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  • Writer's pictureSam WW

Let’s write a story together!

The power of stories to make learners receptive, and trainings effective.

Sam Wilson

March 3, 2023

You’ve got a performance problem and you decide training is the best solution. “Let’s throw some facts at our staff,” you think, “and have them do a quick knowledge check.” An info dump may be how most people think of trainings, but all too often they’re just a waste of resources. If you have a problem that’s really worth solving, then it is worth using the right tools to fix it.

First let’s look at how people learn.

Constructivist learning theory tells us that learning is not simply an exercise in pouring information from one vessel into the head of a learner (Olusegun, 2015). Knowledge is built by each individual through interacting with the world, asking questions, exploring, and by living with the consequences of our choices.

Learning is what we do when we accomplish something that is beyond our current skill level (Harasim, 2017). Trainers and peers can help us learn by providing us with the language, concepts, and support we may need to go beyond our current ability. When we take what we just learned and add it to our pre-existing body of experiences, we construct new knowledge.

So that’s the theory, now let’s look at why stories are such a great information delivery mechanism.

Milo Winter, The Hare and The Tortoise, 1919, Library of Congress

A tortoise and a hare line up at the start of what would become an epic race the whole world would remember forever. The hare, knowing the race is in the bag, arrogantly takes a nap half-way through. The tortoise plunks along, listening to a podcast and eating a pickle or something. The hare awakens all too late, only to discover he has lost and his friends (the whole world!) will never let him forget it.

Nearly everyone knows this fable (or some version of it). The reason we all remember this lesson is the hidden power that stories have to convey ideas.

What makes stories so great is that they naturally create interest in readers (Green, 2004). We are social animals and learn best when we are hearing about others like us, including fictional characters and anthropomorphic objects. Journalists try to “tell a good story” instead of listing facts because it’s the story that holds our attention.

Stories are naturally sticky because they provide a framework to remember facts (Boris, 2017). Details on their own are difficult to remember because they are not tied to a memorable series of events. Details conveyed through stories are linked together by characters and actions that make them easier to recall.

Stories are also accessible to everybody. We learn best when we can relate ideas to our own experiences and our own ways of thinking. Stories create opportunities for each learner to build that bridge with their own past.

By letting our learners work through a scenario, letting them explore their environment and make choices, we convey the same facts while also providing them with a structure of characters and events that make those facts stick.

Here’s how I would go about using interactive scenarios to make trainings super effective.

We first have to understand the reason for doing training in the first place. I would analyze your problem and establish a measurable goal. If we meet the goal, we will know the problem is fixed (Moore, n.d.). The facts we’re training, the story we’re putting them into, and the choices our learners make all have to get us closer to that goal.

I would write a scenario that replicates the natural complexity of the real world or a real situation (Harasim, 2017). People can detect phoniness, especially if our scenarios are supposed to represent their day-to-day experiences.

I would emphasize knowledge construction by giving people plenty of opportunities to make choices. We would let learners interact with the story and see the consequences of their decisions. Then I would give them plenty of opportunities to go back, try again, and explore.

Role playing helps people to engage with a problem more so than just having a problem presented to them without much context (Bowman, & Lieberoth, 2018). We want to encourage knowledge creation through exploration, which includes letting learners play the role of the “bad guy” who makes the “wrong” choices.

Test! Training is an iterative process, especially when people can interact with it. I would write a choice into a scenario and test it on someone (Moore, n.d.). Then I would make some edits, add some complexity, and test it some more. We would need to take some time to test and refine our training because it’s impossible to know beforehand how people are going to respond.

I would provide nudges to help people who are struggling by giving them access to just enough information to complete the task; but I would only give hints when and if they need it.

I would encourage reflection and collaboration instead of competition. People learn best when they are sharing their experiences with others and competition can turn people off from sharing (Harasim, 2017).

Training that consists of a series of facts and knowledge checks doesn't work. They’re cheap and quick, but ineffective. Interactive stories give learners the opportunity to explore a realistic scenario and make mistakes that cost the organization nothing. Training through stories may seem like a dalliance or a waste of resources, but they give people the opportunity to construct knowledge through doing. By giving learners the opportunity to play around in a fictional scenario, carefully designed to meet a specific performance goal, you are giving your training the best chance to successfully eliminate your performance need.


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