L&D Best Practices: Strategies for Success (March/April 2019)
The Art of Storytelling
Storytelling is innately human. Across cultures and continents, we have passed down fables, myths, and tales for generations. Oral histories preserved knowledge and spread culture long before the Internet or even the printing press. New technology has altered this art of storytelling, but it is no less critical to our humanity.
Why do we tell stories? How does it affect our ability to transfer knowledge? And in the world of work, how can it help us train our employees and create a better, more productive environment for the workforce?
Presentations can too easily become focused on data points, with a seemingly endless and mind-numbing list of bullet points. This style only activates the area of the brain intended for the processing of language—while information is gained through short bullet points, it isn’t relayed with the same connection, empathy, and engagement a story would be. When our imagination is activated by hearing a story, we can imagine smells and tastes in food, visualize scenes, and feel a chilly breeze even when we’re sitting in a conference room. That’s because our brain mixes our own experiences with what we’re hearing, making the content more easily understood and remembered. Because our minds operate in this way, stories become core to the transfer of knowledge in today’s world and workplace.
To optimize training programs, it is important to use storytelling as a way to support deeper connections and continuity. It will build empathy and encourage the sharing of stories that are personal, humanly relatable, and engaging. Experienced workers’ stories of how thinking and processes have changed, and lessons learned, are likely relatable to current challenges in your organization. As your older workers look toward retirement, beginning to record these stories is critical to helping your organization weather transitions and preserve institutional knowledge.
Viewed through an anthropological lens, what are some of the best practice considerations for leveraging storytelling in your organization? Here is my short list:
1. The Art
As you think about how best to introduce storytelling into your organization, consider creating a primer on what makes a compelling story. Some people are natural storytellers, while most will need some guidelines to think about as they craft their story. Tips on what makes for the most compelling stories go a long way, as do real-world examples of great stories and storytellers. If you have access to a Corporate Communications department, consider partnering with it. Online resources are also widely available on the topic of what makes for a good story. There are a number of TED Talks dedicated specifically to the subject. The more engaging the story, the more effective the transfer of knowledge will be.
2. The Storyteller
Identify the individuals within your organization with specific expertise in areas that may be undergoing rapid and permanent change. The key here is to operationalize and actively promote a speakers program, series, or lunch talks to invite these individuals to share knowledge that otherwise might be lost.
3. The Listener
Storytelling represents a symbiotic relationship between the teller and listener. It’s important to understand your audience. Take the time to mindfully reflect on who should be in the room. To get the most impact out of a good story, you will want to tell it to those with the most interest in the topic. It seems pretty straightforward, but too often we forget to consider who will most benefit from the theme and knowledge being shared.
4. The Story
For the broadest, deepest, and most lasting impact, it’s important to keep stories personal and down to earth with as much detail as possible. Reeling off facts and figures does little to activate the audience’s imagination. The more you engage each listener, the more likely each one is to relate to and retain the wisdom imparted. Encourage the storyteller to share experiences of people, places, and practices as if he or she were walking the listener through the scenes. Details of the sights, the sounds, and the smells make these stories more memorable and valuable.
5. The Archive
A story told in person is much more powerful than one told virtually. However, to capture the wisdom for future listeners and future storytellers, record your presentations. Designing an engaging way for others to benefit from these recordings will require a considered approach to archiving, accessing, and advertising the resource you are building.
Sharing What We Know
As Learning and Development leaders explore methods of capturing contextual knowledge, think deeply about the intersection of knowledge management, co-learning, and individual stories within the workplace. We all have something to learn and something to teach. We each bring something of value that can bolster our desire to share what we know. And within this spirit of generosity, we continuously replenish our capacity to learn from others.