Death by Lecture
As humans in today’s fast-paced world, we often value getting the job done as quickly as possible. When it comes to helping people learn, lecturing’s, aka “just tell them everything they need to know,” becomes the unfortunate default mode of information delivery. Unfortunately, the process of knowledge transfer doesn’t work like a bank deposit, and we can’t just extract knowledge from one person and implant it in another. Instead, individuals need to engage with information so they understand what to do with those details and make them into their own, internalized knowledge.
Tell Me a Story
You know who loves stories? Little kids. Do you know why? They are trying to figure out what the world is all about and what to do with all of the things they are experiencing for the first time. Just like adults use stories to help children understand the world, stories help adults make the transition from bland best practice or potentially useful technique to thing-I-actually-do. Let’s look at three examples of how stories can be incorporated into training to engage people in the learning process and help adults actually learn.
Reason 1: Stories Help Concepts Become Real
In training, many times we’re covering abstract ideas, and sharing models for how to apply those ideas. Stories help us make that jump. Here's an example:
During a training with customer service professionals, we're trying to help them understand the importance of getting to know individual customers and catering to their unique needs.
"Each customer is different. Every person who calls us on the phone has their own point of view and personal struggles that we may know nothing about. We need to find out what matters to them and emphasize those points as we speak to them. Overall, be careful about making assumptions about people’s wants and needs based on your personal preferences."
Story to make the idea real:
"Here’s an example of learning about our customers and tailoring our approach to their wants and needs.
While working at a table at a church conference, my job was to discuss health insurance benefits with pastors currently working in congregations. I was there to promote a great new benefit where pastors could earn $250 for completing an online health assessment quiz. For me, taking the health assessment was a no-brainer, because I thought, “Yay! Free money!”
I quickly learned, though, that this was not the prevailing opinion among the pastors. Several stopped to express outrage that the church was trying to BRIBE them to take the health assessment. Since many of the pastors prided themselves on being more concerned with doing good in the world than with money, having a financial reward for doing something that they should do anyway became a disincentive.
One church leader realized that a different approach was needed. She used the concept of stewardship—which means taking care of the gifts God has given to you, including your money and your own personal health. She told pastors that it was their duty as leaders of the church to model good stewardship by taking the health assessment (especially since another benefit was helping their congregation to earn a discount on their health insurance premiums).
By keeping the wants and needs of the audience in mind, and realizing that they may be very different from our own, we figured out how to position this benefit in a way that resonated with our audience. "
How the story helps:
This story takes an abstract concept (everyone is different) and drives it home. Since many people may identify with the person who would gladly take the health assessment to earn money, seeing a completely different, and often unexpected, viewpoint can be shocking. Adding details about people and context for why they have the values they do, can be eye-opening.
Reason 2: Stories Help People Learn from Other People's Experiences
When you first learn a concept, it may sound good in the abstract, but you're not sure how to apply that idea in the real world. In professions like being a police officer or a fire fighter, stories are a way that seasoned staff help rookies learn from other people's experiences. Here's an example of how to use stories to share real-world examples.
With new corporate trainers, using proximity technique to deal with disruptive students in a classroom environment.
"When trying to manage students who are disrupting the classroom, using proximity can be helpful. In short, standing near a student can help them to realize that they need to change their behavior."
Story to share one person’s experience using the technique:
"During student introductions at the beginning of a sales training class, Alice, a branch manager sitting at a table in the back of the room, was explaining what she hoped to gain from class.
In the middle of Alice’s introduction, Jim (the top insurance salesperson in the region) answered his phone. He was sitting at the front table in the classroom, and there was no way for the whole class NOT to hear his conversation as he loudly explained the concept of accident forgiveness.
I asked Alice to pause for a moment, then walked over to Jim, and stood next to him for a moment. He looked at me, I smiled at him, and then he put his hand over his phone long enough to say, “I’ll step outside to finish this call.” I nodded to let him know that I appreciate it. Once he left, Alice finished up, and the next person did their introduction.
In this case, standing next to Jim was the cue he needed to realize that he was doing something disruptive and self-correct his behavior."
How the story helped:
The story involves people with names and characteristics. This shows on sometimes challenging student, a high performing salesperson, and a situation that may resonate with students. It also shows how using a relatively simple solution can solve the problem, and help the trainer maintain control of their classroom. This story shows students how they can apply the skill, which may also help them identify when they could use a specific skill in their classroom.
Reason 3: To Give Context for Technical Training
When I’ve observed technical trainers, most of them are great at taking people through the step by step process needed to make something work. However, many times the question “why would we ever do this?” is missed. If people don’t get why the process matters, they will have a hard time mustering up enough energy to pay attention. Here's an example of how to use a story to set up a scenario within a technical training course.
Showing students in an intermediate Microsoft Word class how to use the mail merge feature to create mailing labels.
"We’re going to create mailing labels. This would be helpful if you needed to mail the same item, like a marketing campaign, to multiple people. You could even use a mailing list that you had saved in Excel as the starting point for your mailing labels."
Story to illustrate why you'd complete this process:
"Joanie and Chachi are getting married and having the big wedding of Joannie’s dreams.
Now that it’s time to address invitations, her best friend, Jenny Piccalo, points out that addressing 500 envelopes by hand is going to be excruciating.
Joannie has a great idea! Why not use the Excel file they’ve created and use the Mail Merge feature in Word to create mailing labels! They can even use one of those handwriting style fonts to help them match the script on the invitations.
Let’s look at how to set that up."
How the story helped:
Especially in technical training, sometimes we get so caught up in the “click here, click there, GOOD LORD NOT THERE” aspect of it that we forget to tell students why they’d ever bother to do the process we’re explaining. Giving them a why, in this case a why that aligns with concepts people know (the joys of managing the postal aspects of a big event) and incorporating fictional characters (who doesn’t love a little Happy Days reference?) adds a layer of lightheartedness that is often missing from technical training.
What Do You Think?
Why do you think telling stories in training is beneficial? What is your favorite story to tell? How does it enhance the learning process? Include your thoughts in the comments.
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Brenda Peterson is a collaborative learning consultant and learning & development manager who is driven to help individuals and organizations succeed.