How to use storytelling in workplace learning

Let’s begin with one of the most-loved tropes from office sitcoms — the water cooler moment. The water cooler is the heart of workplace gossip, where stories and rumors are exchanged in the name of afternoon entertainment and procrastination. This is just one example of how stories punctuate almost every interaction in our daily lives — around 65% of the conversations we have each day. So when you hop on a video call with your co-workers, chances are you’ll begin by exchanging stories about how your week is going or what you got up to at the weekend.

Why do we love to tell stories? Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence, and that it’s common to every known culture. The origin of the word history shares much of its lineage with story, and in previous eras, the two concepts were much more closely linked than they are today. With such a dominant role in our lives, it makes sense that telling stories is also one of the primary ways that we learn about the world around us — it’s how we learn about our culture, country, and family. Storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas.

When it comes to learning, information that stems from a well-told story is remembered more accurately, and for longer, than information derived from data alone. Psychologist Jerome Bruner’s research suggests that facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they’re part of a story. It makes sense to mimic the power of this everyday phenomenon when building a training curriculum and to incorporate key storytelling techniques throughout.

Let's take a look at the storytelling techniques that create an effective learning program. 

  1. A well-structured curriculum

    Every great story starts with a solid structure, and every great learning program starts with a solid curriculum outline. It might not be the most exciting part of the development process, and is often skipped by time-pressed teams, but a detailed and thorough curriculum outline will ensure that your project is set up for success. This is your opportunity to define your audience, learning objectives, modules and topics, and to identify relevant source material — the fundamental ingredients of your learning program.

    The ultimate purpose of the curriculum is to ensure that your training meets the needs of your learners: Have you found solutions for their challenges? Is anything missing? Is the learning content varied and informative? Once you have fine-tuned your curriculum, you will have a document that will keep your learning focused and accurate as you progress through each development phase.

    Another key benefit of the outline phase is the opportunity for collaboration. Integral to our business outlook is the idea of ‘bespoke learning’ — learning programs that are tailored to solve our clients’ unique challenges. This initial planning stage is the perfect time to develop a strategy that works for your learners.

  2. Set the scene

    To keep learners engaged from the get-go, you need to let them know why they are there and what they will get out of this experience. You can do this in many different ways, from creating your very own course trailer to incorporating an introductory module into your e-Learning program. An overview sets the scene for the learner and illustrates the purpose and motivation behind the program.

  3. The narrative arc

    One of the fundamentals of storytelling is the narrative arc. A classic narrative arc, common to almost all stories, is the hero’s journey: A character embarks on an adventure, facing many challenges along the way, and ultimately uses these experiences as an opportunity to gather the knowledge and experience they need to overcome a final hurdle. While workplace learning is not quite as perilous as a hero’s journey, an engaging and effective program works in just the same way. Learners confront challenges, overcome obstacles and, in the end, use their newfound knowledge to solve a problem or complete a task. Determining this narrative arc — or learning journey — is an integral step in the learning program design process.

    An archetype of this story is in the Pixar classic, Finding Nemo. The fish in the film are forced into their adventure, and Marlin, Dory and the titular Nemo all experience emotional, mental and physical challenges along the way. The payoff at the end of the film is that they each draw on what they have learned to overcome a big final challenge together, each bringing their own experience.

  1. Recreating cliffhanger content

    Cliffhangers have a strange psychological effect: While we’re desperate to find out what happens yet, we’re also frustrated that the story has not yet come to a resolution. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as the Zeigarnik effect, named after the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. She noted that people are twice as likely to recall a task if they are interrupted halfway through it. In the same way, cliffhangers make stories more memorable — they keep us at the edge of our seats until the season is done, or frantically flicking through the pages until the crisis is averted.

    Nothing quite screams cliffhanger content like soap operas. Love them or loathe them, no other TV genre has the capacity to attract millions of viewers on a daily basis. We recently had the opportunity to test our soap opera scripting and acting skills for one of our clients. The Away from Home video series combines all the drama (and overacting) of a weeknight soap with practical Google Nest Home use cases, to entertain and educate retail sales associates at the same time. Who said learning has to be boring?!

    You don’t have to go quite as far as recreating a beloved Aussie melodrama to incorporate the cliffhanger effect in your learning program. In an e-Learning, recreate the interruption effect with frequent mini-challenges to break up new information. These challenges encourage the learner to think both independently and critically, and bring out their competitive spirit. In an in-person training workshop, begin the session with a relatable, character-driven story. Stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later. This is the best way to get your learners to care about the training and see its relevance to their work and lives.

  2. Short and sweet

    According to Chris Brogan, stories are how we keep numbers, facts and details “glued into our heads”. As children, parents and teachers use short stories and nursery rhymes to communicate new ideas. Chances are that a variation of the phrase “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” still runs through your mind when you try to recall the order of cardinal directions. Individually the elements are hard to remember, but together they form a tiny story, otherwise known as a mnemonic device, that sticks in your mind.

    Although less frequently used in workplace training, mnemonics are a powerful technique to consider when you need learners to absorb a lot of information in a short time period. Consider incorporating mnemonic techniques into technical learning programs to help the tech specs stick or into an onboarding program to introduce new hires to internal naming conventions.

  3. Motivation and reward

    It is hard to stay motivated when the end is not in sight. This is as true for the first 100 pages of War and Peace as it is for the first 20 minutes into a two-day training session. Regular benchmarks to remind learners what they have already achieved and progress reports on where they are going next are key. For in-person and virtual training, frequent breakout sessions to discuss key takeaways help participants keep their learning journey in perspective. For e-Learnings, visible progress trackers let learners track their progress and motivate them to keep going.

    Conflict is one of the integral ingredients in a good story. In order to enjoy the reward of a happy ending, audiences have to watch the main characters struggle to achieve their goals. This is the same for a learning journey. Learners need to face challenges and have their knowledge tested in order to feel the satisfaction of completing their learning journey. This is why our learning programs are punctuated by knowledge checks and end-of-module quizzes. And while a good quiz score can be all the reward learners need, ending a module with a celebratory animation, awarding a digital certificate, or gifting SWAG items can reinforce the sense of completion and achievement.

Whether you’re creating a GDPR e-Learning, a customer education video series or manager training program — there’s always a story to be told!


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