How to increase retention through storytelling

If you're faced with communicating a lot of information in a short time, consider using storytelling to do it. One technique, color and advance, allows students to control the flow of information and request additional explanations as needed.

By Matthew Richter and Kat Koppett

Stories and storytelling activities are excellent tools for increasing retention in training. Stories are the fundamental building block of how we understand and remember information. They enable us to connect to content on a deeper and richer level, more than a mere list of facts or a technical work process can. Meaning is derived and content retained by connecting data and events to each other through our own past experiences. Story is the way we make sense of the world. We tell stories all the time, and you probably already use stories somehow in your training.

Storytelling in practice
A client of ours created an online catalog that was linked to a customer service call center. The call center reps had to learn and be able to describe about 400 different products from various product lines. Training for these reps lasted four days. Using several different storytelling exercises and games, we helped the reps learn enough content knowledge to be comfortable making the transition to live calls.

How it works
Storytelling boosts retention in four very separate ways:
  1. By using storytelling as a needs assessment and evaluation tool, a trainer can pare down the workshop content to a manageable size.
  2. By creating a context for the information, participants cognitively retain it more completely and efficiently.
  3. Storytelling is a dynamic process that involves the listener as much as the speaker. Therefore, learners, when presented with stories, are more actively engaged than when they are just faced with facts.
  4. Stories are more interesting—and inherently laden with richer meaning—than lists and data. If we were numbers, we might be more interested in numbers. But as human beings, we care about people and their stories.

Let’s discuss the first two points a bit more.

Time is one of the inherent challenges to training. We believe we could teach anything successfully if we had unlimited time. However, that is never the case. How do you as a trainer decide how much to include in your training and how effectively that material is being retained? Some trainers tell us their goal is to “get through all of the material.” They worry that activities will take up too much time, and that they won’t be able to present the material as quickly as if they lectured. However, most successful trainers realize that presenting all the information is unimportant if the participants do not retain it.

Here’s the rub. Most learners will not retain content delivered by traditional lecture, unless they practice the skills and apply the knowledge immediately after the class. And even then, that works only if they truly understand what is being taught in the first place. We cannot automatically assume either of these conditions. However, if we embed learning in stories and storytelling exercises, we will increase retention. A storytelling activity can be a sort of virtual application, allowing participants to experience and contextualize the information on the spot.

Finally, using stories can help you assess the right amount of material for participants to absorb successfully. Think of it this way, is it more important to cover every bit of information in the facilitator’s guide but have participants only retain 20 percent of what is taught? Or is it better to focus on 20 percent less material and have students retain 40 percent of the overall content? We’ll take the 40 percent any day.

By using storytelling as review and evaluative exercises, the trainer can get a sense of how much it is possible for the participants to retain and understand. That way he can adjust the amount of content and clear up confusion before the learners are sent back into the workplace. Sometimes, the key to retention is not overloading the learners in the first place. Prioritizing is as important as presenting.

An exercise: Color and advance
Color and advance is one exercise that can help the learner review material and the trainer assess comprehension.

This exercise alternates between the larger steps of a process and the details of it. In pairs, one participant acts as a storyteller and the other as a guide, instructing the storyteller to “color” or “advance” at different points in the narrative. It is a wonderful way to review a procedure or technical process, such as creating a PowerPoint presentation or filling out an expense report.

This is how it works:
  1. Divide the participants into pairs.
  2. Have the pair identify Person “A” and Person “B.”
  3. Have Person B act as the storyteller and Person A act as the guide.
  4. The storyteller begins explaining the process (e.g. creating tables in Microsoft Word).
  5. Periodically, at his discretion, the guide instructs the storyteller to “color,” or describe a specific element of the process in as much detail as possible. He should identify the specific aspect to be colored by saying, “Color the _______" (e.g. “Color customizing the size”).
  6. Then, when he believes the description is sufficient, the guide says, “Advance,” and the storyteller continues with the next step of the process.
  7. When the process is complete or time is up, have the participants switch roles.

This method also works with these variations:
  • Have participants work alone on paper. The trainer should arbitrarily call “color” and “advance” to the whole group.
  • Teach the participants the “color” and “advance” vocabulary, and allow them to color and advance your lecture.
Do your students tell you when you’re going too fast and when they need more explanations or background? Can you tell by watching their faces? How? Send us your ideas on identifying and responding to student needs.
No more Grimm training sessions
By eliciting stories and employing storytelling techniques, a trainer can increase learner retention significantly. Workshops can be focused and more tailored to individuals, learners will be more engaged and clearer about their new knowledge, and we can all live happily ever after.

Kat Koppett is an independent consultant, trainer, and author, specializing in creativity and communication skills. She has designed training for Oracle, Sony, NYNEX, Roche Molecular Systems, Price-Waterhouse, and Microsoft.

Matthew Richter is the managing director and performance management consultant for Performance Concepts International. He has worked with Fortune 500 organizations to enhance productivity through the successful management of people through modeling, systems development, and training.

Koppett and Richter are co-founders of StoryNet, a Web-based training resource, focusing on the use of story in learning.