An increasing number of companies are using corporate storytellers to change behaviours. Let's start at the beginning...
Stories depicting good and bad practice have traditionally played a role in training, but the growing recognition that storytelling is an intervention in its own right is prompting more businesses to examine this approach.
"Storytelling is a method of getting a message across with impact," says Robin Fritz, manager of creative design and delivery at Purple Monster, which specialises in storytelling and drama-based training. "It humanises the theory, and when allied with other forms of learning, it is very effective."
Rona Barbou, a former recruitment consultant who now works as a professional storyteller, says stories are used in several ways, but mainly to illustrate the human connection. "Most people don't think of their job in that way, but storytelling enables you to get that point across and allows them to see the bigger picture," she adds.
Storytelling is a popular element of change, management, leadership, communication, diversity, customer service and health and safety training – and it can really be used in two ways: first, in the guise of a story presented by a trainer and second, as a method of interaction between delegates. The stories themselves can serve a number of functions – such as to inspire, motivate, warn, celebrate or change perceptions – and can be blended with other forms of learning, notably coaching and mentoring in recent years.
For Margaret Wood, director of virtual training company Zynia, which produces CD-based storytelling packs, this learning approach engages the emotions and draws people away from the everyday. "If you can tell them a story, it helps them look at issues without feeling personally threatened," she says.
Zynia currently produces six training packs (each priced at £249, excluding VAT) covering diversity, communication, teams, customers, leadership and change. "Each pack has a CD containing about seven or eight stories – with hard copies – written by trainers in the first or third person. We include suggestions on how to use the pack: such as how you might design a training course and some questions to ask," Wood says.
"A lot of the stories are multi-faceted and can be used in a number of ways. We use them in one-to-one situations, and they can also be used in a coaching format." Wood adds that Zynia also teaches storytelling, as well as running story-led courses for companies.
In a class-based environment, Fritz says telling a personal story can enable a trainer to become accepted quickly - because delegates empathise with a display of character. "People are quite rightly terrified of role play," he states. "So we always try and get an ice-breaker in there. You can get under the wire by starting with a personal story." He adds that using storytelling in group work also has a massive effect on the function of a team, with people finding it easier to work with others they know a little better.
However, selecting the right story is crucial, says Barbour. "Stories have to have a beginning, middle and end – but more than anything they have to have a point," she explains. "They can be two minutes or two hours long, but they have to contain a message that people can take as their own."
Wood, whose number-one story is Isn't it wonderful when people surprise you – which appears in the Zynia Communications pack – believes a good story is multi-faceted and multi-layered. "In some ways, it's like a good joke," she says. "It can be very simple on the surface and people can tune into different levels on their own."
While Barbour insists the golden rule of storytelling is never to reveal why you've chosen a particular story, Fritz says many storytellers end up explaining the meaning. "This is often because people are slightly unsure of how it's been received," he concedes. "But it's good to let people make the connection themselves."
While the human element of storytelling makes it a seemingly redundant training tool during the transfer of technical information, US space agency NASA has demonstrated that storytelling can be used on a multitude of levels. Employees are encouraged to contribute their stories to an in-house magazine called ASK, which features articles on engineering achievements, as well as learning, collaboration and organisational knowledge.
Case study: Glasgow Housing Association
In late 2007, Purple Monster was asked to assist in the delivery of a customer-focused training event for the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA). The GHA had been reorganised six months previously and was keen to gauge the effect of these changes on customers.
Purple Monster elicited stories from both internal and external customers and then designed the training event around the outcome of those stories.
Using Joseph Campbell's structural theory, The Hero's Journey, all attendees were encouraged to see the GHA in story terms. Delegates were asked to share stories of their best and worst customer experiences outside work and were then asked to consider themselves as customer service providers.
The GHA claims using personal stories from peoples' non-work lives enabled the attendees to better understand the needs and behaviour of their customers in a 'safe' way – and enabled it to understand how people viewed the organisation.