Once Upon a Training: Why Storytelling Is Critical in the Virtual Classroom

In 2015, something incredible happened.

In the midst of the digital era, when more free time is spent posting pictures to social media than reading and learning, hundreds of thousands of people began to recite miniscule details from early American history. Non-academics, teens and even toddlers knew who fought in which battle and what happened in the early days of the U.S. Constitution.

Why? Because of a Broadway show.

After decades of textbooks, teaching curriculums and lesson plans, in the end it was a hip hop-obsessed lyricist who ultimately got people to pay attention to what happened during the Revolutionary War.

Here’s the real kicker:

When Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote “Hamilton: An American Musical,” he wasn’t trying to teach. He simply wanted to tell a compelling story.

That’s the power of storytelling.

Storytelling helps make powerful connections when you can’t be face to face.

There’s magic in this method of teaching and training — the kind that has the power to make even the most unengaged learner able to absorb and retain information that’s otherwise easy to forget.

The Science of Storytelling

Storytelling has been one of man’s most fundamental methods of communication since the days of cave paintings. Journalists have long relied on the “anecdotal lead” to capture attention, screenwriters use “the hook” and novelists feed readers cliffhangers.

No matter what you choose to call it, the reason stories stick is the same: They pique our curiosity in ways presentations never could.

When people listen to a presentation, a part of the brain that’s related to processing language is activated. Listeners are essentially looking for meaning in the words they hear, but little else happens.

When an anecdote is being told, things change dramatically. Lifehacker put it this way:

“Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are, too. If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it's about motion, our motor cortex gets active.”

And if you tell a story someone has personally experienced, something called neural coupling will cause the brains of your learners to synchronize with your own brain. In other words…

You can make a deeply moving and personal connection with participants — simply by telling a story from your own life.

Neural coupling links your participants with you on a deeper level.

With a strong story, you don’t have to make face-to-face contact to have an impact. You won’t even need to be in the same room. This is why storytelling techniques are so perfect for online training.

How to Apply the Storytelling Method in a Virtual Environment

In the virtual classroom, storytelling allows facilitators to reach beyond the screen and create meaningful connections with participants.

As the number of in-person trainings quickly diminishes — just 41% of trainings are now delivered in traditional classroom settings — it’s more important than ever to create virtual experiences capable of having lasting impacts.

As neuroeconomics expert Paul J. Zak said in the Harvard Business Review, storytelling “blows the standard PowerPoint presentation to bits.” A well-executed story will draw upon emotions that make it much easier to understand key points and recall details long after a training session has ended.

Here are three key ingredients for successful storytelling:

1.  Keep it simple

Using short sentences and easy-to-understand language allows listeners to become drawn into your story quickly. Instead of decoding and deciphering jargon, their brains will be primed to relate to the happenings of your story.

2.  When in doubt, use the metaphor

This type of storytelling can be especially effective for topics that are highly complex. Instead of describing the concept in great detail, use a metaphor to show how an idea can be translated into something your learners have already experienced in their own lives.

3.  Plan, prepare and practice

The beauty of a virtual classroom is the ability to stage course content ahead of time. If visuals or videos will help you convey a core component of your story, add them to your staging area before the live online class begins.

If you’re struggling with the transition from in-person trainings to the online virtual classroom, storytelling is the way to go. This powerful training technique has the power to turn even the most complex subject into content that’s both enticing and memorable.

Did you know? AirClass is designed with unique features that make it easy to use the storytelling method and then measure how engaged people are with your stories. Learn more at airclass.com.