By Kat Koppett and Matthew Richter

Gail was a trainer who taught basic computer skills to new hires at a Fortune 500 company. She ran her two-day program each week and got positive feedback. But one day, her training sessions were cut from two days to only four hours. So, she cut out the activities and focused on the facts.

She presented her classes as quickly as possible to cover everything she could. Because of the rush, she no longer knew much about her students, including when they needed help. So, her evaluations scores went down, and she started to get more support calls.

Many trainers might have given up, but not Gail. She conducted research, read books, talked to colleagues, checked out online training sites, and came up with a plan. She used storytelling to perform needs assessments and evaluations and to increase retention. Since then, her sessions have been as successful as the original classes in a fraction of the time.

Storytelling and training
All of us are natural storytellers, which can come in handy if you’re a trainer and need to impart technical knowledge to students. Some of us, though, may feel frightened at the idea of having to create a unique and helpful story to use in a training class. To help with this process, we have provided a template to guide you through the process of story creation. As a trainer, you can use it to develop your own stories or present it in class to aid participants with their own stories.

The story spine
The story spine, originally created by playwright Kenn Adams, is a tool for creating well-structured stories. It is a series of sentence fragments that prompt the narrative elements of a story, and it can be used by itself or in conjunction with any exercise in which individuals or groups are asked to make up stories.

As a group activity, participants can complete each sentence to create satisfying narratives, or the trainer can present the template as a guide for individuals sharing their experiences.

The platform

  • Once upon a time…(there was an IT trainer, Gail.)
  • Every day…(she taught her classes.)

The catalyst

  • But one day…(they cut her class time in half.)
  • The consequences

  • Because of that…(she rushed through her presentation and didn’t have much time to help students.)
  • The climax

  • Until finally…(she discovered the benefits of storytelling in technical training.)
  • The resolution

  • Ever since then…(she has used storytelling techniques in her classes and has been a great trainer.)
  • Tips for success
    Now that you know how to create helpful stories, you need to know how to use them in your classes. First, be flexible when building a story, and allow participants to pick and choose what works best for them. Some learners will enjoy working within a structure more than others.

    Here are a few more general tips for using stories effectively:

    • Create a safe environment
      Talking in front of a group can make people nervous. Storytelling is easy, but if a participant does not feel comfortable, he may not want to be creative. Therefore, trainers must make sure students are comfortable enough to talk to the group.
    • Offer choices
      People will prefer creating and presenting their stories in different ways. Allowing students to choose the method they prefer will give them a sense of control and make them feel safer and more motivated to participate. One example is allowing the students to act out a story or just read it aloud.
    • Put a time limit on the exercise
      This forces people to let go of their judgmental voice, because they do not have time to complete the task unless they use whatever idea comes to mind. Second, it provides participants with an excuse if they don’t like the end product. Excuses can be very valuable when you are asking people to take risks.

    Lasting benefits for trainers and students
    Storytelling can be a great tool for maximizing learning. Every time we understand a new set of data, learn a new skill, change an attitude, or share a part of ourselves with others, we do it through creating some sort of story. By using the storytelling process consciously, we can increase the effectiveness, appeal, and enjoyment of our training sessions.

    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, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 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.

    If you’ve got students who are uncomfortable with the format or the subject of your class, what do you do? How do you break the ice and calm jangled nerves so students can get down to the business of learning? Send us your tips for putting people at ease.