How to convert your learning into story, step-by-step
Following a sweet true-story-based and lovely introduction from Aaron Stroud, his wife Katie takes the stage to tell us about story for learning during session W202 of ASTD2014. She said that when she researched the topic herself, she found a lot of information about the importance of story and it’s benefits, but not much about how to actually go about developing a story for learning purposes. I’m glad to hear this, because I had the same experience. Of course, I have lots of little story-examples that I occasionally use to illustrate a point in training. They work well, people remember them and they can create some thought, humour and emotion. But what I want from this session is to find out HOW to turn a process of learning activities into a thin-red line that can enhance the learning experience across the training…
Katie started by telling her own rags to riches story * When listening, I was drawn to hear more and I started to like her more. (My neighbour said it didn’t really do anything for her). Stroud said that story activates the brain. It touches the senses and emotions. Because more of the brain is activated, it is more likely to be remembers and integrated.
* There are many other types of story (boy meets girls, Hero’s Journey …) which we are not necessarily going to see here.
To start making your story, you need first to define the problem in story-terms
- Background – my story is about an IT consultancy company. People have strong technical skills, but they aren’t capturing new opportunities that arise for time-to-time.
- Setting – in my world, the employees of this company are distant from their own company colleagues. They work on client-sites. The client’s building is very quiet, badly lit and “dry”. The workers on the client site don’t really talk to each other much.
- Conflict (the problem that stops us from success) – there is no time to talk, our hero is nervous and introverted. He doesn’t feel connected to or supported by his company while he is at his client-site. He doesn’t really feel like he can “win” or grow. He is unsure about how to proceed.
- Climax (the reward moment, when it all works out)
Then add detail about the suffering that is going on in the story
- Place it – where does the problem happen? My hero is at his desk, “hiding behind his computer”.
- Define it – what exactly is the problem. My guy gets a question from someone (his client) that he wasn’t expecting. It’s not part of his job and he feels uncomfortable dealing with it. Given his slightly introverted nature, it feels like unwelcome noise in his ears. “Please leave me alone to work”, he thinks.
- Scope it – what is the extent of this problem? For my guy, it’s not the first time he has felt like this. In fact, it happens in other social scenarios too. When he is with his few own good friends, everything is fine (albeit a bit geeky!). But when he has to talk to strangers (or a girl!) he doesn’t really know what to say.
- Solve it – define how it would be if everything was fine. My hero would breathe gently, relax, smile and look up (come out) from his computer to give his full attention to the client get to know what’s going on and then be able to confidently send an email to his business development manager detailing the situation, values and needs of the client.
Now define the characters
- Hero – the person in the story that is going through the problem and will come out differently at the end. He may also save a victim. My guy is Paul. He is an IT developer. He is usually quite quiet and tends to feel most comfortable with people he knows, talking about things he understands well. He has been working for 5 years since school and doesn’t feel like a “high-potential”.
- Victim – the one who is really “dying” in the situation. He needs help. He may even be attacked by a villain. I thought about a “rubbish guy who has no friends”. He always eats alone. He will never grow in his function. Our hero doesn’t want to end up like him in 5 more years.
- Supporting characters – the other people in the environment that have some kind of impact in the story (or competence problem/solution). I have the onsite client who is a normal business man who just wants good solutions. Friendly, to the normal extent. We have the client receptionist who is a nice young lady who has all the kinds of skills that our her ones, but doesn’t need them in her work. And we have an extrovert sales-guy from our hero’s firm, who is pushing (in a nice way) for more leads.
- Villain – the person (or “thing”) who has the behaviours that are going no to hinder the hero in his quest for success. In my story, this is the IT developer from a competing company. He’s not a bad guy at all, but if our hero doesn’t achieve his goal, this guy will.
Katie proposes that you don’t use real people from your business in the story, but focus on character types, personalities, (in)competence etc.. There are some classic personality types you can bear in mind: Dominating people, passive people, manipulators… She also noted that you don’t need to literally translate the story. In my case, I could have taken the story entirely out of the IT world and just used a “boy meets girl, but can’t get to know her” story as an analogy. Given the wish to integrate this story into a training with an existing client in the IT sector, I preferred to “keep it real”.
Choose the story model you need to make your point
With the background in mind, each story has to have 4 phases: Setting, conflict, climax and resolution. But they don’t have to be presented in that order, or in the same way. There are 4 models ways to proceed.
- The first model under consideration is used for introducing something new in your training, like a skill or attitude. Here you need to focus on the climax phase at the beginning of the story. You talk about the moment when the problem is being solved. This will help to introduce the behaviours and attitude required to achieve success. Of course, in this story model, we may go back in time to the status-quo as the story/training evolves.
- For technical skills training, you need to put a lot of time into characters early. This will create more empathy from the learners. How you proceed through the story phases noted above is flexible from there on.
- If you are trying to get better adoption of something new (process, solution, tools) where there is resistance, you need to focus on the resolution phase first. This will help to build the feeling of potential benefits (of the new thing) for the learner and build an image of a better world when the change is completed. Yo ur can compare this to the visualisation exercise seen in Juanita Coble’s session.
- If your issue is creating memory, you need to focus first more on the territory of the story (background and setting), using good memory-enhancing skills. If you can do this in a visual way like Hans Rosling does, you’ll definitely achieve this!
Can everyone create a good story?
Having gone through the exercises in the session, I have the feeling that there may be one major barrier for instructional designers and trainers to actually get started with this. Personally, I am loving it and finding it very easy. I like new ideas, I find it easy to think of analogies, be a little out of the box and go through the steps. But not everyone can do this, or like it. * During the session, many participants were asking closed (yes/no) questions to the speaker. For example: “Could the villain be “time” rather than a person?” The fact that they didn’t just say “I think the villain could be time, rather than a person” seemed implied to me that people were feeling uncertain about their ideas, needing reassurance.
* Interestingly, whilst taking us throughout the steps, Katie used story to introduce us to a friend of hers (Eric) who hates to learn new things and finds it difficult to do what she asks. He suffers, he pulls his hair out and doesn’t know what to do. Very clever meta-approach to her session!
OK, so where exactly is THE story?
If you read this blog and think I still don’t have a story, you may have missed the point. We are not writing a novel here. No-one in a learning environment today would read it if we did that anyway! We are also not talking about making a full “Who moved my cheese?” type training workshop, bade exclusively on the story. The story IS the characters, the setting, the conflict, climax and resolution. How and when you present during training it is up to you:
- Occasionally, you might actually tell a part of the story as an introduction to a training moment
- You might have a PowerPoint slide with one of the characters + a speech-bubble mentioning a problem he or she has, which you use this to generate discussion about the required approach to the situation
- You might do a role-play at one moment where the trainer or a participant plays one of the characters so that another participant can show us how the hero should act
- You could implement some of the ideas from Anders Gronstedt’s session on TransMedia Storytelling
…and if you do the things and do them well, you will have a thin-red-story-based-line which learning participants can relate to, may feel emotional about, are more likely to remember and more likely to learn from.