We remember stories.
Stories provide an organizing structure that makes the subject matter more relevant to learners and can maintain learners' interest throughout a lengthy module or course; the stories lend personal importance that can be lost when dealing with abstract facts and rules.
The storytelling approach has two major strengths:
1. The subject matter is embedded in a realistic context that learners find authentic and credible, making it easier for them to see the relevance of the new information and how they might use it on the job. This promotes transfer of learning.
2. Learners remember the facts and concepts they have learned in terms of the stories and characters they encounter during the learning activities. They don't have to recreate abstract constructs; they can simply recall what specific people did in specific situations. This promotes retention of the new knowledge and skills.
But not all stories are created (and told) alike. Let's evaluate a few scenarios/stories and look for some things that work or distract from the main points.
"We had this customer once who got really, really angry when nobody was at the counter to greet him when he walked in. He had to wait until the customer service agent showed up from the back room. This means that we should always be at the front counter when we hear the front door open."
WORKS: Conversational (informal) style
1) Vague in details
2) Story could create more emotional punch
3) Story doesn't need the moralizing "lessons learned" approach.
REWRITE: "Two years ago in our Houston office, we received a complaint from a regular customer. She was furious – furious! – about the fact that, when she entered our business in a hurry, she had to wait two full minutes for the customer service representative to emerge from the back room. She wrote: "Two minutes means everything when you're running late."
"Sarah Marah's boss is frustrated by Sarah continuously being late to meetings, so he schedules a meeting for 6:00 a.m. During the meeting, he discussed project teams and gave the best assignment to Larry Tarry, Sarah's arch-rival."
WORKS: Uh…not much is working in this story
1) Rhyming, cute names undercut any realism
2) It's not believable that anyone would schedule a 6:00 a.m. work-meeting out of spite
3) Arch-rival? Please.
Even if this incident really, truly happened, it stretches believability so ridiculously thin that it loses impact as a credible problem/solution. It's just a tale of the fantastic. While the lack of realism may seem obvious with this tall tale, go reread any of your scenarios – are the consequences extremely dire or outrageously optimistic?
REWRITE: "Using department HR guidelines, Sarah's boss created a performance improvement plan to track her punctuality for the next four months. If she succeeds at being on time to 90% of the scheduled meetings, she's out of danger of a probation status. How will it turn out?"
"The phone rings. You answer, and the customer who called asks, "I'm a savvy business traveler who doesn't have time to learn new technology. What features and benefits do you have that might interest me?"
WORKS: Well, the part about the phone ringing was realistic.
1) Customers don't describe themselves that way
2) Customers don't ask for features and benefits
3) Customers aren't that eager to be sold a product
REWRITE: The phone rings. You answer, and the customer who called asks, "Hey, I'm halfway interested in buying your device. Maybe. But only if it's easy to use. If I’m not up and running in fifteen minutes, forget it. Show me what you've got."
"Back in the '80s when we had a Houston office (pre-franchise days), the service centers all had an IT department that included trainers, because the technology group owned that piece. Our first software application was a green screen affectionately nicknamed R2D00M after a common command, the RDOOM INQJBAH. Once every other week, a technician would run batch jobs at night that took six hours to complete. Twenty years later, we can run that same process in three minutes while Windows XP is loading."
WORKS: Uh…lots of details.
NOT WORKIN': All of it. What's the point of this story? Hey, sometimes stories can just get long and detail-oriented without being all that useful.
You don’t use storytelling when you note there’s been an absence of it; you use storytelling when it serves the instructional goal. Since there doesn’t seem to be any redeeming value to this last story, there’s no need for a rewrite.
It's like when the ancient Zen Master told his novice student why the artichoke was revered in a southern province.
But that's a story for another day...