Incorporating storytelling in employee training – Q&A with Sharon Lucas

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storytelling in employee training




Telling a good story is a powerful way to communicate a meaningful message. This is because stories are a part of our DNA. Humans have been telling stories for millennia (think hunter-gatherers telling tales of heroism around a campfire) and continue to do so today.


Given we literally evolved with this style of communication, it’s unsurprising our brains react differently to stories than they do to unembellished facts and figures. When telling a story, it takes very little to create imagery and emotion in the minds of an audience. For this reason, the information contained within that story is more likely to be retained.


But despite the fact that storytelling is a powerful vehicle for teaching, many still opt to do a mere “data dump” instead. It’s a lot easier than constructing an engaging narrative, but also much less effective. For example, think back to any lacklustre powerpoint you’ve sat through. Can you remember any of the facts or figures from the slides? Probably not. Your only memory of the event is likely to be a feeling of boredom.  


Sharon Lucas, President of CDT3 Training, has a wealth of experience in making training more memorable and impactful by incorporating storytelling. She highlights that by making greater use of stories, organisations can deliver training that employees will actually remember when it counts. We caught up with Sharon to examine why and how organisations can leverage storytelling.


Could you outline some of the common problems you see with traditional training sessions?


Traditional training, meaning power point heavy and more “tell” oriented, is a great way to share large quantities of information but does not lend itself to actual application back in the “real” world.  When the learner simply hears information without context or application it is even harder for them to connect and envision themselves actually implementing the concept.


How does storytelling address these problems?


Storytelling enables the content to come alive, the brain thinks in stories, so it is a natural way to draw in the learner.  Using a story engages the learner in the content in a way that the learner can envision themselves either experiencing or doing the behaviour that is being discussed.


Why is engaging emotion such a powerful tactic when it comes to facilitating learning?


The desire is for the learner to take new knowledge or skills and apply them, but they must remember them first!  Anecdotes and narratives viewed through the lens of our own set of experiences combine the puzzle pieces to increase understanding, retention and ultimately the application of the material being taught.


When creating stories for training how should you go about it? What important elements should be included?


I believe this depends on the facilitator’s personality and capability.  For example, one facilitator I have worked with has a passion around history and has an amazing memory for the facts.  He can weave stories into the learning content with relevant leadership examples from well-known historical figures.  For myself, my storytelling is generally more focused around my own real-life examples.  Sources for stories are abundant. Whether one uses classic literature, one’s experiential stories or even current events, the critical piece is that there be a patent nexus between the story and the point to be made.  The story should more easily facilitate the learner’s comprehension of the curriculum.


Elements should include the basics:  a primary point (it should be clear as to why are you using this story); a link to the real-world application; relatable characters; and, realistic obstacles and challenges that help the learner visualize themselves in the story.


Does learning through narrative work well for all individuals? If not, can you determine those unlikely to respond well to the approach?  


Learning through narrative does seem to work well for a large portion of the population.   Studies show the human brain thinks in stories. We are constantly processing the if – then of all of our choices.  Stories are configured like this as well, which is why we connect so well to the narrative.  However, I believe storytelling is just one element of the learning process – we also have to allow for the experience and application part of the process. Some might hear the story and process it to a point, but the true ah-ha moment might actually happen in the experiential part – the hands on for them.  


When I’m facilitating a training course, it will usually become apparent quickly who responds well to a narrative approach versus not, and I can pivot to make sure they are also understanding the material.   But, before a class begins, there is little on which to base a determination concerning the efficacy of the approach with each individual.


Are there any training scenarios where storytelling isn’t appropriate?


I don’t think so.  I have been designing and facilitating training for 30 plus years and have always used some form of storytelling even in classes such as anti-harassment – there is nothing like a real-life story used at the right time to make a salient point!  Of course, the stories you use should be relevant and suitable in order to be impactful.


Can you integrate technology with storytelling to make learning more effective?


Digital storytelling is used frequently in e-learning solutions. The basic principles still apply – relatable characters, challenges and obstacles to overcome, and a connection to the content you are wanting to communicate. I believe that integrating technology, storytelling and learning lends itself to meeting the needs of our current multi-sensorial culture.  The vast majority of the current workforce grew up either familiar with or immersed in technology and therefore respond well to this supplemental approach.