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How Stories Can Facilitate Change in Learning

“Once upon a time, there was a large and very successful company. That company kept careful watch on its immediate competitors and saw that it was consistently doing a bit better than they were. That made both the executives and the employees feel good. They were proud of their culture and they were proud of their success. They were doing great. They saw no reason to change.

Then one day, very suddenly, that same company wasn’t doing so well. Nor were any of its competitors. Something both unexpected and catastrophic had happened: another organisation, from a different sector, had taken away most of their customers. Sadly for them, this unforeseen calamity had happened very quickly. The company tried to react, but it was too late.

Things quickly went from bad to worse. With heavy hearts, once-proud executives repeatedly laid off staff. But nothing they did seemed to fix the problem. And all too soon, that large, proud, successful company was no more.”

This could be a story about the demise of the US railroad industry in the twentieth century as it saw custom taken by road haulage and then by airlines, or it could be a story about the challenges faced by record stores in the twenty-first century, when they found themselves unprepared for competition from online music download sites.

The moral of both versions of the story is that however big and successful you are, regardless of how much better you are doing than your competitors, you should be aware that the need you are fulfilling for your clients might be catered for in a very different way.

If you take this principle on board as an organisation, you will aim to think about the services you provide at as abstract a level as possible and you will keep in mind all the other different ways in which your customers’ relevant needs might be catered for in the future. The story gives people and teams a framework and a language for thinking about and discussing new ideas and for reflecting on their own behaviours.

How stories can help facilitate change in learning

There is clear power in the potential of storytelling for learning, but stories can also play an important role in change management and learning transformation.

Here are a few key points to consider if you are considering using stories as part of a change programme:

Stories should be context-specific
To create an effective change story, you need to get the details right. If the story is too abstract, it won’t resonate.

Stories should be level-appropriate
Stories where the characters are recognisable to those listening have the most potential to change behaviour (it helps if the storyteller is also recognisable).

Stories must be told by respected role-models
Cullen (2006) claims that the combination of real-life stories, told by people with valued credentials, is powerful enough to change behaviour. If this is correct, it’s both the realistic and relevant stories and the credentials of the storyteller that make the difference.

Stories must be related in appropriate language
Storytellers need to give serious consideration to language: its relevance, level, and whether and where to employ devices such as symbolism or metaphor.

Stories should be participatory and interactive
Stories offer a safe environment in which to explore new concepts and beliefs, which may not be comfortable through everyday dialogue. This means new ideas can be tested and responses assessed.

Stories should be about values as well as actions
A single story of corporate actions and values told by management and listened to by the rest will resonate far less than a story that represents everyone’s values, possibly generated through individual contribution and expression.

Stories should be relatively short
The aim of a story is to teach or transmit a number of key points that you know to be true for other reasons (evidence based on data, for example), so keeping the story short and simple will be a positive advantage. Make it too long or add too much detail, and it will become less compelling and less memorable.

Implementing a storytelling programme

Storytelling can be a powerful tool in supporting a learning and/or change programme. A team of respected role-models will need to be engaged, and will probably need to come from a variety of levels within the organisation. Having engaged that team, they will need to be coached in developing and relating their stories, or in running the workshops where stories will be co-developed.

Only once the above is complete, will you be ready to broadcast the programme and start using stories and storytelling to stimulate dialogue, reflection and action.

How stories help organisations to live happily ever after

Stories are deep and instinctive in human nature. They transcend ages, cultures and disciplines, and play an important role in our everyday lives.

Used as a powerful vehicle for communication, storytelling also appears in many different forms in learning and it can be a powerful element in a change programme.

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