Use stories in my training, and I learn better and remember longer. But not all stories are good.
Peter Z. Orton is a patent-holding learning scientist at IBM who studied the effects of stories on behavioral change while at Stanford University with researcher Albert Bandura. Orton later worked as a writer and script editor for Stephen Spielberg. This is his recipe for a good story:
1. Setting: A story needs a place and a time to make it realistic, to better build a picture in the learner’s mind. Let’s say you are teaching leadership. A story could be from anywhere, including history: “Last century the South Pole captivated the attention of explorers around the world.”
2. Characters: These are the people involved in the action. For our story we might say, “Two noted explorers were Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen.”
3. Incident: In a good story, something happens. It could be a challenge, danger or opportunity. The incident affects the characters and we become concerned for them. Our story continues: “Scott and Amundsen each wanted the grandest prize of the day: To be the first person to reach the South Pole. They departed from different points around the same time and the race was on!”
4. Effort: This is what the characters do to meet the challenge. Here the learning points around development efforts can be illustrated. Our training story continues, “It is not easy to know what works in a new situation. Which would you select to win the race to the pole: Innovation or sticking to the traditional approach? Having back-up resources or having double back-up resources? Being flexible with plans or making one plan and sticking to it?
“While Scott and Amundsen were similar in ambition and experience, they differed in their approach. Scott tried innovative methods for the trek, including motor sleds and horses, plus dogs. He brought double supplies. He set each day’s distance goal based on the current weather and the team.
“Amundsen used known and proven transport: Dogs. He set the same distance goal every day, and brought triple the amount of supplies.
Which approach wins? Quick and light, or slow and steady? It’s a race. One of the explorers will win by five weeks, and the other will die.”
5. Resolution: What happens at the end? How will they make out? Resolution is your Act III, answering all these questions:
“Two explorers, miles and weeks apart, dragging feet and supplies mile after exhausting mile. Who will reach the pole first? Who will die a horrible, starving, freezing death?”
Amundsen reached the pole first. Scott reached the pole five weeks later and died on the return, after the weather got worse. Scott’s management choices played a role: He lost horses and power sleds, the unproven transports. His team starved to death, having brought only double supplies; Amundsen brought triple.
Most important for learning is whether managers walk away with the main points. Check yourself: Will you remember the point that no single management approach works in every situation?
Here is a trick about remembering. We have two kinds of memory according to neurologists: semantic — for remembering facts; and episodic — for remembering episodes. Episodic memory is much stronger. Scientists believe we have a built-in framework, like placeholders, for stories. Consider the survival value of noticing and remembering what happens to others. “Say, did you hear about Caveman Rocky? He ate those shiny black berries off the nightshade bush, and now he hunts no more forever.”
“The power of using stories for learning is immense,” Orton said. “A good story, well told, will nearly always increase audience attention, activate the learner’s mental processing, and — most telling of all — increase retention.”
Brandon Hall is chairman of Brandon Hall Group. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.Filed under: Learning Delivery