5 Tips for Building Learner Engagement through Storytelling

By Melony Bravmann, Chief Learning Officer at The Presentation Company.

Tips for Building Learner Engagement through Storytelling

The human brain is wired to learn. It’s also wired for story. Stories help learners connect with ideas through the power of emotion—giving their audience a reason to care about what they are learning. They help audiences better understand complex and abstract concepts, creating context that’s more tangible and relatable.

If you’re after great learning retention (aren’t we all?) stories that are emotionally compelling are more memorable, and more enduring than dry sets of facts and figures. The opposite also holds true. If your content doesn’t include a few great stories, you’re missing an opportunity for deep engagement and high retention.

For the past fifteen years, I’ve dedicated myself to talent development. There’s never been a time I didn’t believe well-placed stories could be helpful learning tools. But today there’s a newer, deeper understanding of the power of storytelling. More than a savvy tool for clear communication or a flourish to dress up your facts, storytelling is the essential DNA behind any learning program.

The good news: It’s not difficult to build storytelling into your learning program, and you can start doing it today. Here are five tips to get you started:

1. Back away from PowerPoint and get to know your audience first.

If you’re like many other businesspeople, there’s a good chance you want to start building your story in PowerPoint. Don’t do it! First, think about your audience. Who are they? What makes them unique? What is happening in their world? You already design learning around your audience’s needs—apply this same discipline to creating stories that will help them understand and relate to it. You might be surprised when you find out that certain assumptions about your audience are wrong. Digging deeper will give you more insight into what’s familiar for them, ensuring your narrative is relevant and effective.

 

2. Use highly relevant short stories to help learners absorb difficult concepts.

We’re all facing competing priorities and information overload. It’s no wonder learning new skills, ideas, and behaviors can be hard. When you throw challenging concepts or processes into the mix, it’s even tougher to retain everything. Identify the most difficult concepts in your learning and use short stories to bring them to life, so that your audience can connect the ideas to their world.

3. Capture learners’ attention by applying a universal story structure.

Every great story includes setting, character, conflict, and resolution. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, it’s a structure you’re intimately familiar with—and it translates beautifully into learning. Set the scene and ground learners by introducing a setting, use characters to create empathy, and increase tension with some conflict before sharing what they are ultimately supposed to know or do.

 

4. Use stories to deepen engagement.

Have participants tell stories of their own. For instance: Share an example of a time you faced adversity in the workplace because you spoke up against something you knew was wrong, or Tell us about a time a great leader guided you through change effectively? Set the scene for us. How did they introduce the change?

When learners create stories in real time, they are challenged to think through problems in a different way. This helps them discover new insights on their own so they can remember them longer.

5. Set the senses on fire.

When developing stories, make them more tangible by incorporating elements that engage the senses. This can be done verbally: Did the CEO give a speech to an anxious, talkative crowd?  Did the team offsite take place at a quiet resort with rolling green hills? Describe the scene in vivid detail to help participants imagine themselves there. Better yet, incorporate visuals, video, or music that directly captivate the senses.

Talent Developers are Devoted to People’s Success

Here’s a window into why I’ve focused much of my career on talent development: We do this work because we are devoted to serving others. We are committed to people’s development, success, and lifelong learning. For me, it’s what makes showing up to my desk each day a joy.

The truth is, no matter how good you are with instructional design; no matter how well you address the technical pieces of the learning design, if you aren't weaving storytelling into the content, you will probably struggle to hold people’s attention. But when you incorporate narratives that are relevant and emotionally compelling, not only will learners be more engaged, you’ll improve their chances of absorbing and retaining information.

 

Excited about infusing storytelling into your learning programs? Learn practical strategies for building authentic, captivating visual stories with TPC’s corporate storytelling workshop.

Melony Bravmann, CLO at TPC

Melony Bravmann, Chief Learning Officer at the Presentation Company, leads the team that designs, develops, and delivers learning programs to our valued customers.

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