Storytelling has been a part of the training, teaching and coaching development process since the first group of students sat down with Socrates to discuss contemporary topics in a knowledge transfer relationship. Stories create an unencumbered path to understanding an idea or concept with some level of clarity and curiosity. Seasoned trainers, teachers and coaches have learned to keep an arsenal of stories readily available to augment a lesson or clarify a particularly irritation concept.

The beauty of storytelling is not just in the story itself but in the way the storyteller can read and engage an audience based on its ebb and flow as well as its perceived impact. There’s a well-regarded, anonymously quoted statement that has made the rounds of comics and humorists for a long time: “A good story, for a storyteller, will keep you fed for 10 years.” Trainers, teachers and coaches rely on good stories to fill the gap between lecture and discussion, to illustrate how something works, and to validate the experiences that brought them to that group of learners. Engage the audience, and it amplifies the learning.

As the shift to a virtual learning environment has put technology and technological support at the centerpiece of training, content and delivery have taken on a new challenge for the training professionals who relied so heavily on the eyes, vocals and non-verbal behavior of learners to gauge the effectiveness of a story. It would be wrong to believe that a good story has no place in a virtual training environment, the challenge for the trainer is looking into a web camera to ensure eye contact on a computer monitor, where a number of individuals are staring back through their computer monitors. It’s like the opening credits of “The Brady Bunch”!

While we danced on the edges of virtual learning for several years, 2020 did more than shut down the conference life; it put the webinar at the forefront of learner engagement. PowerPoint presentations, webcams and chatrooms represent the mainstream collection of technology tools for activating an engaging learning environment. The crunch of time, content and attention spans have all but shelved the good story connector.

However, a good story, well told, can overcome any restriction that a virtual environment can place on participant engagement. In much the same way that teachers create lesson plans, instructors develop lectures and coaches plot out their sessions, a good story in a virtual environment requires the same attention to planning to achieve a learning outcome.

The Story Thread

Anyone who is engaged in the training process knows and understands how a good story can elevate learners’ interest when it is related to something they understand. For a time-crunched webinar, it is important to think through two stories that will connect ideas. The stories must be reflective of the trainer’s own experience and be told in such a way that the virtual audience can see the connection through the trainer’s eyes, through his or her enthusiasm, and within a short time limit.

One of the interesting adjustments trainers must make when telling stories to a virtual audience is that the ability to scan the room while talking is gone. The focus is, rather, on what participants are showing the trainer by way of their computer monitor. The ability to use two good stories at the middle of the beginning and the middle of the end of the session positions the learners to, essentially, take two breaks from staring at the computer screen to reflect on the important lesson or lessons of the story. Even in a virtual learning environment, participants need to have that immersion with a real experience that is connected to their own.

The Story Essence

In the traditional in-person training environment, trainers could tell stories with some points of digression. Learners tolerated those points due to the unconscious, unstated agreement that filling time was an acceptable part of getting through the session. Time could expand or contract depending on what the audience was willing to tolerate to reach the first break.

In the virtual learning environment, on the other hand, time is a fixed element that is barely tolerant of digression. Mental bullet points or story anchors are important tools trainers can use to avoid digressions and allow for moments of spontaneity. Having an arsenal of stories is still important to training in a virtual environment, but having good stories that quickly connect the content and send participants to the chat box helps that 90-minute webinar to flow as if it were 60 minutes. Trainers should pick stories that connect the points and that they can tell in 90 seconds.

The Story Conclusion

The time crunch of the virtual learning environment does not allow as much room for the participants to do a reflective “free-for-all” to arrive at the point of the story. When time permits, adult learning demands this form of engaged learning, but it is also wise for trainers to be prepared to focus chat responses on the conclusion that connects back to the content and to encourage reflection during downtime. A well-crafted story is an extension of the training content and is more effective when it’s an immersive step into a life lesson than when it’s a “war story” designed to reaffirm individual prowess.

The art of storytelling in a virtual training environment requires just as much creative thought, planning and execution as storytelling in a traditional training environment. So, before abandoning the art, let’s refine the skill so that we can continue to use the tool to broaden the insights of engaged learners.