Storytelling in training is becoming a hot topic, although often misunderstood and misapplied. To understand how to create an effective, compelling story in training, let’s first look at what it isn’t.

A tweet or a long monologue from a trainer is not exactly a story, nor is an anecdote, or opening joke. However, they can all be part of the storytelling process, depending on how you use them.

Training and storytelling is not a plug and play model. A pithy line may entertain or make an insight easier to remember, but to be remembered forever, a story must not only connect emotionally, but also connect to the right emotions. Advertisers are aware of this and work hard to connect to two fundamental emotions: greed and social acceptance. Political advertisers often stir up fear as the emotion to motivate.

It’s a little more difficult in the training industry. Adult workers can be a tad cynical about being emotionally manipulated. By nature, they are set in their ways and cautious about change, especially when things are going fairly well. However, when properly motivated, humans can effectively change since it is built into our evolutionary biology. We just need to feel the urgency. So what emotion is that? That’s for the learning strategist to figure out.

It’s interesting that the amygdala, the small part of the brain at the back of the head that regulates emotions, can override logic contained in the larger prefrontal cortex. That means if we can pass new skills and behaviors through the amygdala, there is a much better chance of them being remembered and implemented.  However, some may think training is boring, non-emotional, non-life-threatening or life-affirming.

We argue that it is. Training should always start with why. With a nod to Simon Sinek, if you look at why you want to improve your employees’ performance and why they want to improve as well, there is an intersection of opportunity. And that’s where the story begins.

In that pinpoint intersection is a vast collection of elements that need to be organized to create a story that learners can relate to and that will become a part of their vocabulary so every skill and new behavior they learn has a retrievable place to reside. When they graduate from the training experience, the new skills are learned and permanently filed in the long-term memory available for recall and adaption. Jokes, anecdotes, bits of monologue, bullet points, charts, one-liners and tweets all reside temporarily in the working memory. Things we really care about latch onto our long-term memory, never to be forgotten.

The story has to be indigenous to the work culture. The players in the story should be archetypes learners can relate to. The plot should provide opportunities for the learner to be the hero of their own story. And the story needs to set up a framework for the new skills and behaviors to be remembered.

It’s tricky to get the balance between entertainment and learning just right, as well as how to use just enough story with “new skills” training. The story sets the stage for the learning experience, it’s the core of the journey, not a quick stop along the way to serve as a distraction from the mundane material. Stories are the most effective way to teach and they are always changing. Get it right and the training becomes the stuff business legends are made of.