From Bedtime Tales to Training Fails - Why Storytelling Works

Successful businesses realized long ago that selling products and creating true brand advocates requires cultivating great stories. And because stories are a natural way for people to communicate, studies have shown that any communication with a story-like structure will be easily understood and remembered, and most likely drive action.

One Harvard Business Review study notes that storytelling releases more of the neurochemical, oxytocin, into our brain - which makes us empathize more with the information and the medium from which it comes.

But for storytelling to capture the eyes and ears of employees, every story needs the following essentials:

Start with your audience in mind

To create effective stories, connect with audiences through familiar situations and details that your audience may have experienced. For example, if you need a story about safety in a warehouse facility, mention relevant details that your audience might appreciate: the hums and beeps of a forklift, the packing stations, the palettes filled with products. Then, bring up the topic of safety using a situation that warehouse employees might encounter:

“It’s the holiday rush, and everyone's working to get packages out on time. Mike's pulling an extra shift to earn some extra money for presents. The last thing on his mind is a back injury. But, precisely because it is not on his mind, his shift and his holiday cheer are about to be cut short.”

In this example, the audience (the warehouse employees) may not pay much attention to a safety compliance video, but they would care a lot about losing out on a shift and ruining their holiday. That makes the content, and its message, more immediate and "real" to them.

Show the struggle

Award-winning writer and director Robert McKee summarized the essence of a business story: “Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance: You come to work day after day, week after week, and everything’s fine. You expect it will go on that way. But then there’s an event—in screenwriting, we call it the ‘inciting incident’—that throws life out of balance. You get a new job, or the boss dies of a heart attack, or a big customer threatens to leave.”

The struggle begins.

McKee continues: “The story goes on to describe how, in an effort to restore balance, the protagonist’s subjective expectations crash into an uncooperative objective reality. A good storyteller describes what it’s like to deal with these opposing forces, calling on the protagonist to dig deeper, work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions, take action despite risks, and ultimately discover the truth.”

Effective stories involve real people and emotions. Stories of struggle and overcoming the odds are strategic ways to connect with an audience who's experienced similar situations. Thorough training programs can easily capitalize on this important ingredient, showing employees how to avoid sticky situations with integrity and smarts.

Keep it authentic

Authenticity is crucial when it comes to stories. Audiences don’t want to feel “lectured down to” or, even worse, as if they are hearing a sales pitch. They want to feel as if the storyteller is sharing a story of interest precisely because it is interesting. Experienced storytellers do this by letting down their guard and speaking with their own voice.

More than that, authentic storytelling helps organizations develop a sense of meaning and purpose. That feeling can in turn shape learning strategies and encourage employee engagement with learning.

Be sensitive

Whether you are creating a story or retelling one that you “borrowed,” review it for anything that could make someone uncomfortable. For example, stories about real people can be potentially embarrassing. Mentioning a specific employee’s recent mistake can alienate them, even if you don’t use his or her name. Be especially careful of stories that appear to poke fun of a culture, gender, or belief.

Use video to tell your story

Written stories can be useful, but video is made for storytelling. The combination of live people, visuals, sound, and music engages the senses in a way few other mediums can’t. Whether you show a lively narrator sharing a story or have actors performing a brief sketch, the audience will pay attention longer and remember more of the material shared. Video is also an efficient way of conveying a lot of information in a shorter span of time, ultimately saving training hours and money.

Becoming an Ernest Hemingway-like storyteller takes practice and patience. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a professional storyteller to improve corporate training and learning. Simply keeping these tips in mind will help you find, modify, and craft stories with impact.

Want to know how some of our clients use storytelling in training content to create meaningful interactions with their employees? Give us a shout.

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