Powerful Storytelling Can Enhance Training and Change Behaviors
Association for Talent Development releases new book about how to write compelling stories for training.
Stories are a common language. They are memorable, actionable, and emotional, making them perfect for training and instructional design. In Instructional Story Design: Develop Stories That Train (ATD Press, April 2020), master story designer Rance Greene shares his story design process for discovering, designing, and delivering winning instructional stories that connect audiences emotionally and intellectually and motivates them for action and change.
“There’s a tendency to avoid the language of stories when it comes to training adults,” says Greene. “Unfortunately, storytelling as an instructional design skill has been largely abandoned. We know instinctively and research continues to prove that storytelling works amazingly well for learning. But when it comes to writing the story and connecting it concretely to learning objectives, designers may feel intimidated or too pressed for time to think creatively.”
“The goal of this book is to thoroughly equip talent development professionals and educators with a repeatable process to design stories for any training initiative on any timeline,” states Greene. “The story design model seamlessly blends with instructional design, to empower the designer to develop stories that connect with audiences both intellectually and emotionally.”
Greene focuses on knowing your audience and what you want them to do; unearthing the best story for instruction by asking the right questions of stakeholders and subject matter experts; creating relatable characters and strong conflict for powerful stories; storyboarding a finished product; overcoming common barriers; and maximizing stories for training. Instructional Story Design examines stories from many different delivery methods, including instructor-led, blended learning, microlearning, games, branching scenarios, and immersive technologies like virtual-reality.
Greene uses relatable stories to illustrate his points. The book is a comprehensive resource, including case studies from Pizza Hut, Southwest Airlines, and PepsiCo; an audience profile questionnaire; a character description worksheet; a complete instructional story design plan; and tips for using graphics, audio, and video.
He adds, “Through storytelling, talent development professionals have the power to change the culture of training within their organization and create training that makes a lasting impact on their learners.”
Q&A With Rance Greene
1. How did you get into storytelling?
My journey with storytelling started in western North Carolina, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. As a kid, I was already attracted to performance, art, music, and writing, and I had a knack for creating. What I enjoyed even more than creating was sharing my creations with others. During college at Appalachian State, I started off pursuing a fine arts degree in graphic design. Art was a great way to exercise my bent toward perfectionism, and each painting and drawing communicated a message—a story—to my audience. But after my first role in a college play, I switched my major to theater, which is outright storytelling, and the best kind: dialogue. Building on this, I took my first formal dance class and I was hooked. In my graduate program, I studied choreography at The Ohio State University. Again, I found myself looking for the story in my choreography. I wanted my audiences to feel that the movement they were watching was more than just physical virtuosity.
I refined my storytelling skills through these different art forms and went on to become a performer in New York City. I was fortunate to have a gig with a dance company and was on the brink of forming my own company. Before I could sink my teeth into that, something happened that changed the trajectory of my career. I began attending a church in midtown Manhattan as soon as I had arrived in the city. With members from more than 100 countries and diverse cultures worshipping together, meeting in (of all places) a former Broadway theater, I encountered my biggest storytelling challenge. I was asked to volunteer as a co-leader for junior high teens. I will never forget my first day in a classroom full of over 70 rambunctious students. From a mix of families across Spanish Harlem, the Bronx, New Jersey, Queens, the Upper East Side, Bedford Stuyvesant—every socio-economic level imaginable—the room was buzzing with activity. They’d been through three leaders already, but as the new leadership team spent time with them, we got to know them. I learned a huge lesson about trust with these kids. Getting to know them and letting them see that we cared about them had to come first. We needed common ground before they were going to listen to anything we had to say.
I felt a little nervous the first time I taught them. Instead of teaching them from the front, I engaged them with the story itself, getting them up on their feet to act it out and discover the lessons for themselves. They loved it. I invested eight years into this group, working full-time with them for six. During that period, I told hundreds of stories: historical stories, stories of faith, fictional stories and, of course, personal stories. This mountain boy somehow found a connection with these youth through the stories we shared. I didn’t spend more than a year dancing professionally in New York. The church found out that I had directing experience, and I wrote and directed several plays and musicals that were performed on their stage. I suppose I can say that I did direct on Broadway.
2. How did storytelling lead you to a career in talent development?
I see myself first as a designer—a story designer. And wherever I’ve landed, there’s been room for me to flourish in that role. When I moved my family to Texas in 2008 during a full recession, I finally got a temporary position in health insurance, an industry I knew nothing about. That temporary job turned into a permanent job and launched a career in story design and training.
A co-worker at that insurance company pointed out a job posting for a performance consultant position in the compliance department. I applied for it and got an interview. The hiring managers told me they wanted someone who could tell a story for their training. “I can do that!” I said. And I’ve been designing stories for training ever since. I’m pleased to say that story design, the method by which I create stories for training, has proven to be a successful entry point to the industry for many making the transition into talent development. I strongly encourage talent development managers to make room on their teams for people with diverse backgrounds. I’m grateful to those two managers who made room for me.
3. What instructional design experience did you have when you first started designing instruction and training?
I spent many years teaching in the classroom in undergrad and graduate school. I’d taught kids in New York City, coached many teachers, and trained groups for overseas missions and humanitarian aid but didn’t have any formal training in adult learning theory. Those first years designing instruction, I read every book I could get my hands on. Fortunately, I found that instructional design makes sense. It’s not difficult to grasp the logic. I didn’t find much information on how to write a good story for training, though. For my first projects, I was winging the connection of the story to performance. But when the story-based training was received with such enthusiasm by employees, I knew I had struck gold. When my department became more data-driven, it was clear that stories were having a measurable effect on performance.
4. What is story design?
Story Design is a methodology for creating stories that move an audience to take action. My book, Instructional Story Design, is written specifically for those responsible for designing training. Story design aligns with the instructional design process from analysis to design to delivery and equips them with practical steps to use the power of storytelling in their training.
5. What do you mean by the power of storytelling as it relates to training?
Story design workshops are attended by a wide range of talent development professionals—managers, instructional designers, performance consultants, developers, facilitators. I remember one attendee who is a talent development leader in her organization commenting after a workshop, “Story design completely reframed the way I think about instructional design.” She discovered that approaching instruction from a storytelling mindset made the process and the end product, as she said, “realistic, believable, relatable and authentic.”
She went on to create one of the case studies that is included in the book: a story-based leadership program. Story design doesn’t replace sound instructional design. It makes the process human-centered—and super-charges the end product. And it is for all levels of experience and for all types of training.
6. How does the story design method help talent development professionals get comfortable with storytelling?
Story design is a methodology, just like instructional design. Characters, setting, a plot, a problem that the hero must overcome—those are some of the basic elements of a story. If we had to narrow it down to the two most basic elements, characters and conflict are the essential elements of a story. And the characters need to be relatable. We must care about the characters who need to be in strong conflict. As an instructional designer, you must also collect the right information to write a story. You must get to know your audience if you’re going to create relatable characters. In a corporate environment, you often don’t have months to do an extensive audience profile, but I’ve included an audience profile questionnaire in the book to help speed up that process.
7. Do stories for training always have to include conflict?
Conflict is always necessary in storytelling and story design. As an instructional designer, you’re defining what new knowledge and skills are needed to reach the business outcome the training is designed for. Those skills need to be observable actions. I’ve included several tools in the book to help trainers guide stakeholders and subject matter experts and construct what I call an action list. These are the actions you’re asking learners to take. Put your relatable characters into conflict with those actions and you’ve got a story that is concretely connected to learning objectives. This is necessary because our brains need friction to remember things. Otherwise the content passes right through. If a narrative has only characters and no conflict, I’d argue that it’s not really a story.
The reason training exists is because there is a problem. There is a lack of skill. There is a goal that has remained unreachable. There is interpersonal conflict or perhaps change in the workplace, which can be loaded with conflict. Stories for training have a purpose—self-discovery. If you present the problem in a story, it leaves room for the learner to discover the problem for themselves, without you having to finger-point and “tell” them. Let the story do the hard work of addressing the conflict and encourage your learners to offer solutions. Then the door for receiving training is wide open.
8. What does the final product of a story for training look like?
When I was a TA at The Ohio State University, I taught recitation for the general dance history course. Most of that knowledge is stories—stories of people and their impact upon the art form. I told the stories in multiple ways. I used videos, textbooks, recitation, acting, and dance to make dance history memorable for them. In short, make use of the raw materials—your voice, text, photographs, audio, drawings, video, animation, students as actors, your imagination—to produce your story with the tools you already own. The design of the story matters more than how its produced. The final product can be as simple as text on the screen or as complex as a virtual reality story. Your audience and the tools at your disposal determine how the story is produced.
9. Are stories appropriate for any kind of training?
Whether you’re training for technical skills, leadership, compliance, you’ll always need context. Stories are the ultimate context builder. The role story plays in a course on systems operations is essentially the same as the role it plays in a course on emotional intelligence. In both, there are characters in conflict, and the conflict revolves around learning objectives. In both, the learner, willingly offers their own insights. When learners remember the story, they remember the skills associated with that story. The story is like a flight simulator preparing them for real life. Their likelihood to act on training increases. The emotional connection they make with the characters and the conflict bring meaning to the skills they’ve gained.
10. Do you dive into more of the complexities of storytelling in the book?
When I did my first story design workshop, I was concerned that it would be too simple. I didn’t talk about the hero’s journey or the constructs of literature. I stuck with relatable characters in strong conflict and everything else fell into place. Workshop participants were able to create brilliant stories, because stories are the language of people. We consume or tell stories almost hourly throughout the day. We know how stories are supposed to go. As soon as someone says, “You won’t believe what happened on the way to work this morning,” our brains perk up. We’re ready to listen to the story. We instantly know the framework. I found that focusing on the essential elements of the story and their connection to instructional design freed people to use their natural story-writing instincts. For those who need more step-by-step guidance in their writing, there is plenty of it in the book. There are guideposts for creating relatable characters, steps for writing a plot and quick assessments that help designers evaluate their finished work and make adjustments. There are also many examples of well-written stories and practice exercises for skill-building. But at the heart of story design is the human experience. That’s something that we all share.
11. Aren’t there people who would resist putting stories in a course?
Learners love stories, but they aren’t always welcomed with open arms by stakeholders. The designer may have to persuade their customer or even someone within their own talent development ranks. There are three chapters at the end of the book that provide research, case studies and strategies for winning over skeptics.
12. Why do you think people resist storytelling?
People resist storytelling for the same reason it’s difficult for executives to write their memos in a conversational tone or for a manager to share something personal about themselves with their employees. It’s too emotional. Unfortunately, emotion is viewed as inappropriate for many corporations. That attitude has crept into corporate training. “Just give them the facts. Just tell them what to do.” Stories are not a distraction from giving facts and telling people what to do. They tap into both the intellect and the emotions to achieve even better performance. People don’t make decisions or change their behavior solely based on an intellectual choice. Emotions must be present for it to stick. When I think back to working with the youth in New York, it was the stories that helped me communicate in a way that opened them up. They let their guards down and engaged with me. They talked. The story allowed us to be vulnerable with one another in a constructive way that gave us common ground. That is also what we want in our business. A common ground that helps us learn and grow together. And who better to teach corporate leaders how effective stories can be than talent development?
13. Are there other businesses that would benefit from story design?
Story design is a model that identifies who your audience is and what you want them to do. It builds the story based on these two pieces of information. The book, Instructional Story Design, is named so because the application of story design in this case is for instruction. But there are many disciplines that require people to take action on your message. Take leadership as an example. You can think of a host of applications: conducting meetings with your staff, communicating your value proposition to clients, writing memos, helping your organization through change, training your sales team. These forms of communication require someone to take action on your message. Story design can super-charge that message.
About Rance Greene
Greene is a playwright, songwriter, and story writer. His connection of instructional design to story design has made him a sought-after speaker and consultant. He formed needastory.com to help talent development professionals and leaders understand their audience. His presentations are noted for their lively interactions, practical skill-building and stories. He involves audiences and students by asking them to think, respond, analyze, and ultimately discover that they are the best storytellers for their audience. He is based in Dallas, Texas.
About ATD and ATD Press
The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the world’s largest association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. ATD’s members come from more than 120 countries and work in public and private organizations in every industry sector. ATD Press publications are written by industry thought leaders and offer anyone who works with adult learners the best practices, academic theory, and guidance necessary to move the profession forward. For more information, visit td.org/books.
Instructional Story Design: Develop Stories That Train
ISBN: 978-1-950496-59-4| 280 Pages | Paperback
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To schedule an interview with Rance Greene, please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703.683.8178.