The art of storytelling has been practiced by virtually every culture around the world as a way to educate, inform, and entertain. Medieval Troubadours, West African Griots, and Native American tribal leaders have all shared stories as a way to preserve history, explain events, and teach moral lessons.
Stories have often been handed down from generation to generation, and many historians suggest that oral storytelling has been around as long as human language.
On a recent trip to Australia, I took a half-day rainforest tour. I was fascinated to hear the many stories of my Aboriginal tour guide, Barwon. He began by telling our group the story of how he got his name, which means wide river. He went on to captivate us with other stories of Aboriginal culture and the indigenous plant and animal life in the area. Every story he shared with us was first told to him by his grandparents and other tribal elders.
Just as storytelling has had a powerful impact on people from all over the world, it can also be used as an effective instructional technique in the modern day training classroom. According to Margaret Parkin, author of the book “Tales for Trainers: Using Stories and Metaphors to Facilitate Learning,” stories can “encourage growth, learning, and personal development. Anyone who is responsible for passing along information to others, while encouraging learning and development, can be termed a storyteller.”
I’ve been telling stories in my training courses for many years; I started doing it somewhat naturally. However, I never really knew I was practicing a formal instructional technique. In my mind, I was simply sharing my life’s experiences. Over the years, I realized there are several benefits to telling stories and sharing my life experiences with trainees.
Increased Learner Engagement
When done well, a good story captures your learner’s attention, right from the start. Somehow, they get drawn into the character(s), plot, conflict, and eventual resolution of the story. Effective storytellers often elevate their stories to another level by using vocal inflection, gestures, and movement—tools used to further engage the learner.
Engagement is also increased when the storyteller makes an emotional connection with the learner. An effective story often stirs ones emotions. It stimulates the learner’s imagination and creative thinking process. As the story plays out in their mind, it makes them think about and reflect upon their own situation and experiences.
Increased Instructor Credibility
I find that when I share a personal story, my learners get a glimpse into my life and past experiences. No longer am I simply a trainer delivering content and information. Instead, I’m personally sharing one of my success or horror stories as it relates to the content. The story sends the message that “I’ve been there,” thus increasing my credibility.
I found great success in sharing one particular story each time I delivered a sales course to new hire employees. I would share the story of how I began my sales career as a new and somewhat intimidated sales representative within the organization. After working hard and applying myself, I was eventually awarded the prestigious SPOTY Award (Salesperson of the Year.) Moral of the story: if I can do it, so can you!
Simplifying of Complex Information
According to Parkin, hearing a story allows a learner to concretize information. Through links with tangible examples, a story has the potential to help the listener make sense of abstract or complex information.
For example, when teaching a concept like prioritization, the story of a busy working mom could be told. Hearing how the busy mother successfully balances career and family, the learner may easily relate the story to his/her own personal life. They relate their own concrete experiences to the actual concept being taught. Most mothers in the audience could probably relate to waking at dawn, getting her children dressed and fed, taking them to day care, and miraculously arriving to work on time—all thanks to careful prioritization.
Additional Instructional Variety
Storytelling is simply one more tool in your trainer’s tool kit. Telling a meaningful and effective story can be yet another way to deliver course content. It may not replace something like a traditional lecture, but it can certainly be one of the most powerful instructional techniques.
When lecturing, I find it helpful to address the key content portions of the lecture first. Then, to bring it home, I share a personal story or narrative about how I’ve applied what I just talked about. An effective story can break the monotony of a traditional lecture and add variety to your delivery.
So the next time you’re looking for ways to engage your learners, increase your credibility, simplify complex information, and add instructional variety, consider telling a story. It could be the perfect tool to turn a good training presentation into a great one.
Jeff has been a course leader with Langevin since 2000. He completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in both Speech Communications and Broadcasting from Western Kentucky University. Before pursuing his passion for training, Jeff worked as a television reporter, flight attendant, fitness instructor, and tour guide. Jeff started his career in training at the daily newspaper in Atlanta. Training seemed to be a natural fit for him since he’s always been a bit of a performer. When at home, you’ll catch Jeff watching a cooking show, recreating a dish he’s eaten abroad, or exploring one of the many great restaurants in the Chicago area. During the summer months, he hits the road to follow the talented drum corps of Drum Corp International—something he’s done since high school!