The Plot Thickens

Trainers can use storytelling to explain information to learners in a way that entertains and sticks. Here’s how.

Just 50,000 years ago—a blink in cosmic time— humans trained each other by telling stories around a fire. Our technology has evolved, but our brains are still structured to learn and communicate using stories. Training developers can apply the latest knowledge about storytelling to keep learners engaged and implant their message. Here’s how.

Why to Include Storytelling

Good training needs a combination of both information and entertainment—infotainment—to result in a mental or physical shift in a participant, according to Sean D’Souza, author of “The Brain Audit” and founder of “The issue with information is that it’s tiring,” D’Souza says. “When learners are listening to information, they’re doing more than one thing at a time. They’re trying to make sense of it. They’re trying to remember it. They’re also trying to see how they can apply it.”

This is where stories come into play: When learners are trying to make sense of information, an anecdote, analogy, or case study helps slip the information into story mode. “Stories help the client to remember the information and see a practical application of it,” D’Souza explains.

Storytelling is a proven way to learn: Our environment, technology, and tools have changed since the days of painting on cave walls, but the fundamental way we interact with information has not, notes Raymond Smith, associate dean of Executive Development, Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. “We think we’ve become smarter, but the human brain is much the same as it was when we were cave painting.”

Smith still recalls the stories sung in folk form as he was growing up in England. “It’s something so central to human learning, no matter what country you’re in,” he says. “In a training session, I can list a bunch of facts, but you’ll be more likely to remember them if I wrap them into a story structure.”

Keep the Objective in Mind

Of course, there are some training situations where storytelling is not applicable. For example, customer service complaints may reflect deeper, management-level issues. “Storytelling by itself isn’t the objective—you have to keep the end goal in mind,” D’Souza says.

When storytelling is appropriate, it must be done with an objective. “Everything a trainer or learning designer does must be about the learner, and storytelling is no exception,” says John McDermott, CPLP and owner of J-K International, Ltd. This has many implications for how to include storytelling in a training module, he says. “Learners must be able to relate to the story, and the story must relate to the message the training content is trying to convey.” The story may involve the trainer or instructional designer, but the focus must be on the learning objective.

Where to Get Ideas for Stories

There are at least two basic sources for stories: existing stories, such as fairy tales or real life, or new stories. McDermott says he prefers true stories, especially involving the trainer, or classic stories such as fables. A trainer can start with existing stories, such as “why I missed my plane,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” or “the gift I bought for my friend,” and slightly vary it. “It doesn’t need much variation, yet it does need to be customized to the content and audience,” McDermott emphasizes.

One way to develop a story is to explain the concept to a friend, colleague, or partner, and see what impromptu stories arise. Other sources include stories from family and friends, colleagues, and historical books, particularly those in the public domain. “In general, it is great to read, read, read. The more you read, the more stories you will find, and the more you will see how to integrate them in your training,” McDermott says.

Structuring Your Story

The difference between an average story and a well-told story comes down to structure, according to D’Souza. “An average story is just a sequence. This, then that, then something else,” he says. “A well-told story has structure, like a well-told joke or episode.” His favored story structure includes a setup, suspense, and punchline.

McDermott recommends a similar structure: pain, response, and outcome (PRO). Sometimes the story doesn’t cleanly follow the PRO outline, but it serves as an easily followed model from which to build stories. “The storyline of ‘I did this thing and it worked,’ is one thing, but you need to share the conflict. Why did you do it? Once you do that, you are in PRO territory.”

McDermott likes the PRO format because it is easy to remember when telling impromptu stories during trainings. The structure is also flexible: You can present the pain or conflict first, then address how the response is constructed, or even different responses, then show the outcome. He sometimes includes stories that explain the outcome first, then flash back to the pain and response, and explain how the outcome happened.

This could work well for soft skills training, for which McDermott suggests an interactive model. The trainer can illustrate, using the PRO model, a poor response, then the corresponding outcome, then ask learners to suggest how the response could be improved, and finally describe an ideal response and outcome.

Incorporating Stories Inside Training

After structuring a story, it needs to be organized into a presentation in a way that maximizes its impact. In D’Souza’s book, “The Brain Audit,” he uses stories, examples, and analogies to illustrate information. “The reason they remember information isn’t because of the information itself, but because it’s entwined within storytelling. There needs to be a chunk of information, then a few stories or examples, then a chunk of information, then a few stories or examples,” he says. Without this balance, all the trainer is doing is dumping information and exhausting the audience.

McDermott uses stories to illustrate how computer tools are used or why they were invented. “I sometimes ask participants to suggest solutions, and then show what the outcomes would be if the ideas they proposed were implemented,” he says. “Then I show what is done in real life. This isn’t limited to technical topics, either.”

Smith includes storytelling in his training materials, such as a university-level leadership training e-book, “The Six Domains of Leadership.” This e-book includes a conceptual component, with a complementary “learning parable” paralleling each part of the book.

The story centers around a mob boss who is trying to “go legit,” and the lesson uses the boss and his gang middle manager to illustrate each aspect of effective leadership. “I get a lot of comments or questions that refer to the gangland characters and what they are doing or not doing in the story, as a means of understanding the leadership concepts and their own behavior as leaders,” Smith notes, illustrating how a well-told story helps cement concepts inside learners’ brains so they retain the knowledge happily after ever.

3 Must-Haves for Successful Training Videos

By Matt Pierce, Learning & Video Ambassador, TechSmith Corp

Whether it’s for onboarding, continued professional development, or to introduce new concepts at your business, videos—particularly those that incorporate stories—are an effective way to supplement your training programs. But not all videos are equal. Successful training videos allow viewers to learn, imagine new perspectives, and apply shared knowledge.

To make the best use of your time and resources—and to keep your employees watching—be sure to include these three essentials in your video creation process:

  1. Develop scripts and storyboards. If you’re going for a highly polished look, before diving straight into shooting, it’s important to know what you’re going to say and show in your training videos. Even if you have an idea in your head, taking time to create scripts and storyboards before filming helps you stay organized and consistent, ensuring everything you want to capture makes it into your videos. Scripts and storyboards also allow those on camera to be more confident and articulate while saving you time and effort in the long run.
  2. Keep your videos engaging. We’ve all experienced a boring training video— maybe it didn’t keep your attention, or you felt like nothing was absorbed. That’s why keeping things engaging is the key to creating fresh and relevant training videos, even if the content you have to get across is boring. To keep employees watching, try adding elements such as quizzes or hotspots or an interactive piece of content embedded within a video that viewers can click on to do a deeper dive on a subject. Music, motion, and other visuals are other great ways to grab and hold on to your employees’ attention.
  3. Know how to use your gear. You don’t need top-of-the-line gear or expensive equipment to create great training videos. Depending on the type of video you’re creating, even the phone in your pocket is powerful and advanced enough to let you shoot, edit, and share your videos with ease. Knowing how your device works so you can get the most out of it makes a huge difference between mediocre and great videos, regardless of the gear you use. And remember, some of the best training videos don’t need a camera at all. A simple screen recording with basic narration and a few callouts can be a great way to demonstrate a process, introduce your audience to a new piece of software or user interface, and more.
Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.