Stories are the most efficient way of storing, retrieving and conveying information. Since stories require active participation from the listener, they are the most profound social form of human interaction, communication and learning. Telling stories for any organizational purpose only scratches the surface. Through my research and consulting, I have learned how to use stories as powerful vehicles for eliciting people’s experiences and knowledge, and helping people hear each other and themselves in deeper ways to promote reflection and learning in organizations.

Have you considered that …

  • A learning event is an unfolding story.
  • People craft stories to make sense of what they are learning.
  • Stories are at the intersection of people’s synthesis of learning.
  • Stories are tools for thinking.
  • You can move through complex information more efficiently with story devices than with standard forms of discourse.
  • Breaking a story up into smaller pieces throughout a learning event will help you anchor your learning and hold people’s attention.
  • Scenarios can be used as mini virtual reality simulators to engage people in stimulating conversation.

Telling stories is the tip of the iceberg. We need to be able to listen for the stories, look for emerging patterns, and explore the contours of this terrain as meaning emerges. Search for context and the message behind the story. And, perhaps most central to our discussion: Learning events need to trigger and elicit stories from participants.

Don’t be concerned if stories don’t get shared during a live event. If people are reflecting on stories, they’ll be making invaluable links to your key messages. Stories touch our imaginations. Real changes in behavior related to performance percolate in our imaginations before they ever become visible.

Stories that create engagement don’t need to be long, drawn-out dramas. Two or more smaller stories woven together can be more effective than one big story.

Just as words mean different things to different people, stories are indexed with different “tags” in peoples’ heads. The danger of limiting yourself to one big story is that you’re treating stories as encoded messages. Stories tickle, tease and invite participation. So, collaging two or more stories together increases the likelihood that your stories will resonate with your learners.

The same holds true for stories from others. In fact, they may not even feel like stories when you hear them. They might be a pointer to a story; a short phrase that acts as a placeholder to an experience. These can be probed and expanded upon during learning events, as time and circumstances permit.

Stories are always happening. Does your learning organization have a story bank? Here are a couple of ideas to get started: Become mindful of stories; develop mechanisms for collecting stories from customers, employees, stakeholders, etc.; and offer people formal/structured and informal/unstructured opportunities to share stories.

How do I get stories for my story bank?

  • Listen carefully to comments during live, online learning events, meetings, project debriefs, mentoring and coaching programs.
  • Invite veteran employees to special focus groups designed to elicit stories.
  • Mine your social media outlets regularly.
  • Hold story contests.
  • Provide story prompts to get people going; one story usually leads to another.
  • Give people timelines.
  • Generate a good stream of questions.
  • Show genuine interest and curiosity in others, their experiences, and how they formed their worldviews.

Stories map to one another; we create relationships and look for parallels between stories. In this way, stories are also building blocks for learning. We learn by associating new pieces of information with existing ones. When experience remains isolated in a single domain, it is horribly inefficient. Roger Schank, founder of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University and Socratic Arts, asserts that intelligence is the ability to easily index our vast array of experiences, and make connections between old and new ones.

I feel we tend to confuse communication with learning. Most of us spend our time in organizations communicating in the explicit ways expected of us. If we can’t say it straight, or make it immediately digestible, then we have failed. Conversational forms of learning thrive on implicit communication, and stories are implicit. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, stories used to stimulate the storytelling of others will yield the best results.

Story-based Communication Skills 

The model we use for building a story culture at Accenture and for our clients consists of three areas and nine skills. The skills in the Core describe how we can become open, aware and sensitive to stories. The skills in the Process describe how we transform experiences into meaningful, reusable stories. The skills in Interaction describe how we use stories to communicate and connect with others. Good news: Everyone is a natural storyteller; people are naturally wired with this equipment.

Below is a list of the nine skills and sample behaviors for each. Organizations can employ a variety of learning strategies to help people tap into the natural storytelling equipment.


Summary

Stories offer a wealth of opportunities for inciting insights in others. Stories are a powerful tool for learning because they can move people safely away from their comfort zones, and help them encounter something totally new. In this way, stories act as transporters. They are low-tech, virtual reality simulators capable of fabricating intricate worlds of discovery. Every time a story is told, listeners enter the realm of the imagination.

The imagination is a sacred learning place that touches our hearts, emotions and minds. Stories are theaters of imagination where people can play with characters and plots to fashion new possibilities for themselves and co-creatively with others.

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