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The Power of Storytelling in Corporate Learning

Storytelling is how we’ve entertained, inspired, and passed on knowledge for thousands of years before the written word. And, as the film and gaming industries can attest, storytelling is big business. Those who know how to capture our hearts and minds through a great narrative generate billions in revenue.

The idea of storytelling in the corporate learning space is in vogue for good reason. Story has a massive hold on the human psyche, and your approach to it can radically transform the effectiveness of your learning and development (L&D) efforts.

In this blog, we’ll discuss the basics of storytelling, why it’s so effective, and how you can begin integrating it into your L&D efforts.

What Is Storytelling?

Storytelling is about a person communicating information, often in the form of a narrative, to an audience. Your goal is to inform, inspire, entertain, or prompt some sort of action from your audience.

Storytelling also involves a two-way connection with the audience. Audiences don’t just receive information; they are an active participant. Audiences interpret what storytellers are saying, and they react to the story as it unfolds. Great storytelling considers the reaction of the audience in real time so that the story can evolve and adapt.

This interpretation of storytelling—an interactive communication with the intent to inform, inspire, entertain, or prompt—applies seamlessly to L&D. Interaction is at the heart of what we’re trying to achieve. We develop learning material for a specific audience and intend to prompt specific action.

The Reemergence of Storytelling

Oral storytelling is as old as language itself, but the earliest known or recorded evidence of visual storytelling dates back about 36,000 years. And we only discovered this evidence in a system of cave paintings in France in the mid-1990s.

It’s impossible to know the purpose of ancient stories painted on cave walls. Were they meant to inform, educate, inspire, or entertain? What we do know is that any story painted on a cave wall was important enough to document, so it’s clear the “storyteller” wanted to communicate something to others.

Though storytelling is as old as language, it’s trending today. We often believe that buzz-worthy concepts are new, but that’s not the case here. We are just now gaining an understanding of how powerful storytelling is, how deeply rooted and essential it is to the human experience, and how to apply it to professional communications.

Why Is Storytelling Taking Root in the Business Ecosystem?

Everyone is searching for a way to connect. Although we have many ways to interact with others digitally, many of those connections lack authenticity. Stories articulate authentic human experiences and therefore resonate deeply with audiences.

Our attention spans are also waning these days. In our modern world, you must capture attention quickly, and stories do that. So it’s no surprise, from a business perspective, that organizations use stories to try to get an edge on the competition.

The business world is maturing, which is another reason storytelling is taking root. Businesses are beginning to understand how people work, that we are social beings by nature, and that we want to connect. Even with so much technology at our fingertips, we haven’t necessarily used that technology to focus on stories that achieve impact.

I believe that’s what we’re after and why storytelling is gaining traction in business. It’s a way to authentically connect with people, create community, and share impactful experiences.

How Do You Tell a Good Story?

Anyone can be a storyteller, but the good ones know how to construct a meaningful story. You must think through how to compel people to pay attention. Once you engage your audience, they’ll be receptive to whatever challenge you pose through your story.

My process for storytelling is inspired by Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth, which he introduces in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. To craft a character that transforms through experiences people connect with, I use a simple formula based on what I call the three Cs: concept, color, and challenge.

You first need to identify your concept—the thing you’re going to talk about, your theme. Let’s say our concept is resiliency. The color is the experience that brings the concept of resiliency to life. This might be illustrated by unpacking a situation where something doesn’t go the character’s way and they must fight through it. The color is the entertaining part of the story.

The challenge portion addresses what you want your audience to do. This challenge needs to tie back to your concept and be actionable. So, to keep with the resiliency example, your story could encourage people to push past where they think their stopping point is the next time they face adversity. They may discover a new level of resiliency in their own life.

While this is a simple framework for building a story, all three aspects are critical to craft a good narrative.

The Impact of Storytelling in Corporate Learning

Great storytelling is important for us in L&D because we’re in the business of transformation. We want to develop talent and help people learn new things. Stories are proven to be useful in this endeavor.

As a Creative Director, I constantly see content and deliverables that are intended for training and learning purposes. We do a lot of “stuff & things,” which means delivering learning material without considering its true purpose or impact. We get into a rhythm of meeting deadlines and moving through our processes, and it sometimes feels too time-consuming to be intentional and bring a storytelling mindset into a project.

Stories can inform people, but they can also inspire, entertain, and prompt someone to take action. That depth of action doesn’t often happen in L&D because we’re so focused on what we’re delivering without taking time to consider how we deliver it. We have an opportunity to achieve real transformation through storytelling. We can make deeper impacts, lock learning in, and transfer knowledge in a more meaningful way by bringing storytelling to the forefront.

The Keys to L&D Storytelling

Even if you’ve created the space for storytelling in your development processes, crafting good stories may still feel daunting. There are a few keys to help you unlock great stories that will resonate.

Tap into Universal Human Experiences

If we want to do “stuff & things” better and infuse them with storytelling, we need to consider the experiences of the tens or hundreds or thousands of individuals who will be impacted by whatever learning material we develop.

If we consider the concept-color-challenge model, the colors that we all bring to our lives are vastly different. We must be sensitive about making stories too personal and try to connect with more universal experiences. If we consider the universal experience of loss, for example, we can craft a story that resonates with almost everyone. If we create a character that experiences loss and learns to push through, our learners will see a bit of themselves in that character. This will produce an audience that is more receptive to whatever action you want them to take.

Know Your Audience

Hooking an audience and making a relatable character and situation can be time-consuming and requires a nuanced approach. But if you’re creating “stuff & things” for a specific industry and your team has performed proper design thinking and discovery sessions beforehand, you already know your audience and their pain points.

The learner experience always trumps content, so bring those personas into your storytelling design earlier to craft the right concept, color, and challenge to engage your specific audience.

Storytelling Deeply Impacts Learning

Using storytelling in your L&D designs can illustrate key concepts and motivate learners to act, resulting in learning experiences that have a lasting impact. For more information about storytelling in corporate learning, check out our two-part podcast series on this topic, Transforming Your Organizational Learning Through Storytelling: Part One and Transforming Your Organizational Learning Through Storytelling: Part Two.

About the Authors

Eric Myers
For the last two decades, Eric cut his professional teeth in government, small business, startups, and top Fortune companies. At the same time, he moonlighted as a creative writer, spoken word poet, and facilitator. Eric enjoyed great successes, endured tragic struggles, and harvested valuable life lessons that came in handy when he realized there was a unique opportunity to blend elements of his performance art with business. Eric began working with and coaching public speakers, helping them unearth compelling stories so they could win more business. As Eric describes it, "When it comes to helping you craft your story, my goal is to make you as great, compelling, and memorable as you can be when the audience is looking at you."

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