Reflections on #lrnchat: Stories in Organizations

Image use courtesy of lrnchat and Kevin Thorn (@LearnNuggets)

Each week that I am able to participate in #lrnchat discussion I post a summary of the discussion to my blog. I do this both for my personal development as well as sharing with the Learning and Development Profession at large. This summary is based on my own interpretations of the chat; others who participated may have differing opinions or interpretations of the discussion. I welcome those that do to add your ideas to the comments.

The topic of this week’s #lrnchat session was “Stories in Organizations”.

I always find looking at the questions that are used to loosely guide the chat as a nice way to see the overall theme of the chat. Here are the discussion questions that were presented to the group:

Q1. What’s the role of storytelling in how you teach and how you learn?
Q2. What stories have been valuable to you?
Q3. What stories in your organization keep you from using story more in learning and teaching?
Q4. How can we use story more as we help people learn?
Q5. What stories do we need to tell ourselves and others to succeed?

I was unable to participate in this discussion, so my reflections are based on the questions and reading through the transcripts.

Storytelling is something that doesn’t get enough attention in the world of workplace learning and performance.  We focus on the facts, on performance, and on business results (or at least we should). It doesn’t seem like there’s much room for storytelling in that environment.  But there is, and it may even be the difference between a program in which learners ‘get it’ and one that misses the mark.

In truth, storytelling is in many ways the foundation upon which learning and teaching is built upon.  Teaching didn’t start with a textbook, a manual, or a next button.  It started with sharing stories.  Even before there was language, there was storytelling, in the form of drawings.  A picture drawn on a wall of an individual killing an animal with a spear told a story – and it taught a lesson about hunting.

Somewhere along the line, teachers have lost sight of the story. We focus so much on the facts that we lose much of the story, and it’s through the story that we get arguable the most important part of learning: context.

When I think about the most meaningful and valuable stories I have been told, context is what ultimately defines that value.  It isn’t always that the story is applicable to my life; sometimes it’s the lesson of the story that connects to a seemingly unrelated issue in my life that builds the context.  I try to do the same within the learning programs I build.

Recently I conducted a program on ethics.  When the need arose,  I was given a great deal of information from the subject matter experts.  The information included policies on ethics, examples of ethical and unethical behaviors, and more documentation.  It was all fact-based.  It was, in truth, painful to read as the person designing the program let alone being a participant.

Ultimately, storytelling shifted the paradigm.  Once the stakeholder was on board, what could have been an extremely painful walkthrough of PowerPoint slides that addressed the important points of our business ethics policy became a much more effective program that – at it’s core – was storytelling.  Sharing stories of ethical dilemmas and having the learners in many cases finish the stories was much more effective.

Of course, ‘much more effective’ is hard to quantify. I suspect that much of the reason storytelling has become lost in the learning paradigm is connected by how we measure learning.  Whether it’s academic or corporate environments, learning is usually measured in scales of memorization, not true understanding. We measure design by ‘how much content we can fit in’, and not by how different the learner will behave afterwards. Through that lens, storytelling is time consuming and a barrier towards fitting in more content.

We need a new lens, or rather, we need to use the old lens.  Storytelling taps into emotions, and how much tapping into emotions can anchor learning.  A story provides context; it transports the listener to a different place. Instead of discussing the facts about a topic, a story can transport a learner into an environment where those facts are actually being applied. Stories give meaning and context to what otherwise might just be information.

There are lots of ways to incorporate storytelling into learning, and it’s not always ‘telling a story’.  Too often, I see learning professionals telling stories, providing scenarios for activities, or giving out scripts for role plays.  Many times, the stories we need for those activities are available from the learners themselves. In fact, those stories are often better.

While the importance of storytelling applies to programs we design, it also applies to our own learning.  We need to share more stories about what is working, what’s not working, and how it all affects the work we do.  This is especially important now, as trends point to major shifts in our field in the coming years.

We also need to incorporate more storytelling into the reports we share with senior leaders.  When I hear about learning scores, business impact measures, and reaction data, it’s just data. There’s a difference between business impact data and a story about a learner who was able to apply something learned from a program to produce the desired result. The data is important, but the story provides valuable context.

Until next time #lrnchat-ers!

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