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Using Stories To Teach

9/23/2014

Did you stay up later then you intended to last night? If you did, chances are you were sucked into a great movie or a favorite book. That’s what a good story does . . . it grabs our attention and holds it until a creative or surprising resolution gives us satisfaction and contentment. But stories do much more than entertain . . . a good story can help us learn and make it easier for us to remember something long after we see it on screen or read it on a page.


 

A simple example of this is a fourth grade spelling teacher showing the class a trick to spell “rhythm” by remembering the one-line story “Robin Hood Yelled To His Men!” Did you picture Robin Hood in full costume running around Sherwood Forest calling for his band of merry men? I always do. Stories make things easier to recall because they put our whole brains to work, imagining pictures and movement, sounds and smells. Stories power memory.
 
On a completely different level, think about the history student slogging through dates, data, and textbook explanations about the politics of World War II. Introduce that same student to Anne Frank’s diary and watch as the power of the story taps into his heart, transporting him from the school library to a secret annex in war-torn Europe. Stories make people care and arouse interest.
 
As difficult as it can be to apply stories to the world of ERP software documentation, top-notch documentation writers and classroom trainers often use examples and real-life stories to capture attention and engage with their students. The following are some examples of how stories can help people understand a difficult concept or remember something useful.
  1. Several weeks ago I attended a training to learn how to use Epicor software to schedule production jobs on a shop floor. There were many terms in the process that I didn’t comprehend right away and I had trouble discerning between them. The trainer who was leading the class used a story involving a burger joint drive-thru to help me remember how the process worked. For each step in the unfamiliar, she gave me a corresponding step that I understood: waiting in line, ordering, the burger being cooked and put together to my specifications, then lunch bagged and moved to the cashier. Stories reshape information into something meaningful. When embedded in the context of a story, it is transferred to the listener or reader in a unique way.
  2. When correcting a piece of documentation regarding on-time transaction approvals, I read the material and found myself hopelessly lost (noticing a theme here?). I scheduled a demonstration with a subject matter expert, who used various scenarios to help me understand the many ways that time transactions can be tracked and approved. Through the adventures of Peter Project Manager, Sally Supervisor, and Emilio Employee, I learned different ways to configure settings and how to obtain the desired results. Ultimately, I was able to pass the information along to end users by writing examples like his – what worked for me I knew would work for others. People take time for stories. If you want to maintain an audience’s attention through something tedious, you’re more likely to do it through storytelling.
  3. When developing a basic training video to teach users how material flows in an out of a distributor’s warehouse, a coworker created an effective piece using a story about a safety helmet. In the story, a customer came shopping for the helmet, went through the sales process, and an order was placed. The helmet was not on hand and had to be purchased, received, and then shipped to the customer. In following the ordered material through the process, the learner could take in the information the developer wanted to convey – how material moves from start to finish – and also learn terminology through the simple example. Explanations, especially of complex processes, benefit from having a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

In closing – those of us who are tasked with taking the complex (or the tedious, or the completely confusing) and interpreting it for others need to use every weapon in our arsenal to do our jobs. Storytelling is effective. And – even in the context of software documentation – it is, occasionally, rather fun.
 
By Deb Amato, Sr. Content Writer



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