We are addicted to stories because stories are compelling.
Stories entertain us. Stories inform us and tell us right from wrong. Stories make us feel for people or care about events. Stories motivate us. Stories inspire us to act. It is no wonder that stories are central to how we learn.
Connie Malamed, the E-learning coach, provides a starting point for thinking about storytelling for learning. She lists 10 reasons why storytelling is vital for learning: Stories are emotional glue. People want to know about origins. Stories make people care. Stories reshape knowledge into something meaningful. Stories are more likely to be shared. And so on. Each reason captures why adopting storytelling is important for learning: Stories make information meaningful. How can we use storytelling to make training compelling and more effective?
Simply put, stories make information meaningful by making connections in emotionally interesting ways. The key is understanding narrative structure and how it gives meaning to the characters and events in a story.
One reason stories are captivating is that stories organize information, events, and actions into a coherent whole by placing that information into a familiar narrative structure of a beginning, middle, and end. In essence, stories show us how something originates (beginning), how it develops from these beginnings (middle), and where it is going (end). The narrative structure thus provides a reason to keep on listening. It pulls the listener forward. At some point the information, the events, the actions, and the characters involved become interesting to us as listeners. We care about what happened and what is happening. Narrative structure gives a meaningful order to events so that it motivates the listener to pay attention, anticipate, and ultimately be able to use that information. The end result is that we more easily retain that information, adapt it and share that information.
But, you might remark, “Safety compliance or training on management strategies, operational changes, or how to structure loans doesn’t immediately jump off the page as obvious topics for stories. How do we use these elements of stories to make training more compelling?”
Turning training into a story relies on being able to connect the dots of crucial information into a narrative whole that drives the learner forward. The connection will depend on the course content and goals. The connection could be temporal: steps in a process, a timed activity, a backward- or forward-looking plan, or a history lesson. The connection could be functional: how this information or activity fits into a larger organized structure of information and activity. Or the connection could be, well… anything that lends itself to a narrative structure.
Not all pieces of information need to fit neatly into the narrative. If the key bits of information can be organized into a coherent structure, then everything else falls in place. The narrative structure is a scaffold that we, as listeners and learners, grasp immediately. Putting information and activities into that scaffold will give it meaning. And meaningful information is easier to remember and easier to use.
Fundamentally, the best stories pull the learner forward, setting up expectations and questions that should be answered in the next step or at the completion of the training. This is the essence of the narrative structure. The listener/learner wants to know more, wants to see what is just around the bend, and wants to understand how this activity fits into a larger scheme. It makes sense of a complex collection of information.
If storytelling is going to be helpful in training, as it should, the training should capitalize on the narrative structure of that information. What is the purpose of corporate training? Change. Change that aims at improvement in performance. The learner must accomplish tasks that the training will help them achieve. What better setting do you need for a narrative structure? What are the beginnings of this task, how does it develop, and at what does it aim? That is the essence of narrative. That, in a nutshell, is the magic of stories and how they can be used to develop effective training.
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