The Power of Stories: Taking Training from the Conceptual to the Real

Technical Training: One Hundred Billion Dollars Wasted

Training at conferences and seminars, on new software or on HR systems or on best practices or on breakthrough techniques – is viewed by many attendees as a necessary (and often boring) evil. Unfortunately, much is also forgotten soon after. According to a McKinsey study released in October 2010, companies around the world spend up to $100 billion per year on employee training, but only one quarter of respondents to this survey said that their training programs have measurably improved business performance. 

A first step in designing training that people will use to improve business results is ensuring people pay attention.  There are many ways to get people to pay attention.  Wearing a funky outfit (or no clothes at all!).  Starting off with a joke.  Using props.

In my experience, one of the most powerful and non-gimmicky tools facilitators can use to draw their audience in to a topic and help the content to stick is story telling.

Task vs. Process: An Ah-ha Moment

I had been facilitating train the trainer workshops for several years and it was always a struggle for me to try explaining that skilled facilitators need to strike a balance between task and process. If people were going to invest time and energy (and money) to attend a training session, and if I was pressed for time and had to choose between the two, the task (mastering the content) was obviously more important than the process (spending time going through activities, engaging in discussion and de-briefing learning experiences).

Then one morning I went for a walk to the park with my 18 month old daughter. Normally this is a 10 minute walk. On this day, however, I wasn’t sure we’d make it by sundown. My daughter was stopping at every dandelion, picking them and blowing the seeds into the air. She was stopping at every water meter cover. She was picking up pebbles and rocks and leaves. When I picked her up and slung her over my shoulder so we could get to the park and have fun, she screamed and cried. The walk took about 40 minutes. Then we played at the park and my daughter was ready to go after 10 minutes.

Suddenly, task vs. process made a whole lot more sense to me. I had what Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick, called “the curse of knowledge”. I knew what it was like to walk to the park. I knew how annoyed neighbors get when I blew dandelion seeds all over their yards. However, this was one of my daughter’s first walks under her own power. She had never done these things before. Getting to the park was the process. Being at the park was the task. There was value in both, but for my daughter who was just learning to explore the world, the process was an important and valuable experience.

How many times do we want learners in our training sessions to just “get to the park and have fun, darn it” instead of allowing them space to explore the material and “blow some dandelions”?

The Power of the Story

I use this story in my train the trainer sessions when explaining adult learning theory. It would certainly be much quicker and easier for me to just say: “sound adult learning theory involves balancing the process of learning with the task of that which is to be learned.” But it’s not very interesting. Or sticky.  It doesn’t tell me how or why I should use this information (or even care about it).

Training customers by talking about the features of a new software system isn’t sticky. Telling a quick story of how another customer has used these software features to save time would be a much more powerful attention-getter.

A medical professional who shares a specific example of how lean management principles reduced errors and improved patient outcomes helps to create a sense of urgency for others to also use lean management principles.

A fundraising expert who tells the tale of two capital campaigns – one organization that followed each important principle and exceeded goals, and one organization that skipped a seemingly small step, missed its fundraising goals by hundreds of thousands of dollars and went out of business – helps her audience grasp the fact that there really are no small steps in the process.

A facilitator who shares this article from Fast Company, entitled “Change or Die,” about heart patients who routinely choose death over a change in lifestyle, can easily demonstrate the intentional effort and additional support needed to transform a routine end-of-training action plan into real action.

In Sum

Stories aren’t the magic bullet in transforming training into results, or even in getting people to remember every important point covered in a training event. Stories do, however, drag information from the realm of vague theory and not-quite-graspable concepts into the very real world of practical use and concrete examples. Put simply, a short, well-constructed story can help make your content accessible and usable for your audience. Only if your audience “gets it” will they be able to use it.

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