Objections to Stories for Learning

“Not everyone can be a storyteller.”

“Stories are a waste of learners’ time.”

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

Have you heard any of these objections? Maybe you’ve even raised some of these objections yourself. Here’s how I would respond to each of these objections.

Objections to Stories for Learning

“Not everyone can be a storyteller.”

Imagine you’re on the phone with someone explaining a bad day and everything went wrong. What happened first that made it a bad day? What happened next? What did you do about it? How did you feel? Did anything change by the end of the day?

Can you imagine yourself telling the story of a bad day? Congratulations–you’re a storyteller! We tell stories about ourselves all the time. We explain our lives in narrative form.

No one is born a storyteller. Telling stories is a skill like anything else. You can develop it with practice and training. Maybe you’ll never write the “great American novel,” but that’s not what you need for creating stories for learning. You need specific skills for creating relevant stories to meet learning goals. Stories for learning are often short, maybe even only a few sentences long.

You CAN learn to be a better storyteller. This is a skill like anything else. With practice, feedback, and the right strategies, you can improve your story writing skills.

“Stories are a waste of learners’ time.”

In a LinkedIn group discussion, someone (we’ll call him “T”) argued, “Learners aren’t there to be entertained. They have a very low tolerance for time-wasting content. If you include games or stories, use them sparingly, and don’t patronize your learner.”

First, I think it’s arguable whether or not learners want to be entertained. However, I think it’s fair to say that learners primarily want to accomplish a goal or solve a problem. We should use stories when they help us meet our objectives. If a story doesn’t support the objectives (or distracts from the objectives), we shouldn’t use it.

Stories can be a waste of learners’ time. “T” shared an example of content with a pirate theme that had nothing to do with the course content. Learners had to click 12 times to get through the intro story before they got to any substance. I agree with “T” on this example; that’s a waste of time. It’s a flashy wrapper around content. It doesn’t add context or relevance.

If you’re going to use stories, focus on how they can help you meet your learning objectives. That might mean using stories as examples or mini-scenarios for assessment. You have a range of options for storytelling available; pick the kind of story that best meets your objectives. Make your stories relevant, not just flashy distractions.

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

Stories aren’t always appropriate or necessary, but they can work in most kinds of training. For example, software training can use stories for motivation, to show why certain features are used, or to model the thought process of using the program.

For compliance training, every regulation, rule, or policy has a reason behind it. (It may not be a great reason, but set that aside for now.) Chances are, the rule exists because someone broke it. What are the consequences? Why does it matter if people follow the rule?

In compliance training, you can use stories to show people the consequences of violating policies rather than just telling them. You could start by showing a disaster or accident to hook learners in the story. After the intro, go back in time. Show the sequence of events and decisions that led to things getting so bad.

A fantastic example of this is The Lab from the Office of Research Integrity (Flash required). Ethics in research is a topic that could be dry and boring, but this brings it to life and shows the real long-term consequences of decisions. The very first words in the video are “It was a bad day.” You see a reporter questioning someone about questionable lab results. In this branching scenario, you have an opportunity to go back in time to undo the mistakes and avoid the public scandal. Even if you don’t have the budget for something at this level, you can use this worst case scenario strategy.

You can also set up a scenario where learners have to make a decision following the policy. Use the story to give them motivation to look up the relevant rules.

Other Objections?

What other objections do you hear or have to using stories to support learning? How do you respond to objections? Tell me in the comments.

Image: Graphic Stock

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