10 tips for storytelling in the virtual classroom – part one

Today’s guest post is by an amazing speaker in her own right, Angi Courville. As we were simultaneously researching a volume of books to hone our storytelling sensibilities, Angi penned her own take on the subject.


So you’ve decided to start working storytelling into your virtual communication toolbox!

Quick question: What qualifies as a “story?”

Experts quarrel and quibble, but for our purpose – using story effectively in the virtual classroom – we’ll define story as:

Anything but “once upon a time.”

We want to bestow meaning, provide context, help the audience retain the information we’re sharing… succinctly.  We’re going for the illustration, metaphor, quote, anecdote, fable: anything that helps inspire and impart vision in lieu of spewing facts. (Simmons)

Here are the first five of 10 tips to consider as you add storytelling to your virtual training sessions.

 Our brains are wired to process facts and experiences as story

According to Kendall Haven, “The brain converts raw experience into story form and then considers, ponders, remembers, and acts on the self-created story, not the actual input experience.”

Layman’s terms: The data you’ve painstakingly accrued, collated, digested, and laid out for your audience is either going to be converted into some kind of story in each individual head, or be largely forgotten.

Ask yourself this: Do you really want the audience sliding your lovely new information into tired old pigeonholes? (Simmons)

Provide facts within the framework of story, and you have a much stronger hand in directing how your audience will process and act on them.

Story as a teaching tool offers many practical advantages over traditional data dump

A meaningful story leads your audience to internalize the value of the information you’re presenting.  When you use a story to impart information, you’re more likely to help the listener reach the conclusion you’re aiming for than if you simply present data.

Very few people enjoy being talked at, and may balk at change.  Story requests rather than demands, making the listener the ally rather than a cog in the machine.

Story can be so effective, in fact, that it has been shown to cut teaching time in half (Simmons).

Finally, in the chaos of the data age, story breaks through information overload.  We are all overwhelmed with a 24-hour barrage of information from traditional media, the internet, work…even our phones.  The brain can’t help but hit overload, and simply stops noticing or receiving most information. Story zooms past the swirling clouds of fact right to the heart of the listener.

Studies show that before you can influence an audience, they need to know they can trust you

Many years ago I worked in retail sales for a large department store.  One day a decision was made that sales clerks would thank every customer by name, obtained from their charge receipt.  Management felt such a move would establish rapport with customers.

We clerks, however, found that customers looked with suspicion upon a stranger – a salesperson no less – suddenly calling out their name after a purchase. It was not a popular policy: both clerks and customers were uncomfortable with false rapport.

It’s not that calling people by name isn’t a good idea. We just didn’t trust management enough to try, and they didn’t include us in “how can we do this?”

Show your audience they can trust you by reaching out to build true rapport. Share a small personal story, an anecdote about someone you admire, a favorite quote…something that sheds a little light on who you are.

When your audience feels they know something authentic about you, they will find it much easier to trust you.  Their defenses come down, and you gain the opportunity to influence them more effectively.

Develop the mentality of a storyfinder

Stories are all around you; you only need to start noticing.  Tune your ears to stories shared by colleagues, co-workers, family, and friends.

You also can gather stories from traditional media, social media, books, the internet, professional gatherings…the possibilities are endless.  And don’t forget your own personal experiences!

Develop the habit of jotting down stories as you hear them, or at least making note of a few key words that will you allow to capture them later. Whenever you hear something that grabs your imagination, consider it a story for possible future use.

First define key learning points, then select stories

Before you even consider looking for stories, make sure every learning point – or “change idea,” as Stephen Denning calls it – is crystal clear.  He recommends writing out each change idea in a single sentence.

You don’t need a story for every single learning item.  Knowing exactly what you’re trying to communicate with each learning point informs the process of story selection – both which story to use, and whether you even need one.

Once you’ve determined that a story is appropriate to your change idea, take a hard look at it.  Discard anything that doesn’t directly support your point.  Stories should be long enough to make the point, but short enough to hold attention in the unique requirements of the virtual classroom.

Selecting stories ahead of time, and deciding where to insert them in your presentation, prevents them from sounding like afterthoughts.  And you gain unique control over which points to emphasize, and how.

Editor’s update: Part two is here, including the list of books consulted.

3 thoughts on “10 tips for storytelling in the virtual classroom – part one

  1. Integrating Story into Online Learning: Getting Started « Katharine Hansen, PhD

    […] included guidance on finding stories and integrating them into an online-learning experience. In 10 tips for storytelling in the virtual classroom – part one and part two, Courville talks about using stories to illustrate points, how to curate stories in […]

  2. Integrating Story into Online Learning | A Storied Career

    […] included guidance on finding stories and integrating them into an online-learning experience. In 10 tips for storytelling in the virtual classroom – part one and part two, Courville talks about using stories to illustrate points, how to curate stories in […]

  3. Rob Klemyk

    Hi, Roger.

    I just sat through your presentation From Complex to Simple: How to Make Hard Subjects Easy Through Story-Based Learning. Loved it all!

    Thanks for making “the complex, simpler”.


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