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Storytelling: The Best-Kept Secret in Online Employee Training and 3 Ways to Use Its Power

04 July 2016

8 Min Read


Before you create your next online training course, take this test:

  1. Is our content learner-centric?
  2. Is our content meaningful and relevant?
  3. Is our content memorable?
  4. Is the way we present information easy to grasp?
  5. Is our course exciting and enjoyable?
  6. Are our courses inviting and visually interesting?

So, how did you do? Do you have more no’s or more yes’s? If there are too many no’s, there is an easy way to shift the balance—and make your courses more learner-centric, meaningful, memorable, easy to grasp, enjoyable, and interesting. The secret is adding the power of storytelling.

Great storytelling is not just for novels anymore. Today companies are leveraging it for everything from marketing to employee training course. What’s more, new research is discovering the power of storytelling to boost online training’s impact. Researchers now believe the storytelling process may be the best and longest-lasting form of preserving knowledge.

Research Discovers Power of Storytelling

What is it about storytelling that makes it so effective for adult learning? There are a number of reasons. Most of us intuitively know it’s easier to remember the gist of a story and its lessons compared to a list of miscellaneous facts. What’s more, storytelling can motivate learners and create a more immersive experience. And it allows employees to feel more emotionally connected to the subject matter.

A study at the University of Wisconsin found storytelling to be an effective teaching method and learning process for adults. The researchers uncovered a consensus in literature that storytelling offers a highly natural and powerful means to convey, learn, and retain information.

According to Sandra Morgan at the University of Hartford, storytelling paints visual imagery for students to process more memorably. As a result, learners become immersed in the content on a deeper emotional level. Learning experiences associated with emotions are more easily stored and recalled.

Adult learning theorists, such as Malcolm Knowles, John Keller, and others, have long claimed that storytelling makes a deeper connection with leaners, because adult learners must find relevance in a topic to fully invest in the learning. They discovered that putting training concepts in the context of a story helps learners relate to the lessons. By helping learners integrate knowledge into their mental models in meaningful ways, the realistic context of a story makes information easier to remember.

Further, researcher Renate Caine of John Hopkins University’s School of Education found that the mind organizes, retains, and accesses information better in the form of stories. He explains that information can occupy a range anywhere from experiences in human relationships to the duties expected of a worker in an organization. He emphasizes that, if you want a worker to really click with their job and the work expected of them, tell a story about someone else in their position.

Now that you know why you should add elements of storytelling to your eLearning courses, here are three ways to do it.

1. Pick a Story Plot Archetype for Your Lessons

One of the key elements of storytelling is a plot archetype. Choosing one will help shape a relevant narrative.

According to author Christopher Booker, there are seven primary story archetypes: the quest, overcoming the monster, rags to riches, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. Pick the plot archetype that best meets the meets of your course curriculum.

Your storyline should make your learners feel more emotionally connected to the content, because they have to be immersed in the story for it to be an effective learning tool.

  • The Quest
    • Like in Lord of the Rings, heroes set out on long, hazardous journeys, battling obstacles until they are triumphant. What values can you share with your employees that will help them achieve their positions’ goals?
  • Overcoming the Monster
    • In these stories, heroes must fight and slay evil monsters threatening their world. They must emerge triumphant and receive a great reward. In what way can you use this plot archetype to help your employees learn to be triumphant on the job?
  • Rags to Riches
    • Heroes go from insignificant and dismissed by others to exceptional, such as in Superman. What knowledge will help transform your employees’ on-the-job experiences?
  • Voyage and Return
    • Heroes travel out of their normal world into the unknown, before escaping back to the safety of home. What journey do your employees need to take to perform their jobs better?
  • Comedy
    • Comedies often involved mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and confusion that result in hilarious chaos. What unfortunate alternative situations can you depict in your courses to help your employees overcome them on-the-job challenges?
  • Tragedy
    • Instead of slain monsters and triumphant heroes, these stories do not have happy endings, for example, Breaking Bad. What kinds of unhappy endings can you simulate that will help prepare your employees to avoid adversity?
  • Rebirth
    • Heroes fall under dark spells, such as sleep, sickness, or enchantment, before breaking free and being redeemed. What dark spell are your employees facing, and how can you prepare them for success?

2. Use the Tried-and-True Story Structure

Every good story has a structure, including the setting, characters, and a story arc comprised of a problem, actions, consequences, lessons learned, and resolution. Apply this structure to your lessons to maximize the power of storytelling in your lessons.

  • Setting
    • Where the story takes place, such as, of course, the workplace.
  • Characters
    • The actors in your story are naturally going to be employees, managers, and customers.
  • Problem
    • In the workplace, every task has a purpose. The event or problem in a story usually illustrates that purpose.
  • Actions and consequences
    • This element should explain to learners what happens if they perform a task correctly or incorrectly. Stories can help you connect the dots for your employees between a series of choices and their consequences.
  • Climax – lessons learned or problems solved
    • This typically explains the result of a sequence of events, or it might present a twist that shows how the character turned the situation around.
  • Resolution – ending
    • Stories often close with a concluding statement that reflects on key points and offers closure.

A note on characters: Your stories’ characters are the vehicles through which you’ll achieve your primary learning objectives. Every character in your lessons should be relatable and relevant to the learners. The dialogues should be realistic, and the characters’ personalities should be familiar. The characters can also be symbolic of something or someone, such as an individual who lacks the skill sets you are trying to develop within your eLearning course.

3. Choose the Best Storytelling Medium

There are a variety of ways to incorporate storytelling in your lessons, including with video, narrative, visuals, and multisensory experiences. Here are some ideas to consider in your courses.

  • Video Lessons
    • Video is a logical method for telling stories in online employee training programs. Along with being a natural storytelling medium, videos are also a great way to explicitly share processes and techniques. Videos appeal to viewers visually and inspire them to interact with the story emotionally. Researchers have shown that online learners are more attentive to video than text, which makes it a great teaching vehicle and support tool for other teaching formats. To have the maximum impact, use video professionals in your production.
  • Narrative Lessons
    • Storytelling techniques aren’t just for video. You can also use them throughout your written materials, as well. You will gain the same benefits.
  • Visual Lessons
    • Visuals can tell powerful stories, for example, consider creating lessons using a series of photos, infographics, comic strips, and graphs and charts.
  • Multisensory Lessons
    • Interactive stories integrate all forms of storytelling—text, graphics, audio, music, and video to stimulate multiple senses (e.g., visual, auditory, tactile, kinetic). Multisensory stories help students learn by involving both sides of their brains: the left side of the brain is focused on the details of the story, while the multisensory aspects stimulate the right side of the brain.

Storytelling has emerged as a potent tool in today’s online employee training programs. Add it to your eLearning process and enjoy the many benefits—including more engaged students, faster learning rates, and deeper long-term retention.

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