Use these steps to successfully use storytelling in training and coaching sessions.

It has been terrific getting back together at recent industry events and educational sessions like Bowl Expo and Amusement Expo. Many of the educational sessions at the events were nothing short of inspiring, with funny and relevant stories shared all around.

You’ve no doubt heard of the benefits of storytelling in marketing, brand management, and sales. It’s also an extremely effective tool to use when training your staff. Today, we’re sharing an example of masterful storytelling from a marketing conference I attended, delivered by Meghan Gardner, Chief Executive Officer of Guardian Adventures. Guardian Adventures, a consulting firm that develops unique educational programs for various industries and ages, uses storytelling to build immersive and exciting sessions that stick.

Meghan started the presentation by sharing her experience volunteering with an elderly WW2 veteran in hospice care. When the gentleman she referred to as Jack had entered into hospice care, his family advised her that Jack wouldn’t speak about his time during the war. They met weekly for a while, talking about any number of other topics, when one day, Jack asked if he could share something he witnessed during his service. Meghan learned that Jack had seen awful things that haunted him. When he finished, he asked what she thought about what he had shared.

After a moment, Meghan replied that it would be difficult to maintain humanity in an inhumane place like a war zone. She also expressed empathy for the person Jack referenced in the story. What she would learn her next visit was that Jack had been talking about himself and that her response to his account had given him the space to share other painful memories so that he could heal during the remaining days of his life.

So, what’s the lesson? To not make assumptions? To express empathy? To listen without judgment?  Yes, of course, all of those things. But it was the delivery of the lesson that mattered. Meghan could have just delivered a Powerpoint with the steps to meaningful interactions, guest service moments, or team-building training that looked more like:

  1. Don’t make assumptions (when interacting with guests, struggling with a difficult situation, or resolving a problem).
  2. Put yourself in your guest’s/coworker’s shoes.
  3. Listen without judgment.

And while we know these tips are proven and relevant, as Meghan said, “it’s the story that you’ll remember, particularly emotional stories.” And armed with a story’s message, you can effect change. That’s the magic of storytelling.

There are so many wonderful, exciting, touching moments that we get to be a part of every day in our industry. And there are difficult situations, accidents, and cautionary tales that would make great stories to use in training. Whatever skill or desired behavior you’re trying to teach, an impactful and applicable anecdote can give team members a relatable context to recall when they need it.

Here’s how:

No. 1: Start gathering stories.

Start collecting stories to use in your training sessions. Find them while observing significant interactions you witness team members having with guests. Read guest feedback and dig into the scenarios of guest experience highlights or missteps. Recall an experience you had at Starbucks the other day. We are part of hundreds of moments every day that can add a rich layer of context and meaning to what you wish to teach.

No. 2: Share in a session.

Perhaps you want to train on about not making assumptions about coworkers, so you share a time when you yelled at a coworker for being late and learned that their car had broken down on the drive, and they walked the remainder of the way. Maybe you want your party hosts to take care when writing customized, personal thank you notes after an event because someone had accidentally sent a generic “we hope you had fun at your party!” message to a birthday child that had been taken away in an ambulance (yes, that really happened). Stories can make a huge difference in how we retain what we learn.

No. 3: Help staff pull out the necessary lessons.

Ask staff to voice what they’ve learned from the story to ensure that the messages were conveyed as intended. I call this critical step “the debrief,” and it’s necessary after nearly every anecdote, training session, or role-play training activity. The team shows you that they understand the message by sharing what they got out of it. Some helpful questions:

  • What do you take from what I just shared?
  • What do you think (I/we) learned when that happened?
  • Why do you think it happened that way?
  • What can you learn from my/this experience?
  • How might you have acted differently in the situation?
  • Why is that important?
  • How do you think you can apply these ideas/lessons in the future?

No. 4: Get staff to commit to applying the learning outcomes.

It’s not enough for them to take away what they should do, get their commitment to when and how they plan to use their new knowledge. Ask them to share examples of how they will behave or act differently in a future situation with a guest or coworker, etc. A good question to ask is, “When and how will you use this in your next shift?” Set a deadline of when you will follow up (within a week) on how they’ve applied their new learning. You could follow up during your next weekly meeting, in your next shift huddle, or at the first shift following the weekend, for example.

No. 5:  Follow up.

It’s essential to follow through and in your next meeting or shift huddle, invite staff to share their own stories about how they used what they learned. This kind of follow-up does more than just cement their knowledge. It allows them to share the unique ways they’ve applied their training while helping the rest of the team learn from each other. Plus, it gives you (and everyone else) even more stories directly related to the knowledge you want to impart.

Sure, you’ll still have to teach them how to sweep the floor and enter transactions. But a well-rounded training strategy that employs storytelling can give your staff crucial context that helps them develop skills in empathy, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, and decision making, among many others.

Do you have a story that would teach meaningful lessons? Send them to


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