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Storytelling - A Powerful Learning Tool

Date: August 18 2003

Storytelling has played a significant role in history. In ancient times, each new generation learned the lessons required in life through stories that were handed down over and over again. Carl Jung suggested that we have a "collective unconscious" - a common understanding of certain ideas, thoughts, and concepts among all people, regardless of race, culture, and ethnicity. This collective unconscious is evidenced through tales and legends told all over the world. In every culture you''ll find stories of heroes and heroines (triumph over danger and evil), of warriors (bravery, loyalty, and faith), of "mother" (nurturing, unconditional love, and protection). The practice of storytelling persists today and has, in fact, become a multi-billion dollar business. Movies, television shows, and novels are popular because we enjoy experiencing life through the stories of other''s lives and experiences.

Stories and Organizational Culture

Corporate culture is communicated and reinforced through the use of storytelling. Think for a minute about your own organization. What are the myths and legends that exist there? What stories have you heard that tell you what is or is not acceptable? Who are the heroes (and possibly, the villains) in your company''s culture? Every company, like every culture, race, and nationality, has its own collection of stories that are used for the purpose of learning. Some are inspiring, while others may strike fear into the hearts of listeners. Perhaps the people in your company tell of the time when the President changed a rule or regulation on the spot at the request of an entry-level employee, thus making him/her a hero. Maybe employees still talk about the time ten years ago when someone was fired on the spot, in front of a group of other employees, for innocently saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. No matter how large or small your organization, how young or old your business, these stories exist and they are powerful drivers of employee behavior. This article is about putting the power of stories to work for you during training.

Storytelling can bring learning to life in the corporate classroom and back on the job. And story telling can be used in face-to-face learning as well as in e-learning. Why is storytelling so powerful? To answer this question let''s look at a few things we know about adult learning theory.

People Learn and Remember Information That Applies Directly To Them

When participants share stories about the workplace, they often share problems that are common to other participants. For this reason, others pay more attention to what is being said and may find themselves involved in generating solutions. Also, because the information is in the form of a story (as opposed to being presented in the form of lecture or words in a book) people tend to remember the information longer. The use of stories supplies information about practical application instead of just theory. This makes for a better all around learning experience.

When Multiple Senses are Stimulated During Learning, People Acquire Information More Quickly and Retain It Longer

A well told story can make us laugh, cry, feel anger, or joy. The same holds true for the use of storytelling in the classroom. If the storyteller has lived the experience being described, he/she can''t help but add emotion to the words. And those listening will have emotional reactions to what is being said. The use of storytelling involves participants physically, mentally, and emotionally in the learning process. This helps the learning to get "in" them (become part of their thinking) instead of just "on" them (remaining an external experience that will "fall off" once they leave the session).

These are two very compelling reasons for using stories as a tool for learning. So how can you incorporate story telling into your training design? Here are some suggestions.

Throw out a topic and have volunteers share their stories. For example, if you are working with a group of managers on handling conflict ask "who would like to share a story about he last time you''ve had to deal with conflict in the workplace?" As volunteers share their stories, be sure to get the whole story. You may need to ask questions to help them along. You want to ensure that they tell the group the situation, any action that was taken, and the end result of the action.

Use a small group activity to save time. Storytelling, while very valuable, can be time consuming. A way to have people share stories in less time is to have them work in small groups and share their stories within the group. You can then have the group members select the best story from the group and share it with the rest of the participants.

Ask people to tell their best/worst stories. This is a great way to get information about what works and does not work for a particular topic. For example, at the opening of a Performance Management session for supervisors, I started off by having people share their best and worst performance appraisal stories. When I processed the exercise the group and I used the stories that were shared to create a list of best and worst practices around performance appraisal. Since the list came from the group''s collection of personal experiences my participants were much more likely to remember the do''s and don''ts and to keep them in mind the next time they had to do a performance review.

Use stories as an e-learning tool. Storytelling can be applied to both face-to-face learning and e-learning technologies. Stories can be built into CBT training and they can be used for intranet newsgroups, chat rooms, and FAQs so that employees can learn from others across the country or around the world.

These are some basic examples of ways in which to use story telling as a learning tool. There are also more complex storytelling exercises. If this is something that interests you and you''d like some more examples of exercises that use storytelling, read The Fifth Discipline Field book, (Peter Senge, et al) Doubleday Publishers, NY., NY, 1994.

Teaching through the use of stories has been practiced since the beginning of time. Cavemen (and women) told stories through drawings on walls, as did the Ancient Egyptians. Today, stories still play an important role in our personal and business lives. Take advantage of the power of storytelling in your next training session and I think you''ll be pleased with the results!


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