By Kat Koppett and Matthew Richter

Stories are the foundation for how we communicate. When we are presented with facts or processes, we remember and integrate them by weaving them into stories. That is what learning is.

In training sessions, participants are constantly creating stories, whether they know it or not. When the trainer can make the process more conscious, she can increase both the effectiveness of the knowledge transfer and the comfort of the participants. Plus, storytelling is fun, and people are motivated when they are having fun because they feel more competent.

Stories and technical training
The use of storytelling may initially feel more appropriate in soft skills areas. It is easy to see how telling stories would help in a team-building or communication skills class. However, in some ways, stories can be an even more important tool in technical training.

When a technical trainer is communicating with non-technical people or explaining a complex topic, it is critical that she help learners make every possible connection between the new information and existing knowledge. Technical situations are the ones in which this process can require the most conscious guidance.

There are a number of ways stories can enhance technical training.

At the beginning of a session
Participants in a technical workshop feel nervous or incompetent. Hearing a story about another person’s similar experience can ease the tension. Stories told at this point in the class can:

  • Break the ice and allow the participants to get settled.
  • Establish credibility and empathy.
  • Frame the intention of the workshop in a robust way.

To introduce participants
This method allows for individual expression and will be more memorable than a list of stats (employer, job, or hobbies). Again, telling about one’s experience can make individuals more comfortable. Here are some ideas for introductory stories that participants can share with each other. Have them:

  • Tell the story of their names to explain how they got their name or nickname.
  • Share a war story from their work life.
  • Recount the story of how they got here today (starting from whenever they choose—this morning, birth, etc.).

As a needs assessment
This provides you with information about your participants and their expectations, previous knowledge, and applicable skills.

  • Have participants tell the story of “what I got out of the workshop” at the very beginning, as if the workshop were over. This can tell you what the students expect from the class.
  • Have participants tell a true story of a great success to share best practices and tips.
  • Have participants relate a story of frustration or disappointment as a way of determining objectives and challenges to address in the workshop.

As a method for enhancing retention and reviewing content
This will allow you to reiterate a complex process or revisit a topic students might have been confused about when it was first introduced. You could instruct students to:

  • Create a story that illustrates a learning point, individually or in groups.
  • Provide a story that illustrates a process or incorporates data as a mnemonic device.
  • Have participants write “the story of the workshop” as a way of measuring retention and evaluating the experience.

A powerful tool
The conscious use of stories 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, robustness, 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, 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 cofounders of StoryNet, a Web-based training resource, focusing on the use of storytelling in learning.

Have you tried this technique in your classes? Is there a technical success story that you tell to help with troubleshooting ideas? Send us an e-mail and share your stories and your tips for using them.