How to Use Storytelling to Increase Learning

By: Kat Koppett and Matthew S. Richter

Overview

This chapter will discuss the value of using storytelling in training and provide practical applications, exercises, and techniques to harness our innate ability to tell and receive information through story.

Introduction

Stories are all around us and they are evident in all of the obvious places: TV, movies, books, etc. They are also present in the way we interact with each other. Think about the various encounters we have throughout a typical day. We meet with our boss and give her a project update. We chat with our colleagues about our children. We tell our spouse about our day. All those reports include vivid characters, evocative settings, and, often, story twists that are stranger than fiction. Stories are the foundation for how we communicate. They enable us to make a personal connection to content on a deeper and richer level, more than a mere list of facts can. And how we narrate and read facts determines how we will remember and integrate them. That’s what learning is. When we approach “learning” in a more traditionally structured way, it can be a struggle for people. But stories enable us to learn without feeling like we are learning, without straining to get it right. Here’s a true story that one of our clients told us about using stories. We have written it using a story structure that we will discuss later.

Once upon a time there was a trainer named Sam, who was charged with delivering the New Hire Orientation program at a Fortune 500 company. Everyday, she would run her two-day program and impart critical information to any new employees using all of her most creative and enjoyable training activities. But one day, Sam was informed that the session had been cut down to only four hours. Because there was so much less time, the instructional designers had developed a lecture format for her to follow to guarantee that she could cover all the material. Because of that, Sam knew that she wasn’t going to be able to ensure learner retention. How could her training participants be expected to understand, relate, and most importantly, internalize the information in a practical way? Because of that, Sam went to several textbooks she had about training delivery to find some ideas. Whenever Sam picked up one of these textbooks, she found herself going right to the case studies that illuminated the important key points. Because of that, Sam was able to relate the events in the case study to her own current challenge and previous successes. Because of that, she realized the power of the story. Stories are about making meaning and determining what sense can be made out of what we learn. And because of that, Sam knew she had the answer. She would use storytelling as her delivery method. She would tell stories around the content and get the participants to tell stories in review. She would use different story structures to frame the material, but at all times maintain a focus on drawing connections. Sam knew that if people could relate the material of a program to their own lives, they would be able to derive meaning from the session, and thus, make sense of it. So, because of that, Sam redeveloped her tactical approach to the program. Until finally, the big day arrived. She told stories, the participants told stories, and everyday afterward, her students remembered the material and had the tools to succeed in their new company.

Sound good? We thought so, too. Here are some applications and exercises.

Applications of Story in Training

There are a myriad of specific ways stories can be used in training sessions:

At the beginning of a session.

A story placed here can:

  • Break the ice and allow the participants to get settled.
  • Establish credibility and empathy.
  • Frame the intention of the workshop in a robust and emotionally rich way.

As a method of participant introductions.

This method allows for individual expression and will be more memorable than a list of stats (birthday, favorite color, and favorite food). Here are some ideas for introductory stories that participants can share with each other.

Have them:

  • Tell the story of their names – participants relate how they got their name or nickname.
  • Share a war story – participants describe a pivotal story from their work life.
  • Recount the story of how they got here today (starting from whenever they choose – this morning, birth etc.).

As a needs assessment.

This provides you with information about your participants and their expectations, previous knowledge, and applicable skills.

  • Have participants tell the story of “what I got out of the workshop” at the very beginning, as if the workshop were over. This can be used as a way of gathering learner expectations.
  • Have participants tell a true story of a great success in order to gather best practices and tips to share.
  • Have participants relate a story of frustration or disappointment as a way of determining objectives and challenges to address in the workshop.

As a visioning and strategic planning tool.

  • Individually or in groups, have the participants write the story of the ideal future state, with as many sensory details as possible.
  • Identify a current state and a desired state and have participants create the story of how they moved from one to the other.

As a method for enhancing learner retention and content review.

  • Individually or in groups, have the participants create a story that illustrates a learning point.
  • Provide a story that illustrates a process or incorporates data as a mnemonic device.
  • Have participants write “the story of the workshop” as a way of assessing retention and evaluating the experience.

As a team-building activity.

  • Have groups create stories collaboratively, without worrying about content, as a way of exploring shared control, accepting each other’s ideas, and listening.
  • Have groups create the story of their ideal team (see visioning above).

As a way to increase creativity and provide a safe environment for idea generation.

Use storytelling exercises individually and in groups to exercise the participants’ creativity muscles.

Instant storytelling allows participants to practice the following skills:

        • being spontaneous
        • listening to others
        • accepting and building on ideas
        • using observation as inspiration

In addition, sometimes people need to be reminded that they are creative. Storytelling is a fail-safe way to prove to them that they are.

Use stories as a way of generating ideas. By fictionalizing a situation, participants may feel safer thinking “outside the box” or voicing “silly” ideas. For example, have them tell the story of how things would be if a famous person were in charge of a project. (e.g. how would our meetings look if they were run by Mother Theresa? Arnold Schwarzenegger?) Use the story format to generate ideas that can be modified and used in their own worlds.

For fun!

A wise person once said, (ok, it was us) “Fun is going to enhance interest, or intrinsic motivation, because people don’t feel incompetent (a key demotivator) when they are having fun.” Throwing a story into a discussion anytime, anywhere can change the energy and provide entertainment, which is valuable in and of itself.

Storytelling Tools and Exercises

As we have said, all of us are natural storytellers. Some of us, though, may feel frightened at the idea of having to actively create a story. Or we may feel that our stories do not highlight the point we are trying to make, thus failing to create the intended impact. Or, when we are narrating a story collaboratively, we may get lost in a forest of conflicting ideas. Below, we have included two exercises to guide individuals and groups through a conscious process of story creation.

The Story Spine

The Story Spine is a template originally created by Kenn Adams, a playwright and improvisational actor, to aid improvisers and writers in creating “well-made” stories. The flow or structure of a story is very important. Whether it is organic or cultural, most of us have a strong visceral sense of what makes a story satisfying. This template can help us create well-built narratives. In addition, it provides participant storytellers with a structured freedom for developing their tales, thus enabling them to build on the content and not get bogged down by the process.

Begin each sentence or part of the story with the following:

“Once upon a time…”

This is the introduction to the setting and characters in the story. The platform. The exposition. It gives listeners the context and sets the stage.

Example:

“Once upon a time in the same city, there were two prominent families who despised each other.

“Everyday…”

The platform continues and develops.

Example:

“Everyday the families feuded, fought and killed each other’s members.”

“But one day…”

This is the catalyst. The reason that the story is being told. Why today is different.

Example:

“But one day, the son of one of the families crashed the birthday party of the other’s daughter.”

“Because of that…” (repeat at will)

This is the heart of the story. The consequences that ensue from the catalyst. Each event leads to another event building suspense and tension.

Examples:

  • “Because of that, the son and daughter fell in love.”
  • “Because of that, they secretly married.”
  • “Because of that, the son wanted the killing to stop.”
  • “Because of that he stepped into the middle of a fight and inadvertently caused the death of his best friend.”
  • “Because of that, in agony and rage, he killed the killer, his wife’s cousin.”
  • “Because of that, he was banished.”
  • “Because of that the lovers needed to employ a complicated plan to be reunited.”
  • “Because the plan was complicated, and depended on other people, communication broke down.” (Does this sound like work?)
  • “Because the message didn’t get to him, the son didn’t realize his wife was only faking her death, and he thought she was really dead when he found her in the family tomb.”
  • “Because of that, he killed himself.”

“Until finally…”

Here is the climax. The clincher. The moment for which we all wait!

Example:

“Until finally, the daughter awoke to find her husband dead beside her, and she plunged his knife into her body, just as the members of both families entered the tomb to find their beloved children dead.”

“And ever since then…”

The resolution. The conclusion.

Example:

“And ever since then, both families have stopped the nonsensical war between them and have learned to cooperate and live happily together.”

Uses of the Story Spine

  1. Use this template with any of the story-creation activities listed above.
  2. Use the template as a guide when creating and editing stories for presentations or training courses.
  3. Use the template as a way of exploring creativity within structures or boundaries. Even with such a specific structure there are an infinite number of stories that can be told. (This is especially pertinent to those trying to think creatively in a corporate setting.)

In your training, consider the template to be a dynamic and fluid structure, allowing participants to pick and choose what works best for them. Some learners will enjoy working within a structure more than others will. We suggest that you provide an environment that supports choice.

Color/Advance

So, the example story above was pretty good, eh? But it wasn’t Shakespeare. Why not? Why do we revere his version of Romeo and Juliet, even though the story has been told a million times before and since? It’s all in the details. His structure is strong. His “because of that’s” flow from one to the other, building in intensity beautifully. But mostly, it is the language Shakespeare uses, the descriptions he employs, the way he develops his characters that makes his work a masterpiece. What makes a story compelling is not just what happens, but how it is related, the specific moments, the images and sensory impressions that are created.

Here is an exercise for adding meat to the bones of the story spine.

  • Have each person create a story using the story spine.
  • In pairs, have participants share their stories.
  • Choose one person in each pair to be the “storyteller” and the other to be the “guide”.
  • The storyteller begins to tell the story again. Whenever the guide hears something that he wants to know more of he says, “Color the (blank)”.
  • The storyteller then describes, in as much detail as possible, that element of the story.
    For example:
  • Storyteller: “because of that they fell in love…”
  • Guide: “Color ‘falling in love’.”
  • Storyteller: “Romeo risked his life to see her. He looked up and saw her on the balcony. He told her that she was so beautiful that the moon must envy her. He climbed up to her and kissed her and when the dawn came they swore their eternal love and spoke of the “sweet sorrow” of parting.

OR:

  • Storyteller: “Once upon a time there was a sales manager named Max.”
  • Guide: “Color ‘Max’.”
  • Storyteller: “Max had been in his position for 26 years and he was tired. He weighed 347 pounds, ate 2 double cheeseburgers everyday for lunch, and wore a flea-bitten toupee.”
  • When the guide is satisfied, he says, “advance” and the storyteller continues on with the next part of the story spine.
  • At the end of the story, the partners switch roles.

Variations:

  • Do this exercise alone, using a timer to switch from coloring to advancing.
  • Have participants form groups of three. Use two guides, one in charge of calling for “color”, the other in charge of “advancing”.
  • Begin from scratch with no story spine previously created, enabling the story to evolve and grow spontaneously.

Uses of Color/Advance

  • Use this exercise to develop and flesh out stories.
  • Use it to exercise creativity muscles, practicing spontaneity and building on others’ thoughts and ideas.
  • Use it to work on teamwork and shared control.
  • Use the “color/advance” vocabulary in your training, allowing learners to “color” and “advance” your presentation, to get more clarity or to move the session along.

Additional Tips

Here are a few general tips for using story effectively in your training:

  • Create a safe environment. Although we love telling and hearing stories, presenting to a group or revealing ourselves can feel dangerous. Storytelling is easy, but if a participant does not feel safe, he may be inhibited and unwilling to be creative and expressive. Therefore, it is imperative that, as trainers, we focus on increasing participant comfort and decreasing the fear of appearing stupid or aberrant.
  • Provide opportunities for choice. Different folks, of course, have different learning styles, and will prefer creating and presenting their stories in different ways. In addition, just the act of giving the participants a sense of control through choice will allow them to feel safer and more motivated to participate.

Here are some alternatives you can offer:

  • Work alone or in groups
  • Act out or write and read your story
  • Use the Story Spine literally or as a general guide/inspiration

When running a story-creation exercise, limit the amount of time given to the participants. This does two things. First, it forces people to let go of their judging or censoring voice, because they do not have time to complete the task unless they commit to whatever comes to mind. Second, it provides participants with an excuse if they don’t like the end product. Excuses can be very valuable when you are asking people to take risks.

Summary

Our love for story is universal. And we use story all the time. Every time we understand a new set of data, learn a new skill, change an attitude, or share a part of ourselves with others, we do it through formulating some sort of a story. By using the storytelling process consciously through these exercises and applications, we can increase the effectiveness, robustness, and enjoyment of our training sessions. Stories are easy, fun, and useful. Enjoy!

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