Storytelling as a Learning Device

Humankind has been using storytelling to pass knowledge from person to person for a very, very long time.

Rance Greene, who spent time earlier in his career earning experience in live theater, recently wrote a book entitled Instructional Story Design: Develop Stories that Train, in which he translates his experience to help readers write and develop stories for training.

Recently, I had an opportunity to spend some time with Rance to get his thoughts on why stories are such a powerful training device, whether stories are appropriate for every topic and how to rein in the desire to share every detail in a story.


Today’s podcast is dedicated to the memory of Dave Morschauser – a one-of-a-kind trainer and one of the best storytellers we’ve ever met. – Brian & Tim

Transcript of the Conversation with Rance Greene

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-size chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, host of Train Like You Listen. I’m also the co-founder of a company called Endurance Learning.

I’m joined here today by Rance Greene who is Story Designer and Founder of needastory.com. Today we’ll be talking about the idea of using stories as a learning device and learning tool. Rance, thank you so much for joining us today.

Rance Greene: Brian, I’m thrilled to be with you today. Thank you for having me.

6-Word Introduction

Brian Washburn: We always get started by introducing our guests with a six-word biography. And when we think of stories, my six-word biography today, and the way that I would sum up my own life experience, is “stories are how I’ve always learned”. Rance, how would you introduce yourself  just with six words? 

Rance Greene: I like that one, Brian. Mine is this – “nothing connects us more than stories”. 

Transitioning from Live Theater to Storytelling in the Field of L&D

Brian Washburn: It is so true. And I’m really excited just to dive right in here because, Rance, you’ve literally written the book on storytelling for training purposes. How did you get good at storytelling in the first place?

Rance Greene: Okay, yeah. I have a background in theater, so my experience and my education is largely in theater. And theater has this wonderful tradition of telling stories – onstage, in-person, live and in- action. There’s so many, so many wonderful things about live theater that really, you can’t get in any other way. You can’t get it in a movie. You can’t get it reading a book. It’s live, it’s happening right in front of you. There are so many tensions involved in the moment. And that’s what makes live theater so exciting, right? 

Brian Washburn: Absolutely. Yeah.

Rance Greene: The edge of your seat. Right? So, that’s where I’m coming from. And when I came to the talent development space, I just brought all of that storytelling with me.

So I love playwriting. I love directing. I really love directing. That’s something I like a lot. And so bringing that into the learning world was just a very natural thing for me. 

The Power of Dialogue and Storytelling for Learning

Brian Washburn: And I’ve been watching a number of new movies that are out on Netflix that have taken what used to be plays, and they’ve turned them into Netflix movies. 

Rance Greene: Oh…

Brian Washburn: And there’s just a ton of dialogue in there. So like “One Night in Miami”. And then there’s a couple other ones. And, you know, there’s just that dialogue and the stories that are being told through that dialogue can be so powerful. Why do you think stories are such a powerful device for learning or teaching?

Rance Greene: Yeah. That’s interesting that you bring up dialogue, Brian. I think that dialogue is so underused in our learning when we’re telling stories and learning. But let me answer your question by asking you a question. What do you like about those stories, those Netflix stories that you’ve been watching?  What about, what are the characteristics of them that make it so attractive to you?

Brian Washburn:  Yeah, and it’s fascinating because there’s very little action, right? So all the action takes place in, like, a room. Whether it is a band that is in their practice room or it’s, you know, these four very famous people that all came together in Miami for one night, and it’s just them conversing. And just watching – and you mentioned– you used the word “tension” before – so just watching the tension take place, not through like bang-them-up, shoot-them-up type of things, or, you know, cars that are flipping or things like that. It’s just the interpersonal interaction that takes place and the emotions that are behind it.

And I think that it takes a good actor, certainly, to carry a movie that just focused on dialogue. But it’s the way that the story is being told, I think, through that dialogue is it’s just a different way than we’re used to, of seeing things. And I think it can be very captivating.   

Stories Increase Learning Retention

Rance Greene: Yeah. So I think that what you’re describing there is that it’s so concrete. It’s just people in a room talking and it’s attractive to you. So it’s happening in real time. It’s a media, it’s not epic. It’s just people engaging with one another, speaking the language of humans, telling stories and relating to one another.

So if you could capture that and put it into a learning environment. Wouldn’t that be awesome, you know? I think another reason people love stories so much is not just the concreteness of it, but also that they’re so memorable. And so if you want to create training that is memorable, wouldn’t you want that, you know? So tell stories that will increase that learning retention. And I think another reason people like stories so much is that they’re so actionable. They’re like–you’re kind of like going through the story as if you’re living it out yourself. And so if you can capture that for a learning experience, especially, you know, where you’re trying to, like, get people up to that golden standard of practice. Stories are a great way to start that simulation. 

Brian Washburn: Stories have been around since– for thousands of years, right? So if you think of something like the “Odyssey” or something like that. I mean, that was a story that was being told. Now when we fast forward to contemporary times and we think of the context of learning, what’s been the most powerful example you’ve seen of someone using a story to help others learn?

An Example of Successfully Using Storytelling in Training 

Rance Greene: Well, I had a really powerful experience with this early on when I first started in the learning and development world. And I was part of a compliance program and overseeing the compliance training. And they were like, this department said, “you know, we would like for you to come and we’d like for you to basically slap our employees hands because they are engaged in some compromises of the code”.

I said, “you know, we’ll come, but we’re not going to do that. We’re going to do something else so”–. 

Brian Washburn: Well, and who doesn’t love a good compliance training, right? 

Rance Greene: Yeah, exactly, right? Come in and tell our employees that they are really bad. “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to respect the adult learners in the room.” And so we wrote a story and the story took place in a coffee shop. And I described this story a little bit in the book as well. The story is about these four employees at a coffee shop, and they are struggling with some very similar problems that were reported to us, that these employees at work were also struggling with.

So we put them in a very similar situation, but in a different place, in a coffee shop, right? Separate from a work environment. And after we told the story, after about eight minutes of telling the story, we asked them to answer some open-ended questions based on one of the characters that they were going to represent throughout that whole learning experience.

And what happened was it took the–it gave them a different perspective. So you had, you know, maybe a regular employee who was playing the part of the owner of the coffee shop. 

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm.

Rance Greene: It helped them get into a different frame of mind as they were giving their answers and reflecting on the story. And the teaching or the training that happened afterwards were, of course, the things that the management saw as problems, but they were unearthed by the participants themselves.

We didn’t have to say, “okay, here’s bullet point number seven,” you know, “and you need to do this and this and this”. No. They came up with bullet point number seven. So, about– fast forward, about nine months later, and we’re contacted by this management team and they said, “thank you so much for coming. What you did has really had an impact. And whenever we feel ourselves veering off course, we remind one another – ‘remember the coffee shop’. Because the story itself contained everything that was needed for behavior change.”

Brian Washburn: I love that. And that gave people, kind of, a common experience, common vocabulary – “remember the coffee shop”. It’s something that people will hold as opposed to “remember number bullet point 7 on slide 14”. (CHUCKLING)

Rance Greene: Yes. Exactly.

Brian Washburn: I love that. So, and I think that a lot of people like to tell stories, but sometimes it can take a while and there may not always be time for the meandering twists and turns that some stories may come with. What advice do you have to help people keep their stories tight and focused? 

Advice for Keeping Stories Focused

Rance Greene: I would just remind instructional designers: you are not creating a novel. You’re not writing, you know, a masterpiece of literature. You’re writing a story for training and stories are efficient. And often, training gives learners this squeaky clean environment in which to apply new skills, but the world and work are complex and stories are able to reflect that world quickly and easily.

So, the way that you can make sure that you’re not wandering off too far is to make sure that the conflict is tied to the performance objectives. 

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm.

Rance Greene: If you can make sure that that conflict stays totally tied to the performance objectives, you’ll have a nice and neat story that doesn’t wander around.  

Brian Washburn: I love that. And that’s actually something, not just for instruction designers, but for the subject matter experts who also like to get up and to tell their stories or are telling stories to people that then need to design training from it. But I love that advice because it all does relate back to the learning objectives.

Now, when it comes to, and let’s say that, you know, we have some people that would like to bring more stories into their training programs, but they don’t actually know how to do it.  Sometimes people are thinking, “well, look, I have to create a training based on this slide deck”, or “I have to create a training, you know, based on this very specific thing”, or “I only have 15 minutes or 30 minutes to train people”. Do you have any thoughts in terms of where somebody can begin in a situation like that?   

How To Begin Bringing Storytelling into a Training Program

Rance Greene: Yes. Start with your audience because 100% of those in your listening audience are training humans. And those humans listen to, watch, consume and tell stories all the time, every day. So get to know who your audience is and create this audience profile. And answer some simple questions about them. What are their fears? What are their current circumstances? How are they reacting to those current circumstances? What do they value? If you can answer those four questions, you’ve got a nice audience profile to begin with and you’ll know what kind of characters to develop, that are going to be relatable characters, and you’ll know what kind of story to create that that audience is going to relate to as well. So if you are just getting started, get to know your people, get to know your learning audience. 

Brian Washburn: I love that advice because it’s part of the needs assessment, right? Or the, the assessment for the learning program. Now, the last question that I have for you before we have a little bit of fun with our speed round, do you think that stories are appropriate for any kind of training? 

Are Stories Appropriate For Any Kind of Training? 

Rance Greene: Yes. If training is for behavior change. And stories have that same objective, and can be used in that way.

So if you are training for behavior change, then a story is appropriate. And I have been asked, “well, you know, what about safety training or skills or systems training or awareness training”, all that kind of thing. If behavior change is involved then, yes, there’s a potential story there that can be beneficial to training. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. I love that. Rance Greene, thank you so much for answering some of these questions. 

Get to Know Rance Greene

Brian Washburn: Before we go, we’d love to have our listeners learn a little bit more about our guests. So I have a few speed round questions if you’re ready for those. 

Rance Greene: I’m ready. 

Brian Washburn: All right. What is your go-to food or snack right before you give a presentation?

Rance Greene: Matcha latte, man. Matcha latte. 

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLING) Nice. How about a piece of training tech that you can’t live without? 

Rance Greene: Well, I think everybody would say Zoom.

Brian Washburn:  In this day and age, absolutely. What about things that somebody should be either listening to or reading these days?

Rance Greene:  Well, I hear that Brian Washburn has a great podcast. I can definitely recommend that.

Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING)

Rance Greene: Right now I’m reading an interesting book called The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. And it’s how to solve problems through pictures. I like to draw. 

Brian Washburn:  Fascinating. I’m going to have to take a look at that one. And then the last question we have here is what kind of shameless plug– I, I appreciate the plug for this podcast.  Do you have any shameless plugs for yourself? 

Rance Greene: Well, one of the reasons that I’m on this podcast, Brian, is because of a book that I wrote called Instructional Story Design. And, I would welcome people to not only read the book, but let me know how they’ve used it.

I enjoy keeping in touch with people. Feel free to, you know, give me a shout out on LinkedIn and connect with me. I’d love to hear from you. And then on March 16th, I’m doing an event called the Leadership Storytelling Forum. And so this is for leaders and those who develop them and we’re going to be having just an informal conversation about storytelling and how to lead with stories.

Brian Washburn: And if you send me the link, we can go ahead and put that up in the show notes as well. So that sounds very cool. 

Rance Greene, thank you so much. The author of Instructional Story Design. He’s also Story Designer and Founder of Needastory.com. I appreciate you joining us for this week’s episode of Train Like You Listen and thank you, everyone, for listening to another episode. You can find Train Like You Listen on any podcast platform, so whether it’s Apple, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, go ahead and give us a thumbs up or give us a comment, some feedback.

That’s how other people find out about it as well. Until next week, happy training everyone.  This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox.  Sign up today for a free demo.

One thought on “Storytelling as a Learning Device

  1. Our team was very lucky to know Dave Morschauser and see him train. Some people are natural storytellers. When you combine that natural ability with years and years of great stories, you can get a magical experience in the training room. What I love about this podcast is that I think Dave would have agreed with most of this. The other thing I love is that it is giving guidance to those who don’t necessarily have this in their arsenal as a natural gift. How do you get to the point where you can intentionally add storytelling to your program to improve the learning experience. Dave did it naturally. Most of us probably need some guidance and a way to help others do the same. Thank you, Rance. And thank you, Dave.

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