Stories Are a Powerful Motivator
My adult daughter has dyslexia. Although she loves to read, it often takes her a while to finish a book. She has to slow down, reread passages, and take breaks when the experience gets frustrating. But the other day, she shared with me that she read Gone Girl in a day. She said, “Every time I told myself ‘one more chapter,’ I kept reading because I had to know what happened next!”
She was experiencing an effect that Rance Greene from needastory.com summarized in the following formula:
When characters we care about are in peril, we have a strong desire to know what will happen next. It’s what often keeps me up late reading “just one more chapter,” and it’s what will compel learners to dig into the content we teach.
Whether we are designing instruction or planning a meeting, Rance called on us to lead with stories. He shared the following four questions for reflection and evaluation:
- What’s the purpose of my message?
- What needs to change?
- What do I want people to do?
- How do I want them to feel?
Our Brains Are Wired for Story
One reason stories are such strong motivators is they activate most parts of the learner’s brain. As Margie Meacham of LearningToGo discussed, well-tuned stories release dopamine—the brain’s reward system. Dopamine is the “feel good” neurotransmitter, and it boosts motivation and attention while helping us learn.
Through a process known as neural coupling, stories activate parts of the brain that allow the learner to transform the story into their own ideas and experience.
Stories also build connections. In a process called mirroring, neurons in both the storyteller’s and the listener’s brains begin to modulate on the same wavelength. For this reason, stories can be effective for helping establish rapport and build relationships. They also add context to information we teach, helping the learner build a framework on which to hang the new information. As Margie reminded us, stories are the glue that hold the information together. If we don’t provide that glue, learners may come away with the wrong message because, as she said, “in the absence of a story, your brain makes one up.”
Margie advises making the story about something your audience cares about, so they can picture themselves as the protagonist. Don’t make it about you.
Stories Begin with a Blank Page
Experts are often limited by their thoughts, beliefs, and biases. This limits our creative energy. But as Taruna pointed out, “our success depends not on how quickly we learn, but on how quickly we unlearn.” We must set aside our preconceptions and assumptions and start with a clean slate. In Zen Buddhism, this is known as Shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.” It’s about approaching life and its challenges with curiosity and enthusiasm, without bias.
Rather than seeking validating information, we need to pay more attention and embody the perspective of being an amateur. As Taruna shared, Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.” Experts need to practice using the perspective of an amateur.
Here are a few of the tips Tarun shared for uncovering deeper stories about people, products, and processes:
- Create a pause. Resist the urge to correct other people or argue your point.
- Diversify your circle. Volunteer. Find a reverse mentor—someone younger or less experienced—who can provide a fresh perspective.
- Question everything, and drop “I know.”
- Generate ideas without judgment.
- Don’t protect ideas. The more you share, the more you will generate.
The Best Stories Are Messy
A story in which nothing bad happens to the characters isn’t a story at all. Stories need conflict to be interesting. As Tameka J. Harris shared, “the best stories are messy.”
Our life stories can be complicated too, with many ups and downs. Tameka shared the moving story of her career’s trajectory and how being fired led her to transition into a new position through these 5Cs:
- Clarity. Ask, “Okay, now what?” Use the moment to build resilience and resourcefulness.
- Connection. Ask, “Who can I connect with?”
- Commitment. Make a commitment to yourself.
- Consistency. Be consistent in pursuit of what’s next.
- Celebration. Celebrate yourself in the process. Don’t wait until the end.
She shared that we often need to reframe how we look at rejection and setbacks, so we can appreciate the color and texture that these experiences add to our story.
Messy Stories Require Effective Tools and Processes to Manage Them
Since we know that the best stories are messy, how do we manage that mess when we’re crafting eLearning scenarios? Christy Tucker of the Experiencing eLearning blog shared some practical tips for managing the complexity of branching scenarios.
She walked through how she uses Twine to build the story and conduct SME reviews. She also discussed the advantages of a Branch and Bottleneck structure, which helps create a deeper story while managing complex branching.
How many times have you had a great idea for a scenario but then got stuck waiting for the SME to provide information to flesh out the details? Christy’s solution is to do your best to research the topic, and start writing. Then show the SMEs.
The blank page is often the obstacle. But if you give them something to edit, they will correct it, and you can move forward. Christy shared on her blog a list of questions to ask SMEs when writing branching scenarios.
When discussing real-world job tasks, the key question she asks is, “And then what happens?”
What happens if the employee does it right?
What happens if they get it wrong?
And then what happens?
Stories Can Take Compliance Training from "Ugh" to "Wow!"
Bryan Smith shared the 5Ws and H of instructional design, providing the following examples of questions learners ask:
- Who is required to complete this course?
- What is this course I’m taking?
- When do I need to have this course completed?
- Where does this take effect?
- Why do I have to take this course?
- How does this affect me?
We all know we need to address the WIIFM: What’s In It For Me? But as Bryan pointed out, trainers and instructional designers often answer the “why” question with something like, “because it’s required.” He encouraged us to shift the thinking from compliance to how the information helps the learner—and the company—be successful.
To quote Cara North, companies tend to focus on compliance courses as a CYA measure, but we’re “not in the underwear business.” Our focus should be helping learners succeed in their jobs and showing them how the work they do contributes to the organization’s success.
Here are a few of my takeaways from the event that went beyond the information the presenters shared.
- Don’t be afraid to go old school. During Rance’s presentation, he used physical visual aids rather than slides. He held up cards to his camera, and it was surprisingly effective. We could see his full-sized video throughout the presentation, rather than seeing him in a thumbnail, and the effect was a better personal connection to him.
- If your story is engaging, technical difficulties won’t derail your presentation. One speaker’s video shut off in the last 15 minutes or so of her presentation due to connection issues, but it didn’t take anything away from the power of her presentation. Her story was so enthralling that the technical difficulties faded into the background.
- Don’t skip the networking opportunities! As Tom Albrighton wrote in his book The Freelance Introvert, “if an evil genius sat down to design a way to torture introverts, they’d probably come up with something very like a business networking event.” I don’t find it easy or natural to strike up conversations with strangers. But after I make myself network, I’m always glad I did. The TLDC conference platform allows attendees to gather at virtual tables for informal conversations, like what you’d experience at face-to-face events. This interaction is especially valuable to me, as I’m unable to attend in-person events (which I wrote about in a previous post).
Stories are the most powerful way to motivate, teach, learn, and connect with others. To develop effective stories, we need the creative mindset of a beginner, the courage to make them messy, and effective tools and processes to manage their complexity.
Many thanks to Luis Malbas, the Founder of TLDC, for putting together an incredible event and for facilitating such a great community of learning and development professionals. If you’re not already a member of TLDC, I highly recommend joining. (I don’t receive a thing for saying that; I just really love the community.)
Want to Learn More?
The speakers for Community Day are prolific experts with a wealth of information to share via their blogs and books. A few provided recommendations from other authors as well.
- Instructional Story Design: Develop Stories That Train book by Rance Green
- Online Story Design Master Class Series from needastory.com
- Stories Are for Sharing Blog from needastory.com
- The LearningToGo Blog by Margie Meacham
- Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learning Anything Using Neuroscience book by Margie Meacham
- AI in Talent Development: Capitalize on the AI Revolution to Transform the Way You Work, Learn, and Live book by Margie Meacham
- Designed for Learning! blog by Taruna Goel
- 10 Surprising Facts About Rejection article by Guy Winch
- Experiencing eLearning Blog by Christy Tucker
- Short Sims: A Game Changer book by Clark Aldrich
- HelloTameka website for Tameka J. Harris
As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small amount if you purchase from the links provided here. This does not affect the price you pay.
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What are your favorite ways to use stories for learning and development ? If you attended Community Day, what were your takeaways? Post a comment below.