Tag Archives: stories

Why Talent Development Pros are the Best Storytellers

Jake Comic

Stories give audiences the upper hand when it comes to remembering your message. The dilemma is not that we don’t believe this, but that talent development professionals generally don’t know how to compose stories for training and communications. Story Design is the answer to this problem.

You, the TD pro

In the comic above, Jake, who is struggling to build a tricycle, represents your learner. The instructions, a step-by-step method of assembling the tricycle, represent the list of performance objectives (I call it an action list) you want your learners to be able to do after they’ve taken your training. It’s not working out so great for Jake. Somehow, the training has fallen short.

You have a specific audience, like Jake, that needs to take action on a specific set of objectives, like building a tricycle. Who is that audience and what are those actions? Instructional designers and consultants are great at getting answers to both of these questions. And that’s good, because without them, there is no character, there is no action, there is no story. Here’s what I mean:

Stories for learning have two main components: relatable characters + strong conflict.

Let’s look at both of these components of a story and what you’re already doing to make writing the story easier.

Relatable characters

Jake
Jake represents the learner

Characters in a story must give your audience reason to care. As a designer of training, you are already collecting information to create an audience profile…or you should be. The makers of the tricycle probably didn’t do a very good job figuring out who Jake was. Ask some questions of your audience, or someone who knows your audience well. Questions that reveal their:

  • Values
  • Current circumstances
  • Reactions to surroundings
  • Fears
  • Challenges
  • Favorite things to do in their spare time

Answers to these questions begin to reveal possible characters. For example, if my audience:

  • Values quality work
  • Works for a company entering a new international market
  • Enjoys stability, not variety
  • Fears losing their job to overseas
  • Struggles to adapt to change
  • Likes to hang out with their families, play baseball and go to church in their spare time

Characters start coming to mind. Perhaps a proud foreman who is embarrassed that he doesn’t understand a new process. A perfectionist operator whose quality scores are suffering because she’s challenged by a new way of doing things. The more information you have about the audience, the easier it will be to create relatable characters.

Strong conflict

If you haven’t been collecting information about who your audience is (please start doing that), it is doubtful that you have neglected the second story component: the action list.

Action list
The tricycle instructions represent the action list

What is it that stakeholders want the audience to do? Likely, you’re doing a lot better job than the tricycle company. You’ve conducted extensive interviews to find out if training is the answer. You’ve met with subject matter experts and created a detailed list of actions that must be performed to reach the goals of making a business impact. As you compose the action list:

  • Use strong, positive action verbs (Avoid Avoid…)
  • Put the actions in a logical order, such as an outline
  • Ask questions of stakeholders that unearth real stories that are happening in the workplace

You’re already do all of this, right? What you may not have realized is that you’ve just outlined the conflict for your story.

You, the storyteller

Let’s put all of this together. Below are the two components of the story. Do you see how they relate to the components of instructional design? Relatable characters come from your audience profile. The strong conflict comes from your action list.

SD FORMULA

If I were to write a story premise about the comic above and apply it to what I’d like you to do after reading this post, I’d say it was a story about a tricycle company who struggled to know who their audience was and had a hard time writing instructions in a way that their customers could make sense of their product’s assembly.

Do you see the story here? It’s a metaphor. You’re the tricycle company! And here’s what I’d like you to do:

  1. Know your audience and you’ll know who your relatable characters should be
  2. Know what you want them to do and put the characters in direct, strong conflict with those actions

If you’d like to master Story Design, sign up for a master class series at needastory.com.

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What People Say About Stories

Where learning is concerned, you may be hard pressed to find a better context-builder than stories. The power of stories to increase learning retention are outlined by almost every person who writes on the subject of brain science and learning. Below are a sampling of quotes from 5 authorities on learning/motivating for change.

“We like stories. We learn a lot from stories, and we seem to have a particularly good memory for them. A really well-told story can stick with us for years, even if we’ve only heard it once.”  (Design For How People Learn, Julie Dirksen)

“Stories have been told for thousands of years in order to transfer cultural lore and values. When a great story is told, we lean forward, and our hearts race as the story unfolds.”  (Resonate, Nancy Duarte)

“A story is powerful because it provides the context missing from abstract prose…putting knowledge into a framework that is more lifelike, more true to our day-to-day existence. More like a flight simulator. Being the audience for a story isn’t so passive, after all. inside, we’re getting ready to act.” (Made To Stick, Chip Heath & Dan Heath)

“In context of ethics and values, stories help make abstract issues concrete and accessible, especially when we can sympathize or identify with one of the characters.” (Modeling the Message: Communicating Compliance through Organizational Value and Culture, Scott Killingsworth, Social Science Research Network, Oct 1, 2012)

“The best way to unite an idea with an emotion is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy… If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.” (Storytelling That Moves People, Harvard Business Review, June 1, 2003)

I have yet to meet anyone in the training field who has said, “Stories just don’t work for learning.” Though the evidence is abundant both in the context of learning and in everyday life, that stories are incredibly powerful and effective, it is surprising that they are somewhat underused in training. At least in my interactions with other learning professionals, stories seem to be forgotten or inserted as an afterthought or so watered down that they lose their punch. But why not craft a training experience with story as the centerpiece? More on that to come.

What has been your experience with stories in training, both as a trainer and as someone who takes training? Is there a particularly memorable training experience when the story really worked? Are there aspects of story-telling that are problematic for you when it comes to putting it into practice? Please share your thoughts and comments then check out How Stories Connect To Learning.