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Tall tales

March 9, 2009

I received a comment on my last post, “The Dreaded C Word”, regarding commitment that raised an interesting point. I found it interesting because it mentioned the concept of storytelling in training, something that seems to be coming up a lot recently.

It began with a book that Mike King from the learn this blog recommended called “Made To Stick”. The authors explain how storytelling can be used as a marketing tool and how messages that relate to an interesting tale tend to stick in the minds of the readers. On their website, they have a couple of podcasts that reinforce this notion using an old urban legend to help get their message across. You will need to sign up to access them, but it is worth the effort.

The second was a story from Jay Cross’s recent post called “No more learners“. The point in particular was about a road maintenance worker who reduced the number of visible signs during road works rather than increasing them (a novel concept).

Finally, as I was typing away at this post, the procrastination virus struck and I was drawn back to my RSS reader and sure enough, Sylvawood at the train2gain blog had just posted a story called the “Mayonnaise Jar“. This is an old story that anyone who has completed any time management training will be familiar with, but it had a twist that I was not familiar with.

So what?

Now here’s the thing. Statistics say that we’ll probably only remember about 10% of what we have learned one week afterward. Obviously this will be affected by a few other factors (relevance, reinforcement, repetition, rectification etc.), but these particular stories have stuck almost 100% and some are more than a few weeks old. Also, now that I think about it there are a few more that I could recall in great detail, despite being months old.

I’m quite sure this is not preaching anything new, but I do have a question.

Do they have to be true?

Aesop’s Fables feature animals with human attributes (how can we forget the “Tortoise and the Hare”), so even though they may be metaphors for his human experiences, they cannot be true in their current form. To show solutions to problems during training we use case studies with fictitious companies staffed by stereotypical employees solving made-up problems. It also seems to work. Dan & Chip Heath, the authors of “Made to Stick” use examples of urban legends to do likewise. What about the “what if” scenarios that we play to look at worst case, best case and most likely outcomes of our decisions or actions?

I guessing the answer is no, but if a story is true, will it have a greater effect? I know that movies based on real events can be quite sobering if something particularly heroic, gruesome or funny occurred. What if the story was uneventful, mediocre or predictable – is it better to serve the truth or spice up the dish with a few poetic enhancements?

I think stories are more memorable if they are exceptions to normal daily activities or expectations, but is that just me?  Do stories have to be tailored to students so that their particular needs are met? What constitutes normal for one may be completely different for another.

What I’d really like to know is, do you use storytelling as part of your training program and if so, how? Is it ad-hoc, at the whim of the trainer and their expertise, or is it carefully considered component relayed at the appropriate moment with the student’s background and level of skill kept in mind? Does it form the foundation of your program, is it the fluffy interior or is it just the icing on the cake?


Download my free e-book “NOW YOU TELL ME” The seven things that I wish I’d known before I started training on the job.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 9, 2009 7:35 pm

    I think it’s a fine line between telling stories that are appropriate and having a supply of stories that you just trot out like taking out the washing.

    Stories told incorrectly or at the wrong time will just make a trainer come over as boring and/or out of touch.

    The trick is to make it sound “off the cuff” and unrehearsed

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