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Story learning—the power of stories in getting through to people

The Power of Scenarios - SchwartzWe’ve learned a lot about learning styles in recent years, and that knowledge is making a difference in schools and in the workplace. There are tests to help you understand if you are an auditory, kinesthetic, or visual learner. Those learning styles are channels by which you get information. By themselves, they are powerful, even essential to understanding. In my work helping people think about the future, I get the best results when I can offer multiple ways of encountering and understanding information: visual and auditory, at least.
But access to information is not enough. Information has to have meaning to truly break through to people’s understanding. We are all capable of making intellectual connections to information—understanding it factually. But stories can get through to people by emotional connections to deliver meaning much more strongly. So ultimately we are “story learners,” whether we have a preference for the kinesthetic, or auditory, or visual.
Children when I was growing up would learn about the boy who cried wolf. Told as a story, that moral life’s lesson is stronger and more memorable—“don’t be the boy who cried wolf”–than a factual relating of the lesson—“if you sound a false alarm repeatedly, no one will believe you when there’s really an emergency.” The same thing is true in communicating ideas about the future. A dry, factual relating of the details, for example in a forecast about technology, doesn’t have the power of a story, set in the future, with real people in it, living with the technology.
The telling and retelling of stories, and retelling a story you heard your way, are all part of forging meaning and sharing meaning. In exploring the future on your own or with others, it’s the stories you try tell about the future that bring the future alive. The future isn’t just a collection of changes, it’s a changed world with people in it. This is why we often build scenarios that turn ideas about the future into stories about the future. Scenarios are usually easier to share, recall, and react to for people. See: Why I love introducing scenario thinking to people.
So too, we can look at how ideas are framed and reframed  See my thoughts on reframing here and here. The act of framing (or reframing) is about giving things a stronger emotional connection than information alone can carry.
We need to take a close look at how we present ideas about the future. While we may value data, evidence, and analysis, those things are not enough to really inspire new thinking. Try out stories about your organization and the people in it, in the future. Play out scenarios that get specific about people: using your products or services, perhaps. Put yourself or your children in the future you are trying to imagine. Move past the data and business analysis. Doing so will lead to more effective “story learning” for you and the people you work with.
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