One of my favorite memories from growing up is listening to my grandfather tell stories. We would sit around the dinner table after a meal and he would tell stories about his youth, his athletic endeavors, his business, his home projects, and many others. I would listen attentively and ask questions. Most of them contained valuable life lessons, and I remember many of the details decades later. Yes, those are great memories. The data privacy compliance course that I took last week? Well, I’m not sure I can recall many details. Why is that?

Stories have a powerful effect on the human mind. They create images in our minds that stick in long-term memory. They trigger emotional responses to the storyline and the characters involved that also serve to burn the story into long-term memory. Stories are a key part of how we learn, and therefore, they should be a key part of how we train. I’ve heard statistics that framing training in a story improves retention by something like 60 percent.

At Mastech Digital, we consistently try to work with our Digital Learning clients to develop stories around their learning projects. Not every project lends itself to a story, but those that do generate some powerful results. Here are a few things our team has learned through working on those projects:

  • Use a situation that is familiar to the training audience. One of my favorite examples starts out with the main character saying, “I just got out of the worst meeting of my entire life.” Wow. There’s a statement that immediately triggers an emotional response in every learner, because everyone in business today has been in a terrible meeting. She then goes on to describe what happened in the meeting, leaving the audience with mental pictures of their own worst meeting and what went wrong in it. Another of my favorite examples uses a simulated conversation between a retail salesperson and a customer to teach a product’s attributes. Again, it’s a situation that everyone in the audience of salespeople has been in and can relate to.
  • Use characters that the audience can relate to. Some of our best stories have involved a team of characters with different roles such as project manager, business analyst, developer, tester, executive leadership, etc. The story comes to a team-oriented conclusion, and everyone in the training audience can identify with at least one of the characters and the role that character played in accomplishing the result.
  • Bring the story to a successful conclusion. Using a situation and characters that learners can identify with, develop the story to a successful conclusion. In the process, the story should relate the correct way of accomplishing the learning objective, whether it’s correctly performing procedure, achieving a business result, or improving a business process. Learners will remember how the story played out better than if you just present a process as a series of steps.
  • Provide mechanisms for learners to transfer what happened to their own situations. Using a situation, characters, and a business result that learners can identify with, learners will remember the story and draw their own conclusions about how it relates to their own situations. This is another important factor in transferring knowledge from short-term to long-term memory.

As stated earlier, not every project lends itself to a story. Developing a story around a body of content involves investing time and money, but the results almost always prove to be worth it. How much more memorable would that data security compliance course have been if it contained a story about identifying a breach, fixing it, and ensuring it didn’t happen again, instead of simply presenting the company’s policy?

James Wallace
Consultant Manager