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Want Training That Sticks? Make Sure It Tells a Story

— by Bill Cushard

Social learningTrainingWeb based training

So I’m giving a presentation at the California Society of Association Executives‘ annual conference later this month, and I want to deliver something a little different from just about all of the presentations I’m used to seeing these days —  in which a speaker simply talks through a series of slides. For starters, I want my presentation to tell a story — and put the audience in the center of that story. To help me do that, I picked up a copy of Nancy Duarte’s book, Resonate. Although this is not a book review, I must say that this is a great book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who needs to at least give their presentation a pulse.

That’s led to another insight for me — why not bring the same concept to training programs? As I read and plan my presentation, I think about the programs we are designing at my company (the Knowland Group) and how we can do those differently as well. For example, one set of our programs teaches new employees how to use software to do their jobs in sales and customer service. As is typical in many training programs, our training goes through each tab in the software to “explain” how to do tasks in each of the tabs. From a utilitarian standpoint, that’s fine — but  it’s not real life, and it can be difficult to transfer what was learned in class to real life when a customer is on the line.

So, in a recent meeting with our instructional designer I asked, “Why can’t we make this next training class like an iPhone commercial?” iPhone commercials don’t tell you how to use features of the phone — they show you how the iPhone is a part of your life. An iPhone commercial tells a story. For example, your wife calls and says, “Happy anniversary! I am so excited about dinner tonight.” A panicked husband (who forgot to make dinner reservations), switches modes on his phone, makes dinner reservations and orders flowers from a web site, all while telling his wife how excited he is about their date tonight, as well. No mention of how the phone works, or where in the phone to go to performance these tasks. Why can’t our training be like that?

The instructional designer immediately understood the iPhone reference and came up with the slide you see here. based on this scenario: Your sales manager calls you into his office and says, “Karen, I noticed your local business was behind pace last month. Let’s focus on filling the gaps this month with some more local business, OK?”

This screen shot is a snapshot of an e-learning module that shows the story of Karen, an account executive, who is learning how to prospect for new business. Instead of “instructing” a new account executive how to use a work tool to find high probability leads, they are taken through a scenario in which Karen tries to figure out how to use the tool in order to find more business in a real request from the sales manager that would occur on any typical day on the office.

The great thing about this learning program is that the instructional designer was so willing to experiment with ideas for telling a story rather than instructing. As learning professionals, we too easily fall into the habit of “instructing” rather than creating experiences that enable people to learn something useful. I must admit, it is difficult to not make sure we show how each feature of the work tool works, but telling a story makes the learning more practical, not to mention interesting. We believe using stories will help people learn how to do their jobs more quickly, and have a little fun doing it.

>>More on e-learning on the Mindflash blog.

Bill Cushard, Chief Learning Officer at The Knowland Group, is a learning leader with more than 12 years experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.

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