Benefits of Using Storytelling in the Classroom
The concept of storytelling might be worrying if you think you have to write a literary novel or even a children’s picture book. But, that’s not the case: storytelling simply helps you to build pictures and connect with your learners.
As we begin our conversation on storytelling, I’d like to start with a saying from the Mi’kmaq people of Northeastern North America: “Your story makes my story richer.”
We can learn from other people’s stories — from their mistakes and their successes. In this way I don’t have to have the experience myself, but I can still gain knowledge from it.
When you think of storytelling, do you picture a group of children sitting cross-legged on the floor of the library? Or perhaps you think of a group of adults listening intently to a book being read at a book launch. Why do you suppose those memories are so powerful?
If we think back to our early days of learning, we see how we were taught through stories — many of them brought to life by Dr. Seuss, Sesame Street and Walt Disney. They were using stories to make our stories/our lives richer. Remember Sam-I-Am in Green Eggs and Ham, who never gave up trying to get his friend to try the food because he knew his friend would have a great new experience once he tried the green eggs and ham? What a lesson on persistence.
Or, Beauty and the Beast, which taught us that true beauty is not about how we look — it’s how we treat others.
Stories are powerful, especially if they come from personal experience. This is the extra that we, as educators of adults, can bring to the conversation.
In one of my ice breakers, I ask participants to think about the most important thing they ever learned from someone else. I then have them share what they learned including who the person was and the how that learning was passed on to them (was it through conversation, presentation, action, storytelling, etc.?). A later energizer asks them to relate something they learned from another participant during the morning session.
I find this is a great way to get them to think about the importance of stories.
Trainers are often natural storytellers, but sometimes the message or learning objectives come from someone else (such as the boss, HR department, or operations area), and so the focus of the presentation moves from training and engagement to simply delivering somebody else’s message.
Remember that your learners will engage better when stories are combined to create a powerful presentation. People don’t learn or engage nearly as well if they are trying to read content from the slides and listen to content-heavy lecturing.
The disappointment for many trainers is that people attend training, and then a week later they go back to old habits and don’t do what they learned. One of the reasons for this is that the learners never engaged in why they needed to learn what you offered. They simply sat politely, listened, completed your exercises, and then returned to their usual routine.
You can’t guarantee that your stories will be memorable, of course, but you can do things at a level of planning and design to make them worthy of being memorable!
Tap into people’s emotions in a big way. If you’re speaking about health and wellness you’ll probably have all kinds of horrible stories you can draw from, but the ones that people will remember are about you or someone close to you. A gifted trainer or speaker will take the audience with them to a near-death experience (with tears, increased heart rates, and sweaty palms) and then back again (to laughter, resolution, and clarity). That’s memorable and deliberate.
When I worked at the Department of Fisheries and was doing orientation training for summer students, I would often tell a true story of a summer student’s first time on a boat. Years later, many of the students told me they still remembered the story each time they get on a boat. This is the story:
It was early May and we were about a mile off Peggy’s Cove on the Nova Scotia’s south shore, checking oyster floating cages. Loyal and I were hauling the four foot by eight foot trays over the side of our 20-foot aluminum boat when one of the lead chains caught on the gunwale of the boat. As I reached over to untangle the chain, I was suddenly thrown into the water. The summer student who we had told to stay on the other side of the boat for stability had come across to help out. In so doing he had unknowingly put all the boat weight on one side of the boat and caused everyone to be tossed from the boat. The motor had been running to keep us next to the float, and it managed to stay on for a time as the boat was propelled down ward and sunk to the bottom. Adding to the state of affairs, I was wearing chest waders — a very stupid thing to be wearing out there. Luckily, I also had a floater jacket that allowed me enough buoyancy to stay afloat. So here we were floating around in freezing cold water with our boat at the bottom and no one within a mile. Or so we thought. Fortunately for us, a fisherman who had just picked up his boat from the repair shop and was testing his refurbished motor, had seen us falling in. He came over and picked us up. However, with the water filling my chest waders, I was too heavy to haul on board so I was held over the side by my two co-workers as he slowly steamed us to shore.
Many safety lessons were taught from that one story and even the embarrassment of my part in it didn’t stop me from using this story as an important part of my future safety lessons.
Our need to communicate and to share stories is great. As trainers, we have messages to share, and we need people to take action. We have to tell stories that are true in order for them to be believable, and they have to be compelling in order for people to connect with them. We are not creating a story just for the purpose of telling a lesson; we are sharing a story so that we can create a situation where people can learn and will remember.
Features, benefits, facts, and figures do not drive human behavior. They help to rationalize or explain human behavior, but they don’t drive decision-making. Instead, we want to reach people in the emotional center of their brain, which we can do more easily when we connect deliberately to why they should do something, which is very different from being told what to do.
Additionally, the part of the brain that controls decision-making is a different part of the brain than where language is controlled. This is why realtors understand that buying a house is an emotional decision, rather than a rational one. When someone looks at a house, they immediately begin creating pictures in their mind about cooking meals in the kitchen, relaxing in front of the fireplace, or lighting up the barbecue on the deck. A realtor knows that if the buyer makes an emotional connection to the house, they already think of it as a home, and they’ll do whatever it takes to own it.
This is why home staging has become such an integral part of real estate sales. The home stager creates an environment that is designed for the potential buyer to imagine themselves in the home, so all personal effects of the current homeowner are removed, including pictures of the children, evidence of pets, and personal toiletries on display in the washroom. These personal items get strategically replaced by fresh baking on the counter so that the house smells good or fresh flowers near the front door as a welcome.
Your training needs to connect you to people in the same way.
When you are giving a presentation (whether it’s a short 20 minute message or a full-day workshop), your audience is king. Although you may have the microphone or podium, unless you connect with the people, you might as well stay home. The people who hear your presentation will be responsible for the sharing of your idea, or for its death. Since they have that level of control, it’s of supreme importance that you make them the most important part of your presentation.
A successful presenter filters everything they say through their audience’s desires, goals, and emotions. Unfortunately, most presenters focus heavily on themselves. They want to share absolutely everything they know, as opposed to what their audience needs and wants to hear. In their efforts to present what they think their message should be, the presenter loses sight of what’s important: the audience. They outline what to do, how to do it, how much it will cost, and then, at the end of their presentation, if they don’t run out of time, they will include a slide that describes why it’s important.
This format fits with outmoded forms of teaching and training, which says, “I pay you to do a job, so you had better do it.” This format leads to people thinking that the training you are delivering is “change for the sake of change” or “flavor of the month.” They say things like “I hate training! We’ll sit there for two days, and then I’ll be a week behind when I get back to my desk.”
As a corporate trainer, your audience will usually be made up of people who are required to or strongly suggested that they attend your training. If you do public workshops, you might have more control when it comes to attracting people who want to attend your workshop, but all audiences have a specific power that as a trainer, you must focus on.
People who attend your presentations need to learn what you can do for them, not what they must do for you.
In business, we struggle more than necessary to create stories. Depending on how you think, you may feel that using stories is frivolous, takes too long, or that it allows people creative time to think, and the thing we have little of in business is time. These things are all true: stories can be frivolous and fun. Teaching through the power of story can take longer than simply telling someone what to do, and the process of writing, hearing, and reading stories certainly does get the creativity flowing. However, a story allows its concepts to be memorable to your audience. That is how change sticks.
People won’t remember your learning objectives or your change initiative, or notice what you spent on the lunch that was provided during your workshop.
They won’t remember the size of the screen that showed your slides, or whether your microphone was optimized for the room or not.
However, if you deliver your message with a powerful story, your audience will remember the story, at least for a time.
Weak stories can be unbelievable and forgettable. Your job as a storyteller is to highlight some kind of drama or conflict, and to resolve the story in a way that is both believable and memorable. When the emotion in your story connects to the emotion in your audience’s story, you develop a shared story that connects both of you powerfully, and memorably.
Stories have the potential to win customers, bring teams together, and motivate people. They are a very compelling platform for directing and influencing imagination. If you master telling stories, you can greatly influence others. By using stories in your presentations, your audience can easily recall what they’ve learned, and they can even spread the stories for you. A well-crafted story can bring your themes to life and they will give your messaging influence because they emphasize a transformation and they have a clear structure.
Aristotle taught a three-stage story structure that we still use today: Each story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Audiences are conditioned to hear stories this way and it makes them easy to relate to. Make sure your stories, including stories within your presentations, have all three parts and clear transitions between each phase.
In order to create unforgettable story, your tale will resolve some kind of conflict or lack of balance. It’s the feeling of discontent, angst, or anguish that makes your audience care enough to get on board with you. If you want people to change the way they currently approach something, then you also have to be persuasive.
A story I use when I am teaching about time management and managing for success relates to my first year at university.
I was lucky enough to obtain a renewable scholarship that paid for my university tuition. A requirement to maintain a B+ average seemed to me to be a walk in the park. As I started attending classes I was very over-confident. I got great marks in high school without studying more than a few hours a semester. University had no homework, just papers and tests, so I thought: “This is going to be great!” Midterms came and went well, as the material seemed to be stuff I already knew from high school. Christmas exams were coming up, but I wasn’t worried — I was on scholarship after all! The night before my first two exams, a new mall was opening in a neighboring town, so I took my sisters out to shop the big opening sales. The next day I dutifully went to write my exams and got the surprise of my life — I didn’t know what half the questions were about. Well needless to say, my four Ds and an F at Christmas didn’t make me or my parents very happy. I was devastated, and I asked my father if he could get me a job as I was resigned to not continue my studies. My father said he could get me a job, but not until April, so he said why not stay at university until then — it was paid for anyway. Then he told me to treat it like a job. Outside of class time I scheduled study, research and reading times as well as meetings with teaching assistants and professors. I did all of these things from 8:30 until 6:30 each weekday and nine until five on Saturday. With my father’s time management tips I was able to keep my scholarship and continue on to complete my degree. I have now passed this story on to my own children as well.
The power of stories!
The last thing I want to talk about is practice.
Many trainers say that they don’t like to (or don’t need to) rehearse their material. While this might be the approach of a casual speaker or someone who does not want to make their career based on professional training and presentations, it’s not recommended.
Practice every story ahead of time. As a trainer you know your stuff and you are a content authority. However, you are probably so familiar with your own stories that you don’t think twice about them, and this can be a fatal error. Personal stories are sometimes filled with inside jokes or personal references that will cause you to lose your audience. They can also lack relevance to your material and the objectives you are teaching, so make sure that the story is relevant to your desired outcome.
Kevin Henderson is manager of content creation at Velsoft Training Materials and has 30 years of experience in teaching and higher education.