images or scenes.
Some events are vividly remembered because they were happy ones and some because there was an element of danger or fear. Either way, emotions and feelings are the common denominators in long-lasting memories. Words and dialogue may also be present, but only if they were highly relevant or shocking.
Why storytelling for business training is necessary
Trainers have long been on a quest to find the best ways of engaging an audience and imparting as much information as possible in the hope that a significant chunk of it would be retained. As an L&D practitioner for over a decade, I can confess that I was always well-aware of the small percentage of knowledge that was still there a week after the session.
Storytelling always seemed to help but what my colleagues and I noticed (mostly from the feedback forms) was that the participants remembered only the story and not the information around it. The problem was that we were all using the tales to bring the audience back when they seemed bored, and as a result, they were distractions rather than integral parts of the course.
But Doug Stevenson is promoting a new way of employing storytelling techniques in corporate learning:
The number one rule is to be strategic
Giving context to content is what well-employed stories are supposed to do. They are not to act as ‘welcome breaks’ from the training. And that requires to apply the first rule stated in Stevenson’s “Story Theatre Method”: instructional designers and trainers need to be strategic in their choices.
In order to build the right plan, there are a few questions that need to be answered:
- Who is the audience? (the age and context in which they live and work is highly relevant when it comes to figuring out what will impress on them)
- What do they need to know? (this should be easily answered by taking a look at the course’s table of contents)
- What should they feel? (it’s no secret that the main reason stories work is that they trigger emotional responses)
- What is crucial that they remember and share with others? (the most important take-away of the learning intervention)
The best stories are those of “failures, mistakes and small disasters”
One of the common misconceptions when it comes to stories being used in learning is that they always have to be epic success stories. While some may have a little merit, they are better used by motivational speakers than learning specialists.
People learn best from their mistakes and almost as well from the failures of others. Furthermore, a trainer who comes in front of an audience with personal tales oozing of competence and extraordinary results has every chance of being deemed outstandingly annoying. And while that is indeed an emotional reaction, it rather facilitates irritation than information retention.
So, the best stories to be used in training courses (online or face-to-face) in order to give context to learning content are those in which something went off course. For example, when I was talking to new-hires about the extreme importance of locking their workstations when they went on breaks, I always told how upon my failure to do so, a personals announcement on my behalf was placed on the company intranet.
IN moments are the most powerful
For stories to be meaningful to the audience, they need to be personal. That is not necessarily a problem since corporate trainers and speakers are generally agora natives who thrive on sharing their experiences.
However, even though these morsels of experience are obviously in the past, they have a greater effect if the storyteller not only recounts but actually acts out some of the actions and reactions they had when those events were unfolding. Instead of simply stating, “I stared at my screen not understanding what on Earth was going on”, big eyes and a gasp have the capacity of engaging the audience a lot more.
It’s easier for learners to relate if they feel, even for a split second, that they somehow participated (or at least witnessed first-hand) the unfolding of events. Luckily, this can also be achieved via teleconferencing apps (so necessary and popular these days) with the use of facial expressions.
This is just scraping the surface of powerful storytelling for business learning. Next time we’ll look deeper into the mechanics of the Theatre Method, but what is relevant so far is to remember that stories need to be the context for the content, they ought to be (and feel) personal and deal with small or big failures rather than outstanding success.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.