Two Ways to Incorporate Narrative Into Your Training

Humans naturally learn through stories. When we hear a good story, our brains release oxytocin, the “cuddle chemical” associated with empathy, cooperation, willingness to help others, and enhanced social cues.

What is a story? At its basic structure, a story is a tale of imaginary or real characters, told to inform, persuade, or entertain. It usually has three main parts:

  • Setup: Introduce characters, setting, and situation or problem.
  • Conflict: Elaborate on the problem.
  • Resolution: Work out the conflict, and come to a conclusion. One or more of the characters has gone through a transformation by the time the situation is resolved.

You can add more layers and complexity to a story by using tried-and-true models like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey or the more modern dramatica model for story structure.

Stories have the ability to trigger multiple areas of the brain simultaneously. The sensory portions of our brains that process what we see, taste, hear, and experience through physical movement are activated when we’re immersed in narrative, according to studies done at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University. The primary sensory motor region of the brain even changes when immersed in a story.

Any topic worthy of training can be made more compelling by infusing it with narrative. If you’re leaving stories out of your training, you’re missing an opportunity to engage for authentic learning.

Let’s look at two ways to incorporate narrative or story elements into training materials.

1. Present the content within the framework of a story.

You can take the most boring information and transform it into something interesting by framing it in a story. Here are a few high-level examples of how you can approach two different topics.

Client 1: A car sales company wants to create an online training course to complement a face-to-face class they’re developing for new employees about their mentoring program.

Traditional Training Approach Story-based Training Approach
An elearning course with six “click-to-reveal” activities, a matching exercise, and a 10-question multiple-choice assessment A day-in-the-life story that follows a fictional sales manager character through one day in which he helps three employees solve problems through mentoring and decision-making

Client 2: A medical supply company wants to teach physicians how to use new three types of new equipment proven to speed up diagnostics and improve recovery.

Traditional Training Approach Story-based Training Approach
A script that guides the sales rep through demonstrating each product to doctors in their offices A scenario-driven demonstration that shows doctors how to use the equipment and how it benefits the patients in three simulations, each with a fictional medical chart, back story, and improved outcome
2. Cast your learner as a character within a story, and give the learner a challenge to solve within that story.

Involving the learner directly in the action prompts emotional connection, gives her a stake in the outcome, and increases the likelihood that she’ll actually care about the information. Here are two examples of this approach.

Client 1: A public university needs to train its human resources staff on new laws related to harassment in the workplace. They already have classroom training and would like to give participants the chance to refresh their knowledge in an online course.

Traditional Training Approach Story-based Training Approach
A narrated Powerpoint that walks participants through the highlights from the classroom training, with references to resources where they can find additional information An online course structured around five fictional case studies, in which the participant must act as the HR Representative to respond to and resolve five harassment issues

Client 2: An online retailer needs to train its staff on improving its customer service.

Traditional Training Approach Story-based Training Approach
A Powerpoint that guides learners through a series of steps they need to follow to improve customer service An online collection of video vignettes of actual employees telling their success stories about helping customers, with an invitation to upload your own story

You don’t need to be a card-carrying raconteur or have a giant budget. Anyone can infuse learning materials with story by researching what’s relevant for your audience and creating challenges that ring true to them in real life. In next week’s post, I’ll talk about a five-step process for creating a compelling story-based learning experience.

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