Our brains are hardwired for stories. We use them when we tell a joke at a bar, catch up with friends over lunch, watch “Breaking Bad,” or toast a groom at his wedding.They engage us and draw us in, yet they’re practically nonexistent when it comes to onboarding new employees. Why is that? The first few days of employment, after all, can be hugely overwhelming.
So how can you expect a new hire to remember customer service protocol, when to attend staff meetings, and where to find company letterhead all at once? An effective strategy for retaining all this information is incorporating stories. Learning is strongly tied to storytelling because we remember things more clearly when they’re associated with a person or an event we can relate to. Storytelling creates a meaningful and memorable connection between employees and educational material.
Establish Training With Stories
The sooner a connection is formed between the learner and the material, the bigger an investment an employee will be willing to make in your training. Stories are an essential part of that connection because they engage all of our senses. According to University of Toronto Cognitive Psychology professor Keith Oatley, when certain senses are suggested during a story — for example, “the room smelled musty” — the subject’s sensory cortex is triggered as though he were experiencing the stimuli in real time.
Instructional designers know that the more senses we can engage, the more likely learners will be to retain information. Compliance training makes a lot more sense when presented as a narrative instead of a list of dos and don’ts.
The problem is figuring out how to incorporate stories into the often dry and straightforward onboarding process. Here are some ways to start off on the right foot:
- Brainstorming: A simple brainstorming session during training helps learners forge an emotional connection with the material by involving them in the process. An employee who feels heard and appreciated, for instance, will be more invested than someone watching a presentation.
- Scenarios: Learners must be able to easily envision when and where they’ll use this new information. Scenarios that show real-life situations — like when to enact compliance training, for example — deepen a sense of value and increase retention.
- Rewards: You can drive engagement and strengthen the learner-material connection by giving employees clear goals to work toward or by gamifying the onboarding process.
These simple tactics are a good first step in engaging our narrative senses to be more involved in the learning process. You’ll have to incorporate stories into the content of your onboarding training, however, to make a real impact.
Build Narratives Into Training
If learners see a useful application for the material they’re being asked to internalize, they’re more likely to tune in. Here are five key methods for including narratives in onboarding:
- Create characters. Adding characters to a story is what creates a real connection with the listener. Learners feel empathy toward characters if they’re stuck in situations the employee can identify with, such as dealing with a frustrated customer. Draw anecdotes and characteristics from real people to create these characters.
- Design usable experiences. Imaginary situations make your employees check out early, so don’t use unrealistic scenarios to demonstrate training. Brainstorm with current employees to create scenarios that actually stumped them early on in the job.
- Enrich with detail. Engage as many senses as possible by creating stories rich in detail to build an emotional connection with learners.
- Ask for predictions. When there’s a question about the outcome of a situation, ask learners to predict what they think will happen. Creating a story in their minds about results makes the information more likely to stick.
- Use media. Stories don’t have to be long-winded, spoken narratives — comic strips, short videos, infographics or even video games make an impact by engaging more senses.
Engaging narratives can set the tone during onboarding for a long and happy partnership between an employee and a company. Every new hire at Procter & Gamble, for example, receives a copy of a book on the history of the company and a tour through the company museum. By connecting employees to the history of the company and its mission, the onboarding process creates a story around where the company has been and where it hopes to go, building an emotional connection with new employees from the moment they start the job.
Stories don’t have to begin with “once upon a time.” Storytelling in onboarding simply means creating genuinely engaging material. The extra effort will pay off in employee retention and performance, and you’ll all live happily ever after.
Andrew Fayad is the CEO and Managing Partner of eLearning Mind. He oversees sales, marketing, and strategic growth opportunities. eLearning Mind is an e-learning design and development agency that helps companies transform their existing learning materials into memorable and engaging e-learning experiences. By hiring talented graphic designers and motion graphic artists, eLearning Mind provides seamless project management and a unique, collaborative customer experience.
Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.