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Don't be a trainer, be a story teller

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If you want proof that stories stick, simply cast your mind back to your favourite childhood stories. Can you recall any recent training sessions in such vivid detail? It's clear world of HR is crying out for the best storytellers…

You’re never too old for a good story

In the grown-up world of business, fairytales might not feel like a natural fit for your training. But if you can give factual course content a storytelling twist, neuroscience suggests your learners will be far likelier to remember it.

To help understand why, here are three things we know about the way our brains respond to stories.

Learners are looking for social stories

We all are. In the 1940s, psychologists Heider and Simmel showed just how quickly our minds create stories. They played this video (below) and asked a test group to explain what they’d seen. ‘The big triangle is bullying the small one.’ ‘The circle is scared.’ ‘The small triangle and circle are a couple and the big triangle wants to split them up.’ These were just a few of the narratives viewers came up with. 

This speaks volumes about the way our brains are wired. Given the choice, we naturally think in social narratives, hardly anyone gave a literal description: ‘a large triangle moves towards a smaller one.’.  If that narrative isn’t there, we’ll simply create our own in a relatable way.

So when you’re creating your next course, don’t forget the social element. If you use case studies, make people your hero, not stats. Encourage learners to share their own stories, too. Asking something as simple as, ‘How can you see this idea working in your role?’ is a good place to start. Then your learners will build their own narratives and picture themselves using what they’ve learned. 

And the more they can picture doing something, the more likely they are to actually do it.

We don’t just listen to stories, we live them

You might be sitting comfortably, but on a cerebral level, listening to a story really gets your brain going. If you read about someone running away, your motor cortex gets ready to run, too. If you hear about a rich, oozing chocolate pudding, your sensory cortex starts to taste it. And if you visualise doing a new activity for long enough, your brain will begin to shift and change as though you’re actually doing it. 

Scientists at Harvard Medical School put this to the test with a piano-playing experiment. Over five days they taught one test group to play simple five-finger piano exercises and practise them daily. They also described playing the same exercises to another test group, and asked them to sit and think about playing (without moving their fingers) for the same amount of time. By the end of the week, the area of the motor cortex needed to play the piano had expanded in the same way in both groups.  

This tells us that sometimes classroom theory can be as good as on-the-job practice. The trick is to make that theory as specific, clear and visual as possible. So ditch any abstract language that’s hard to picture: we will leverage user-centric linguistic techniques to optimise click-through rates. And replace it with something that’s easier to visualise: we’ll help you write web links your customers actually want to click on. We can all imagine a person clicking on a web link. Picturing click-through rates is much harder. 

But it’s not just the visual side of stories that lodges them in our memories. We need a little bit of mystery, too.

Curiosity feels good

Scientists at the University of California have found that when we’re curious about something we’re interested in our brains get a feel-good dopamine hit. It’s the same feeling you might get if you eat chocolate – but much better for you. This, in turn, encourages us to be even more curious, and find even more answers. And those answers are also a little more likely to stick – in the short term, at least.

Crime writers have always known about the power of curiosity. Far from giving everything away on page one, they tease you with unanswered questions, plot twists and cliffhangers that keep you reading ‘til the very last page. It’s why readers are willing to fork out for countless whodunnit yarns: our brains want answers.

When you’re planning your next training session, borrow those page-turning techniques. Don’t tell learners everything on your first slide. Instead, set the scene by posing key questions. The more curious you can make learners at the start, the more rewarded they’ll feel at the end. And the more they’ll remember.

Get it right and you’ll keep them learning happily ever after.

Hannah Moffat

By Hannah Moffat

Hannah Moffatt is a creative director and trainer at language consultancy, The Writer.

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