Stories: My #1 Training Design Tool
Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Every year at Impact Instruction Group, we look at the trends like gamification, TinCan API, social learning, and mobile that are shaping learning and development and publish those findings in our Technology Trends Report. Within each of those trends I see one powerful tool, a tool that training professionals need to have and don’t use often enough: stories.  

Stories transcend trends. They are the emotional glue holding together training content, its value, and ultimately, our call to action. Your learners have to internalize that value, to “get it,” and to do something differently or better because of it. 

Your training audience isn’t going to remember everything about a learning experience. Your job is to make sure they remember, care about, and act on the most important pieces of the message. The other stuff? Well, they can look it up in your job aids and other materials. 

Think about the training you design or deliver. Are those learners going to forget it all a week later? Is there any emotional glue keeping it together, or just some weak, one-sided tape? Adding story to your training is a simple tool to help people internalize its value, even if they don’t remember all of the nitty-gritty details. And you don’t have to be an expert in storytelling to make this work. 

To begin, let’s go back to grade school and review the basic elements of story: 

  • People and place: Who is the story about? Where did it happen?


  • Exposition: What’s the back story? This provides more context to the overall message.

  • Plot: What happened? This is the sequence of events that make up the actual story. The plot contains your conflict, or the crux of the story. This could be internal or external conflict. It also contains your turning point, where the conflict is often resolved.

  • Resolution: How does it end? This is where your audience learns what happens to the characters and you tie together the overall message. 

    Here are some ideas to help you create stories: 

  • Look at those learning objectives. What is your core message? What actions should your audience take as a result of their time with you? Your core message and desired actions should be well defined in your learning objectives, and they become the anchor for your story choices. Your story choices should tie back to those objectives.
  • Consider how story can address emotional barriers. We’ve all had it happen, where some learners shut down for various reasons. Scrutinize each lesson and activity for those barriers. For example, when I’m talking to groups about building network relationships, I know many of them will think they can’t do it. Then the invisible barrier goes up. As I’m teaching the skills, I tell stories about my own experiences to help break those barriers.
  • Share someone else’s experience or create a scenario. Don’t have your own experience? No problem. I might share a colleague’s experience if I’m in a live training session, or ask the audience to share a story. In an e-learning experience, branching scenarios are a great way to use the element of story. For more on this, check out this blog post by Cathy Moore, where she describes a branching scenario done by the U.S. Army. Warning: I spent a half hour working my way through the scenarios—I was hooked!
  • Infuse your own emotion, personality, and sincerity. If I had to prioritize these ideas, this would rank #1. I can’t say enough about it. No matter how well you incorporate the technical elements of story, you must believe in the story’s value and power, or it will come across as flat and disingenuous. It’s your emotion, personality, and sincerity that sells it.
  • Become open to finding stories in unexpected places. I’ve conditioned myself to look for stories in all situations, and this comes in handy when creating new or refreshing existing materials. This is especially important for those times when you’re training on a dry subject. Try not to throw in the towel on stories for those subjects; those are the ones that really need story. Do your research, interview people, dig deep. Bottom line: try to find a human story element that will create that emotional glue.

  • Be sure the story is relevant. Does the story tie to an objective? Because in the end, those are the measurable elements that determine the training’s impact to the business. For each story, map it to the course objective it meets. If it doesn’t clearly meet an objective, set it aside and come back to it. You may still tell it as a supporting element, but make sure your core stories meet the course’s objectives. 

If you hone one design tool in your training, start with story. Remember that the human mind isn’t designed to remember all of the details of a training experience. But with well-placed story, the most important details and the value of the message will be remembered, as well as the person who designed or delivered it.

Editor’s note:  This post is adapted from the original post on the Impact Instruction blog.

About the Author

Amy Franko is founder and CEO of Impact Instruction Group, which helps organizations develop their top talent and future leaders through customized leadership and onboarding programs. Her experience within global organizations shaped her skills as a strategic thinker and leader, often providing new perspectives to clients. Amy established and moderates forums for learning executives and is a recognized speaker on leadership development. She is on the board of the Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland. Connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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