By Daniel J. Solove
Once upon a time, there was a teacher who wanted to train people. At first, the teacher stated a list of things to do and not do. But this had little effect. The teacher was upset and started to doubt whether he could ever get through to people. But then the teacher tried a new approach – using stories. People remembered the stories, and the training started to change people’s behavior. And the teacher and everyone he taught lived happily ever after.
The Power of Stories to Educate and Persuade
Telling stories is an immensely effective way to educate people. Many people won’t remember an abstract list of do’s and don’ts.
I am a law professor, and most of my classes and those of others in my profession are taught via the “case method” – using judicial opinions to teach various rules of law. This method is a highly effective way to teach the law – much better than teaching the rules in the abstract. It works because the cases involve stories.
The power of stories is backed up by research. In an article, Jonathan Gottschal describes an experiment where subjects were told a story about a father and a terminally ill child. Blood tests revealed a spike in ocytocin (a chemical connected to empathy) in the subjects’ blood after hearing the story, and subjects with more oxytocin donated more money to a charity for sick children.
Stories and Computer-Based Training
Computer-based training should also draw from the power of stories. Often it doesn’t because the time allotted for training is very short. It is tempting to cut straight to the point.
I provide computer-based training on privacy and data security topics, so I face these constraints. When I teach live in the classroom, I have the luxury of lots of time to let points unfold. I can tell stories and repeat key points many times. But time is very scarce for computer-based training. And people’s attention span for such training is much shorter than with live education.
But in my experience, it is essential not to give up the stories. Stories need not be long to be effective. Look at how effective short parables can be. Many Biblical stories and Greek myths are just a few verses long.
People learn better if things are made concrete and situational. Nearly any concrete example of a rule can be turned into a story.
At the simplest level, the key is to start with a protagonist who is placed in a situation and who must make choices that have consequences.
A great place to use stories is in quiz questions. Quiz questions should not just be used to test; they are very effective for educating too. They are great for repeating key points and for incorporating stories.
How to Turn a Rule Into a Story
Suppose you wanted to teach the rule: Cross the road at the crosswalk; don’t jaywalk.
You could just state this rule, but it is very ineffective.
Instead, you might teach the rule by providing a simple story. Here I will use create a story based on the famous joke: “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.” Now, the story:
Once there was a chicken who decided to cross the road. This chicken was not particularly patient, so she crossed the road in the middle. Along came a car, and that was the end of the chicken. We may never know why this chicken decided to cross the road, but we definitely know why she never made it to the other side.
It can be good to add some unique details to the story to make it more memorable:
“Once there was a chicken who decided to cross the road. This was no ordinary chicken – she has the most beautiful golden feathers. . .”
Emotion helps a lot too:
“Once there was a chicken who decided to cross the road. One of the chicken’s ten chicks said to her: “Mommy, shouldn’t you wait to reach the crosswalk?” But the chicken was too impatient. The chicken darted across the middle of the road . . .”
Emotion can be further dialed up by discussing the fate of the chicks.
It doesn’t take much to transform a rule into a story. Stories should include details that make them memorable – and these are typically details that make them unique or add an emotional element.
Some good books on storytelling include:
Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (2013)
Annette Simmons, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins (2007)
Ty Bennett, The Power of Storytelling (2013)
This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. This post was originally posted on his blog at LinkedIn, where Solove is a “LinkedIn Influencer.” His blog has more than 890,000 followers.
Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz of the Privacy + Security Forum (Oct. 21-23 in Washington, DC), an event that aims to bridge the silos between privacy and security.