From Cognitive Overload to Chat-on-Fire!

“Engagement is one of the key ways to retain employees,” the presenter says. 

The screen shows happy, young models posing as managers and employees. On the right side of the screen is a list of things managers should do to engage their employees.
It’s a webinar and I’m waiting my turn to present. I’m the co-host and I’m presenting on a specific outcome of engagement: ethical culture.
The current speaker (from HR) is training newly hired managers how to engage their employees. She pauses.

“Any questions so far?” she asks, before launching into the next slide. The chat is dead. “Alright, let’s move on to the benefits of engaging employees.” 

The stats are actually compelling, but by now, so much information has been shared that only 20 minutes into the presentation, even I’m starting to fade. I try to concentrate. Percentages whiz by. Best practices are doled out in large helpings. My mental plate is overflowing. Well-greased information passes effortlessly through my brain. Nothing’s sticking. I wonder if it’s sticking with these new managers. 

After 10 minutes, she hands it off to me. 
“I’d like to tell you a story about Maggie,” I say, “She’s recently been promoted to management. She has always exceeded expectations for delivering quality work on time. When she was promoted to management, her team was excited…but lately, she’s noticed that they are not as enthusiastic.
Some of their deadlines have started to slip too. She decides to talk about it with them at her next staff meeting.” The story continues, showing whiteboard illustrations of Maggie meeting with her team. She’s generally met with awkward silence and doesn’t know what to make of it, until one of her employees meets with her afterwards to tell her what’s really going on. Maggie is shocked. One employee has a side business. The other is watching YouTube all day. Another team member seems distant. Two of her employees feel like they’re making up for all the work their co-workers aren’t doing. But what surprises her the most is the fact that her employees feel like she doesn’t care about those things as long as the work is getting done. The story ends with, “This was not what she expected management to be like.” 

After the story, I ask managers on the webinar to answer a question: “What’s the problem on Maggie’s team?” 
The chat is on fire! Managers on the call are anxious to share their opinions and insights. I ask another question.

“What should Maggie do now to prevent this from continuing?” 
Again, great insights are shared. Many of those insights will be discussed later during training. I walk them through four things managers can do to encourage employees to speak up about workplace concerns. Afterwards, I ask them to share one more thing Maggie could do to improve her own situation. I wait as they think. It takes some time, but eventually, the gold nuggets start popping up in chat. It’s apparent from the comments that they’ve got it. 

What makes the difference between these two halves of a presentation? 

In the first half of the training, all of the content was solid, with lots of research to back it up. Why was I (and probably the entire audience) unable to keep up with the information in the first half, but able to fully comprehend and apply the information in the second half? It’s not that bullet points and stock photos are evil. It’s not even presentation style. 

But there is a better way to help learners stay with you without hurting their brains: Tell a story. 

Storytelling eases the brain into new information. 
You know the pattern of conflict and resolution because you hear stories all the time, every day. You don’t have to think hard about a story. You just receive it and enjoy it! A well-crafted story gives room for you to self-discover the learning objectives. You listen to the story. You think about the problem. You come up with solutions. You are trained on how you should perform in similar situations. It’s easy to remember because it’s tied to the story. And your brain doesn’t have to work too hard to take it all in. 

Learners are probably not going to walk away from training saying, “I loved bullet point number seven. That really hit home!” But tell them a story and they’ll never forget. 

Give your virtual audience a humanized experience.

If you're tasked with creating virtual training, or you're routinely conducting webinars, do your audience a favor and treat them to storytelling that encourages self-discovery. 

If you're not sure how to do that, a good place to start is with Instructional Story Design. Over 300 pages of practical steps to discover, design and deliver stories for training with case studies and 47 pages of job aids and worksheets to get you started right at your comfort level.
For some hands-on practice designing and delivering Story-based Virtual Training, join the next Virtual Training Workshop!
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