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Monday, 17 November 2014 03:12

Long, Long Ago… Using Storytelling to Teach

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Long, Long Ago… Using Storytelling to Teach

Using storytelling to improve training effectiveness

Have you heard this one? A guy walks into a bar… Wait, wait, I just overheard Tony and Jacob telling me that they figured out the best way to get Diet Coke to shoot the highest after dropping Mentos in the bottle, they made this terrific…. Years ago I had a conflict with a co-worker and it turned out to be a great opportunity to solve a problem by using….

OK, are you interested? Storytelling began thousands of years ago when cavemen (and women) got together to not only tell adventures of their past experiences but to also educate each other. It is also the way fables about how the earth was created and moral lessons that helped to establish and perpetuate our cultures and have experiences with today.

It is the same in our corporate culture as tales pass on from one corporate generation to the other. It makes sense that these stories are powerful drivers of employee behavior.

Cultural tales

All organizations have their share of myths and legends and serve to define rules and norms to build its culture. In more mature organizations, these rules and norms are documented into how the culture performs through policies and procedures. But the important thing to comprehend is that the power of storytelling of the past is the foundation of how an organization will operate in the future. It is also an important tool that can be used to teach people how new tools, techniques and information can be utilized within the organizational culture. Storytelling can be used as an effective learning tool to train employees.

Training programs may have a different objective from just sharing information to developing specific skills. However, the goal remains the same - participants should retain what they learn. Retaining what is learned in a training session can be improved when participants find some connection in what they hear and experience. A study of the adult learning theory provides reasons for using storytelling in the learning process. The theory states:

“People learn and remember information that applies to them directly.”

When employees share stories at the workplace they are basically sharing information. As opposed to a lecture or a textbook, this medium is both narrative and informal. The likelihood of the employee retaining the information passed on in this form is high.

In addition, when sharing workplace stories employees are actually sharing information about issues and problems they encounter. Some problems are likely to be common, and therefore participants tend to pay greater attention. They naturally relate to the problem and solutions emerge.

“When multiple senses are stimulated during learning, people acquire information more quickly and retain it longer”

A story at some level elicits an emotional response. Someone relating a story has some personal connection with that experience and this naturally allows the listener to relate on a more personal level. A storyteller (trainer or employee), especially one who has lived the experience, is bound to emote while narrating his or her story. Listeners react emotionally to what is being said. The basis of storytelling improves the possibility of the listener remembering this information rather than listening to a lecture that has no personal interest or meaning.

More reasons why storytelling works

There is a big difference in adult learning compared to high school or even some early college education. Adults have had some life experiences that are fertile ground for the instructor to tap into for expressing new ideas that can connect to these experiences. Stories work as a means to relate the material to their personal knowledge. Participants not only remember stories after the learning program, but can also quickly connect these stories to the ideas and concepts presented in the training event.

Storytelling helps the trainer build rapport with participants. It can be especially powerful when it is based on personal experience. These personal experiences helps create a bond and are extremely helpful while imparting team-building and leadership skills.

A participant rarely forgets a concept or topic when he or she takes his or her own meaning from it. Storytelling gives participants the freedom to rationalize the information received, thereby enhancing their learning.

The technique in action

A trainer usually uses a story as an icebreaker. He or she may also use it to explain and simplify a complex concept. Stories can be used in different contexts and help cover multiple learning points. Trainers could use anecdotes, personal experiences and mythical or folk tales.

Get the student involved

There are many ways to get the students help themselves to learn the materials. The trainer can ask participants to exchange their experiences intermittently to help him or her along during the session. This ensures students’ total involvement.

This can also be employed in small groups by forming teams in the classroom and give them an exercise to work on together. The students will naturally share their experiences in performing the exercise or solving the problem that have been given.

While narrating their best and worst experiences at the workplace, employees indirectly share information about what works and what doesn’t. For instance, one trainer (during a performance management workshop) asked the participants to narrate their best and worst performance appraisal incidents. While they were narrating the stories, he asked the participants to list the best and worst practices. This list was also used to create a list of do’s and don’ts that they could use during actual reviews.

For a story to be effective, the trainer requires a fair amount of preparation and practice. He or she also should have the will to experiment with teaching methods. To begin with, he or she should collect stories from different sources. While most trainers are comfortable narrating their own stories, others’ experiences and stories from books and magazines are useful as well. The larger the database of stories, the more topics a trainer can cover.

Additionally, the trainer needs to know the audience and prepare stories that the students can relate to their organizational culture. It is difficult for students in a construction company to relate to a story about a software installation. Research and interviews of the participants, or someone inside the organization, ahead of time can pay big dividends to help participants to relate to and learn the material.

At TenStep we are dedicated to helping organizations achieve their goals and strategies through the successful execution of critical business projects. We provide training, consulting and products for organizations to help them set up an environment where projects are successful. This includes help with strategic planning, portfolio management, program / project management, Project Management Offices (PMOs) and project lifecycles. For more information, visit or contact us at

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