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Julian Stodd

Seasalt Learning


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The art of learning: The power of stories


Are you sitting comfortably? Julian Stodd continues his series on the art of learning.

You walk into the room; slightly nervous, uncertain. The faces looking back at you are unfamiliar - not hostile, but not friendly either. Serious. "How was your journey?" asks one of them, and you tell them, explaining how you'd detoured to avoid an accident. Everyone nods. It's a blackspot. And so, over a story, you start to communicate.

Stories sit at the heart of communication and at the heart of learning. We use them to establish commonality, to build common frames of reference, to convey both easy and difficult messages and to share ideas. They are really the smallest unit of coherent information and the widest spread of knowledge. Stories are both powerful and elusive. We can all create and share them, but they don't all make sense. This is a story about how we learn.

As children, we love to hear stories. Princesses, frogs, castles and hobbits with hairy feet. For preference, with bone-crunching ogres or at least a fairy godmother. Stories take us outside our real life and into an abstract world - a world where we can play with reality, a space to explore ideas. We graduate from hearing stories to being within them: hours in the playground or running through fields in long summer holidays on imaginary adventures with dinosaurs and packets of biscuits. Rafts made of wooden pallets and spaceships built from compost bins.

As we grow older, the stories become more complex: girls, boys, love and heartbreak, before finally we immerse ourselves in the stories of adulthood, with families, houses and cars.

But not all stories are equal. My favourite book is The Hobbit (as you may have guessed from earlier), but I'm willing to bet that it's not yours. Maybe you like Patriot Games, or Fifty Shades of Grey, or perhaps you prefer biographies. Only some stories resonate with us.

"Stories sit at the heart of communication and at the heart of learning."

The stories that we use in learning are different from all of these, but bound by some of the same rules: they need to be coherent, they have characters, they rely on certain common frames of reference, and they need a certain structure.

Let's think about the question of coherence: how do we convey a coherent narrative? The most important thing is to take a broad perspective. If we are designing a workshop, we should recognise that the narrative is broader than just the time you spend in the room. From the first invitation to attend, through the pre-course briefing, the experience itself and maybe some ongoing work in a social learning space, our entire experience forms part of the narrative. It needs to be coherent.

But how do we know if something is incoherent? The signs tend to be clear: repetition, lack of conclusion, lack of expectations. Incoherent learning stories often fail to set a context at all or, worse, spend far too much time telling you the very obvious or irrelevant. Anything that starts by saying 'this learning is important because...' is probably at risk of one of these. Generally speaking, people are not stupid. Writing long and formal introductions rarely achieves the desired result of making people engage. Instead, it just reinforces what you are about to do as yet another piece of corporate nonsense: you have to speak the right language, you have to communicate. Poorly constructed stories repeat themselves every time you switch from one section to another, like a poorly edited TV documentary that repeats half the story every time you come back from the ad break.

Another indication of an incoherent story is one that lacks an ending, one that spends so much effort explaining how things work that it neglects to tell you why or what you should do about it. Talking about the weather is a form of storytelling, a great one for establishing common ground, but it's of little use for business planning. In learning, we are typically looking for changed behaviours, skills or outcomes, so we need to be explicit within our stories about this. Which leads to expectations: just as with childhood stories, we want people to take part. The story is interactive; it needs to include a call to action. To learn is to change and we need people to be able to learn from the stories and take action as a result. It doesn't hurt to make this explicit.

Stories are powerful: we can create characters to tell them or just use a narrator, but whatever we do, we need to recognise that they sit at the heart of communication. When we first meet, we share stories, we build commonality, we work out what's safe and what's risky and we steer our relationship accordingly. We have to understand the power of stories to be able to design effective and engaging learning; we need to test understanding and that we have got them right before we broadcast them.

Think about where you consume stories every day, from curated news articles to rapid fire Twitter feeds, emails and conversations in the kitchen. Think about which stories are effective and which are simply stymied and formulaic communications, bound more by templates and reuse of structure than good storytelling. Are you a good storyteller? Who can you emulate?

Stories are powerful: we need to ensure they are coherent if we want people to learn.

Julian Stodd is a founding director of Marton House, a leading learning and development consultancy. As well as his learning blog Julian regularly contributes to international magazines and online publications, and recently released his first ebook entitled 'Exploring the World of Social Learning'. Julian's next publication, 'A Mindset for Mobile Learning', will be released later this year

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Julian Stodd


Read more from Julian Stodd

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