Learning Starts with a Story

Someone once said all learning starts with a story. They probably went on to tell a story about how they realised that. Right idea. If you can hook and engage your audience up front, all the more likely they'll stay the journey. Stories are one of the best ways of doing this.

So why are stories effective? What's in a good story for learning?

They're easy to remember: Why is it that you can usually retell a joke after one hearing, but if you read a series of abstract facts, the retention is much lower? Because jokes follow a narrative flow, but facts don't. We're programmed to remember stories better than facts. It's easier because the plot is more important than the detail – you just have to remember what happened next one step at a time. Make life easier for your learners by giving them stories, not long lists of abstract facts. They're compelling: 'Two people walk into a bar. Behind the counter is a...' Let's stop it there. Nobody's wondering what these two people are wearing, or what kind of counter it is. All you want to know is what happens next. It's the most basic and primal social condition of us as people, that we want to know the next part of the story. If your learning can tap into that, you're halfway there.

They're instructive: Well-told stories in e-learning are not about successes. They need to contain some hard-learned lessons. Someone thought they were saying the right thing to the client, but they lost the sale. In the car park they realised their mistake, then they never made that mistake again. This is the general flow your stories should follow. You've probably heard the term 'horror' or 'war' stories – the idea is that each story should reveal a valuable lesson learned.

They shorthand experience: It's better to learn by doing, no question. If we had the time and budget, we'd always create a simulated opportunity so learners could practice the skill in question, be it coaching, engineering, or selling. It's not always practical. Stories are a great shorthand for actual experience – instead of learning from your own mistakes, you learn from hearing about someone else's. When combined with simulation, it's really powerful, but stories are a great way to shorthand real-life experience.

They're authentic: When they're told by people who've clearly been through the wars, they have that ring of truth that no actor or coach can achieve. Real experts who've got tons of experience and all the anecdotes to boot are gold dust in e-learning design. Set them up with a microphone and get everything you can. There's a skill to asking the right questions.

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