How to Use Stories in Training

Stories are a fundamental part of our humanity. We share them to inform, enlighten, and entertain because they touch our imaginations AND emotions.  Therefore it’s no surprise that storytelling is one of the most powerful teaching techniques in our arsenal.  Because stories can resonate so profoundly with an audience, they’re a great way to grab attention, make content more accessible, and make your training “stickier.” 

It’s not likely that all of us have a collection of great true stories full of perfect metaphors for every training topic we encounter.  When you don’t already have a story in mind, you can create one with a bit of practice.  Following are a few training-specific ideas to keep in mind for developing story elements like setting, character, and plot and also a few tips on when stories enhance training – and when they may not be the best choice.

What are the elements of a good story?

  • Setting:  The right setting for your story helps you build context and perspective, whether it’s the trainee’s own work environment or someone else’s.  The important thing is to keep it real or risk alienating your audience.
  • Character:  No one will care about your plot unless they care about your characters.  Make sure characters aren’t caricatures or stereotypes (which aren’t easy to relate to and could be insulting) and keep the number of characters to a minimum to avoid confusing your audience.
  • Plot:  The plot of your story should have a beginning (where the characters and setting are introduced), a middle (where the tension  surfaces or conflict arises), and a climax (where the plot is resolved).  Because the climax is the payoff of the story, don’t make the ending too predictable or your trainees will feel cheated.

When do stories enhance training?

Generally, stories work best for:

  • Building excitement for training – Peer-to-peer stories, training testimonials from top performers, or a “day in the life of a customer” can help build buy-in.
  • Illustrating concepts – Nearly anyone can be taught to use a computer and be polite when taking a customer’s order, but stories integrate the technical aspects of the process with the underlying human needs and motivations driving the process.
  • Communicating implied knowledge – Facts and procedures are pretty easy to explain, but tacit knowledge is trickier.  For instance, training a new sales associate on how to spot a “buying signal” may get the technicalities across, but it probably won’t do as good of a job communicating intuitive knowledge as a story from a fellow, more experienced, sales associate might.
  • Exploratory learning – When you want your learners to see the consequences of choice ask them to step into the shoes of one of the characters and explore the potential outcomes.  Not only is this an empowering way to learn - it’s also fun!

Use stories with caution for:

  • Refresher training – Experienced trainees don’t want to endure the story of “Bob on his first day at the company” to get up to date on the latest system changes. 
  • Quick-hit training – If you spend 10-minutes of a 15-minute module getting to the climax of a story, odds are your audience has already tuned out. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the role of the storyteller but don’t forget that learning also occurs by eliciting stories from others.  As you leverage stories in your training, consider ways you can use them to prompt discussion, debate, and collaboration in your organization.

Have any stories you’d like to share with us?  Please leave a comment.


Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training solutions. When her training skills aren’t being tested by her children, you’ll find her helping others to develop their own design muscles. Contact Trina at [email protected].