There’s a lot of buzz about storytelling. Is the term simply a way for copywriters to make more money, by calling copy a narrative as some argue, or is it a concrete element that benefits our marketing, sales, and learning and development.

I argue for the latter. In fact, in my undergrad days, I researched and wrote about often about the roles myths (stories)had on our communication patterns and effectiveness. I’m still fascinated by the use of stories in oral history and how each generation uses them to pass values and cultural milestones to the next. There is no culture on earth that does not use stories to teach each other what the elders believe is important. It’s not surprising that storytelling has become a core competence in leadership and executive training.

If you’re ready to flip to the end for the conclusion it’s this — using stories allows us to rally around a common theme that engages, inspires, and motivates us to work for a higher purpose. Isn’t this what we want from our learners and employees?

Recently I attended an event titled, “Speaking of Business” hosted by executive presentation coaches from Spoken Impact. Guest speakers from 3M, Cargill, Graco, and Deluxe shared their use of storytelling to support strategy and build engagement in their companies.

I want to share their stories and the resulting insights with you.

3 ways storytelling can improve your instructional design.

1. Inspire action by appealing to head and heart.
There’s always the stuff, material, content, that we need to get across. A big part of learning design is engaging the mind. What I learned from Joan Moser, President of Spoken Impact, is that the best speakers engage the head and the heart. Should this be true of the best instructional design as well? In a consumer, or learner, centered environment, how are we motivating the desire of our learners?

Appeal to head and heart in the way you set up the learning context of the course; for example, you could offer participants two realities. Here’s how I’d write the instructions in the course:

Dear (student/participant/etc.)
There are two ways you could approach the learning in this course.

  1. Do your assignment, get your learning, and go.
  2. Consider the course, and your classmates, as a masters circle, or peer coaching circle. Give as much learning as you get.

Cory Hanscom, Senior Brand Manager from 3M, shared a perspective about storytelling on social media that applies to instructional design as well. Hanscom said you couldn’t say the same thing on social media that you would in a print ad. You can’t create a social media profile and expect people to keep coming back – they have to have a reason to come back. In 3M’s storytelling/branding initiative, “3M Science Applied to Life,” Hanscom and the team realized that asking their consumers and employees to share stories, challenges, and solutions engaged them with the 3M brand.

Inspire the learners in your training programs to share their stories, challenges, and solutions by designing the learning experience to mimic a peer-to-peer coaching circle.

Have you ever tried presenting learning in this context? Please tell us about it in the comments!

2. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you.
Karen Kozak, Director of Global Brand at Cargill, framed her presentation about telling the Cargill story with the statement from the subheading. As I listened, it reminded me of the post I wrote about developing a learning brand. If your learning brand is what your employees say it is, how will you know if your branding efforts are making the desired impact? Encourage employees to share their learning experience; that’s how.

“How often are you, or your subject matter experts, using your company’s stories in lessons?”

How are you encouraging employees to share their learning experience with you and the rest of the company? Please don’t say you have them fill out a survey – please. Is there time at an all-company meeting where participants in your learning and development programs can share a testimonial? Have you considered a video sharing campaign where managers and participants tell the story of how their performance, or confidence, or proficiency, has changed?

If not, consider this storytelling element in your next instructional design plan. Kozak showed us examples of how employees can surprise you with their creativity when they are inspired to share their experiences.

3. To breakthrough storytelling inertia, give and receive stories in multiple forms.
The Director of Sales & Marketing – High-Performance Coatings and Foam – for Graco, Nick Long, was the storytelling underdog. My goodness, he joked about the dry, technical details implied by his title alone. However, I was most intrigued by his story of successful storytelling.

Long faced no small task – his goal was to get salespeople to share their stories. Bit by bit, channel by channel, Long encouraged his teams to breakthrough storytelling inertia and share their challenges, solutions, testimonials, and best practices.

How? First, he didn’t prescribe the method of sharing, the channel. Team members used instant messaging and chat functions during video conference calls. Soon, the team was sharing video stories with customers to help them relate to the technical aspects of the division’s value proposition.

Here’s what I took away from his stories. To move beyond storytelling inertia, model it and encourage it. My question to you instructional designers out there is, “How often are you, or your subject matter experts, using your company’s stories in lessons?” Each story can be a case study. Each case study is an opportunity to engage learners in concrete problems and solutions that could affect them every day.

What better way to engage your learner’s heads and hearts than ask them to take an active role in shaping the direction and culture of their organization?

We’d love to hear how you’ve used storytelling in your instructional design. Share with us in the comments and let’s learn together.


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