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Once upon a time there was an IT trainer...

If you're looking to reinforce a concept or wrap up your class in a creative way, throwing in a story may be what you need. Bruce Maples looks at how stories can be helpful teaching tools.


One of the first e-mails I ever received about this column was from Tom Fennell of the Strategist Communications Institute, reminding me of the value of storytelling as a teaching method. Being a big storyteller myself (my business card lists “raconteur” as one of my professions), I was already a believer in storytelling. At last week’s church service, though, I was reminded again of how a good story can grab everyone’s attention.

We had a visiting preacher that day. Most guest speakers begin with a few introductory comments, perhaps a joke or two, or maybe some verses of scripture to set the tone. This gentleman did none of those. Instead, he stood quietly for a moment, then began, in a calm, quiet voice, to tell a story. He is a chaplain for Hospice, and it was a story about a man whose father was dying. Within 30 seconds this guest speaker had everyone in the room completely engaged, and he kept us that way for the next 20 minutes.

All great teachers have seen the power of the story. Each of us has been mesmerized by a well-told tale in the classroom. The question is, how can technical trainers take advantage of this teaching method? And even more importantly, if we choose to use storytelling in our teaching, how can we do it well? That’s what we’re going to take a look at this week and next.

Types of stories
The first task, as is often the case, is to define some terms. When we talk about stories, there are really three different story forms we can use in the classroom: anecdotes, narratives, and case studies.

According to Dictionary.com,anecdotes are “a short account of an interesting or humorous incident.” The key word here is short. Nothing drives your listeners crazy faster than taking too long for an anecdote. If you can’t tell the anecdote in a minute or less, it becomes a story, and is subject to the more stringent requirements of a good story.

Narratives are defined here as “an account or a recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious, intended to interest or amuse the listener or reader; a tale or short story.” Narratives are longer than anecdotes and require more skill in the telling, but also have more uses, as we’ll see shortly.

The most formal and involved type of teaching story is the case study, which also has a longer definition at Dictionary.com:
  1. “A detailed analysis of a person or group, especially as a model of medical, psychiatric, psychological, or social phenomena.
  2. A detailed, intensive study of a unit, such as a corporation or a part of a corporation, that stresses factors contributing to its success or failure.”

Case studies are typically presented in writing so that the students may read them ahead of time. In certain disciplines there are fairly strict rules describing the proper way to develop and present case studies. Case studies are becoming more and more popular both as a teaching tool and as a testing tool, as the recent makeovers of some Microsoft tests show.

As you move through these three types of stories, both the length and the formality increase, as does the skill involved in developing and using them. Fortunately, it is possible to learn to use all three appropriately and well.

Uses of stories in technical teaching
All three types of stories can be used throughout the teaching and learning process for a wide range of purposes. Here are some examples to get you started:

Introduction and hook
As the guest preacher showed, sometimes a good story can be a great way to start a learning session. You “hook them” with the story, possibly even leaving off the ending until after the technical content has been covered. The key here is finding a strong story that also ties in well with the material.

Illustration and example
This is probably the most common use of stories, especially anecdotes. “I know one person who…” or “One company tried…” are common segues into stories used to illustrate a point. Almost any teacher, no matter what their storytelling skills are, can use anecdotes in this way.

Reinforcement and application
After you’ve taught the material, case studies are excellent for reinforcing the concepts covered in class, as well as for checking to see if the learners can apply the material to real-life situations. An interesting twist to using narrative for reinforcement is to start a story yourself, then have the learners finish it. You could even have them complete two different endings, one for the Good Network Admin and another for the Bad.

Stress and tension relief
This can be a minefield for the unskilled, but sometimes a good story is the best way to break tension in the classroom. If the students perceive you as fairly self-confident, a self-deprecating story can often lighten the mood if a student is challenging you. But take care! You must always be sure telling your story doesn’t come at the expense of the student.

Wrap-up and transition
This is a variation on the use of story as introduction. Unlike the intro story, which must fit only one criterion, the wrap-up and transition story must cover both what you’ve been covering and what you are about to cover. If the materials are related, it shouldn’t be too hard to develop a story that fits the bill. Be wary, though, of trying too hard. There’s a reason non sequitur is in the dictionary.
That’s it for this week! Entire books have been written on the art of storytelling, and on the use of storytelling in teaching; this column is merely meant to wet your whistle. Start looking for good places to use a story when you prep your class, and try throwing one or two into the mix and see what happens. Be sure to check back next week when we look at some dos and don’ts for storytelling in the classroom. And send me an e-mail with your own tales of using stories when teaching—I’d love to hear how they’ve worked for you!

Bruce Maples is a trainer, speaker, author, and consultant living in Louisville, KY.

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