Article • February 8, 2022

Do your learners need “Storytelling Skills”? Not exactly…

By Karen Foster, M.Ed.

An open book with lights on it.

Fads and fashions tend to come and go. For a while, a certain thing is all the rage and then, after a time, it tends to fade away, only to be replaced by something else. This is true of clothing, television programs, music, and more. But it’s also true in learning and development. As an L&D professional, you’ve no doubt noticed this.

Well, I don’t know if this is a fad, but my colleagues and I have been noticing something of late. More and more we’re hearing clients say something like, “Our teams need to tell better stories,” or “If only our teams’ storytelling skills were better.” In addition, I’ve also seen learning programs popping up that claim to teach learners how to become top-notch story tellers.

With all this talk about storytelling, it prompted me to think critically about it. Why all the fuss about storytelling? What need is driving it? Is “storytelling” even the right solution? Do learners in the professional workforce really need storytelling skills…or is the real need something else altogether? 

If you’ve thought about storytelling or think your learners might need to build those skills, then read on.  The rest of this article may help you get to the core issue and save you time and resources when it comes to acquiring or developing a learning solution for “storytelling.”

Don’t call it storytelling

First, it’s helpful to define “story.” Oxford Languages dictionary defines a story as: an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment. The skills necessary to create great stories include defining story elements (like characters, settings, conflicts, and resolutions), applying language to express and explain those in an entertaining way, and (as most writers would attest) an immense amount of patience. So, when our clients and other colleagues in the life science industry say they need their teams to tell better stories, is this what they really need? I respectfully disagree.

In most cases I will argue that what clients are really saying is that they want their learners to be able to communicate information to an audience in a way that gets that audience to do something. Professionals are not telling stories for entertainment. They’re telling stories to drive action: action in the sense of physical movement or, as is more often the case in the knowledge economy and life-sciences industry, action in the sense of thinking movement, like changing opinions or conclusions. 

Account Executives communicate information to move a payer’s thinking that a therapy does not have value to the conclusion that it does – and then putting it on formulary. Marketing leaders communicate information to move a corporate leader’s thinking that a certain program isn’t essential to the department’s success to it being essential – and then securing the appropriate budget.  In either case, the information is communicated to generate movement.

If it isn’t storytelling, then what is it?

The solution is NOT to train learners to create interesting characters in unique settings where they resolve conflicts all tied up with a good nail-biting ending. The solution is to improve learners’ abilities to craft an argument: not an argument involving fisticuffs, but “a reason or set of reasons that someone uses to show that something is true or correct,” as defined by Oxford Languages. That something is the desired future state either as a thinking state (“This drug actually does have tremendous value”) or physical state (the drug is placed on formulary).

Being able to craft and deliver an argument requires two foundational capabilities: Critical Thinking and Effective Communication. It also requires Emotional Intelligence and a few others, but we’ll stick with these two first.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is defined as the effortful and continuous analysis of the validity of a conclusion. Think of a five-year-old asking, “Why is the sky blue?” “Why does milk come from cows?” “Why don’t I have a baby brother?”

Before communicating anything to an audience, one needs to ask “Why?” and think it through to identify the reasons an audience should move physically or thinkingly.

First, one would ask questions and gather information:

  1. Who is the audience?
  2. What is the desired future state (what is the “ask”)?
  3. What are their needs and motivations and perspectives?
  4. What are the grounds, causes, rationales or reasons that justify the desired future state? What data, information or evidence supports those statements?
  5. Filter the total population of statements in #4 to identify those that are compelling based on #3.

The output of this thinking process is then crafted into a logical sequence of statements to make the case for the ask. Logical and reasonable sequencing take critical thinking to then continually question the rigor of the step-by-step argument assembled. “Would I move based on this?” “Would this move someone to action? To change their mind?” If no, then back to #4 above.

It’s not storytelling, its thinking.


When it comes time to deliver an argument to an audience—whether it’s via a presentation, video, paper, or some combination of things—it’s important to do so in a way that gets results. First and foremost, that means not arguing! If you find yourself arguing while delivering an argument, go back and think critically. Then ensure that you have:

  1. Accounted for power differentials and cultural differences – meaning, include the “ask” in an appropriate way.
  2. Ensured verbal and non-verbal signals are aligned – meaning, if it’s a serious decision, dress appropriately.
  3. Minimized cognitive overload – meaning, give time to process and don’t read from slides.

When these attributes describe how you deliver an argument, it becomes persuasive…and persuasion yields action. 

What now?

As an L&D professional, if your internal customers say they want to develop storytelling skills—or if you are thinking about acquiring a storytelling curriculum—the first thing you should do is think critically. Why do they need to tell better stories? What outcome do stakeholders want? What’s making it difficult for learners to do that now? Once you’ve identified the core need, you’ll be in a much better position to select the right learning solution.

The second thing you should do is find that solution. Chances are, you won’t really need a curriculum that focuses on character development, settings, and conflict.  It might be better to look for a solution that empowers learners to assess their thinking process, question conclusions and gather evidence (one that helps them argue better, not tell better stories).

As an aside, this entire article was an argument, and not a dragon or damsel in earshot or a single fist thrown. That said, it did take a lot of patience.

Podcast • January 4, 2022

Your Brain On…Podcast Ep. 33: Why we built the Critical Thinking Academy, Part 2

An abstract cover for the podcast episode.

Karen Foster and Amy Parent continue their discussion about Critical Thinking Academy, the first in a series of academies designed to build essential capabilities for professionals in life science organizations. This is part two of a two-part series.

Access the episode here.

Podcast • December 14, 2021

Your Brain On…Podcast Ep. 32: Why we built the Critical Thinking Academy

An abstract cover for the podcast episode.

Karen is joined by Salience Learning’s own Amy Parent to discuss the launch of Critical Thinking Academy, the first in a series of academies designed to build essential capabilities for professionals in life science organizations. This is part one of a two-part series.

Access the episode here.

Article • March 9, 2021

Invest an Hour to Boost Your Critical Thinking Skills

A woman pointing to her head.

By Karen Foster and Krista Gerhard

These days, you probably hear a lot about critical thinking and how the world needs more of it. It’s true.  Critical thinking skills are in great demand, but they are, on average, not really where they need to be. So, on March 17, we’ll be conducting a virtual session with the Philadelphia chapter of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA): Using critical thinking to improve strategies and drive performance. We hope you’ll invest an hour and join us for the session. Our goals are to help you boost your own critical thinking skills and to provide some guidance on how to boost the skills of others.

Why are Critical Thinking Skills Important?

Critical thinking skills are growing increasingly important across a wide range of industries. However, the demand for them is especially great in biopharmaceuticals and healthcare. This is because of our industry’s high level of complexity, rapid advancement and the sheer amount of data that gets generated.

Overall, there are three primary reasons that strong critical thinking skills are needed now more than ever:

  1. Cognitive overload
  2. High-volume, high-speed decision-making
  3. Human cognitive biases

Cognitive overload is a very real issue for both field- and office-based personnel in life science companies. The working environment involves sophisticated customer groups, substantial and ever-changing regulations, rapid market development, complex science and complicated business models. There is a lot of information to process on any given day. It can be a challenge to keep up with all of it and separate the useful stuff from the noise. Critical thinking is like a lifeboat that keeps us from drowning in a sea of information.

In our industry, we don’t just process information for the sake of processing information. We’re expected to do something with it. Life science professionals have to make a lot of decisions, often under serious time constraints. We need strong critical thinking skills to derive insights from information and make good decisions. 

Human cognitive biases also come into play. These biases, such as confirmation bias, overconfidence bias and “the curse of knowledge” can help us in some ways, acting as shortcuts to help us more quickly process information and make decisions. However, they can also hurt us, and we need to be aware of them. In times of cognitive overload, we tend to more easily fall prey to them, which can negatively affect decision-making. Critical thinking is the antidote to cognitive biases.

When it comes to developing critical thinking skills, it’s important to do so within the domain. In our industry, with all of its complexities, it’s much better to build critical thinking skills by leveraging real-world information from the domain, rather than simply learning critical thinking theory in a general sense.

What the Session Will Cover

As we mentioned above, the goals of our upcoming session are to help you boost your own critical thinking skills—within the healthcare domain—and to help you become a more effective “critical thinking coach” for others.  The session will cover these key things:

  1. What is Critical Thinking? —We’ll define “critical thinking” so everyone will have a common understanding of what that term really means.
  2. Why Critical Thinking Is Important—We’ll expand on what we’ve written here.
  3. Critical Thinking Behaviors—There are clear behaviors and processes that people use when they engage in critical thinking. We’ll outline what those are and even dive into the “language” of critical thinking.
  4. Strengthening Critical Thinking—Finally, we will share some exercises, tips and techniques that you can use to develop and strengthen critical thinking skills.

Be sure to join us online on Wednesday, March 17 at 12:00 noon EST. You can register here.

We hope to (virtually) see you then! 

Podcast • March 9, 2021

Your Brain On…Podcast Ep. 19: Critical Thinking & Strategic Thinking

An abstract cover for the podcast episode.

In this episode, Karen and Krista define critical thinking and discuss why critical thinking skills are becoming more important in the healthcare and biopharmaceutical industries. They also discuss how critical thinking and strategic thinking are different, using real-world examples.

Article • January 8, 2021

Playing Catch-Up: Boosting Medical Affairs Training to Match Evolving Job Requirements

By Jodi Tainton, RN, and Kimberly Blanchard Portland, Ph.D.

A clock with hands.

It’s no secret that the life sciences industry is getting more complex each day: Customer and stakeholder groups are becoming increasingly sophisticated, evidence requirements are getting more stringent and the need to engage more effectively with key stakeholder groups is paramount.

This growing complexity is driving an important phenomenon: The rise of Medical Affairs as a highly strategic pillar for biopharma companies, alongside Clinical Development and Commercial & Market Access.  McKinsey & Co., in their recent report, A vision for Medical Affairs in 2025, documents this trend that many of us have seen with our own eyes over the past few years.

There is a challenge, however: As Medical Affairs gains in prominence and strategic importance, the capabilities that medical affairs professionals must possess are compounded.  It used to be that strong scientific acumen was the key qualification.  However, as needs in medical affairs have changed, so have the job requirements.  Now, medical affairs professionals need to be highly strategic, think critically, have excellent communications skills and possess strong business acumen to be successful in this evolving environment.

Excellent training is needed to ensure these professionals are prepared for the tasks at hand.  Medical affairs teams are aware of this need, but they’re confronted with a challenge:  The traditional approaches to medical affairs training — and the resources available for it — have not advanced as rapidly as the job requirements.  Here we explore the challenge and what can be done to help.

Read the full article here.

Article • December 16, 2020

Should L&D Teach Learners How to Learn?

By Karen Foster and Debbie Deale

A question mark.

There are a lot of top 10 lists out there.  Some are just for fun and some are useful.

Consider the list created by the World Economic Forum in its 2022 Skills Outlook.  That list identifies the top 10 capabilities employers are looking for in their team members and includes skills like critical thinking, complex problem-solving, technology design and programming, emotional intelligence, systems analysis and evaluation and others.  Unfortunately, most working professionals have never learned these skills.

To be successful in today’s work environment, professionals must be able to learn and continue learning as things evolve.  This is especially true in the complex biopharma industry.

But there’s a challenge: Learning is a skill all by itself.  And for many of us, it’s not a skill that is very well developed.  This has implications for learning and development (L&D) teams tasked with helping develop team members and begs the question, “Does L&D have an opportunity to boost outcomes for all by actually training learners how to learn?”

We think the answer is yes.  Let’s explore why and how.

Read the full article from LTEN here.

Insight • November 6, 2019

Three Types of Thinking and Why They’re All Important

By Krista Gerhard

Some dolls playing chess.

How often do you think about thinking?  For most of us, the answer would probably be, “not very.”  As we manage our lives and do our jobs, we tend to employ different approaches to thinking without really being aware of it.  For the most part, that works. 

However, the times keep on changing and it’s becoming increasingly important for us to be more conscious of how we think, and to develop our thinking skills.  This is especially important if you work in a Learning & Development (L&D) role because you’re also responsible for developing those skills in others and helping them succeed in this changing world. 

In this article, we will define three very important types of thinking:  Critical, Strategic, and Entrepreneurial.  In subsequent articles, we will go into more detail about how L&D can use—and teach—all three forms of thinking.

Multiple types of thinking skills are becoming more important

In its Future of Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum shares its 2022 Skills Outlook.  This is a listing of the top skills that employers will demand in the global economy of 2022.  Let’s take a look at the top 10 growing skills:

  1. Analytical thinking and innovation
  2. Active learning and learning strategies
  3. Creativity, originality and initiative
  4. Technology design and programming
  5. Critical thinking and analysis
  6. Complex problem-solving
  7. Leadership and social influence
  8. Emotional intelligence
  9. Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation
  10. Systems analysis and evaluation

It’s interesting that at least 7 of the top 10 hinge on one or more forms of thinking mentioned above.  For many roles, individuals will need to be proficient critical, strategic, and entrepreneurial thinkers.

Critical, strategic, and entrepreneurial thinking:  What’s the difference?

Critical Thinking

We’ve written before about critical thinking, including the link between critical thinking and confidence.  However, we didn’t offer a definition.  Well, here it goes: 

Critical thinking is an effortful and continuous analysis and revision of one’s thinking processes and output for reasoning and logic and to eliminate bias in order to increase the probability of a desirable outcome.1

Wow!  That’s a mouthful.  It basically means that critical thinkers actively think about how they think! They gather, synthesize, and evaluate information in order to make decisions; however, they do so in a way that uses logic and reason.  Plus, they consciously work to avoid falling prey to various cognitive biases that can cloud their judgement.  At its heart, critical thinking is analytical and logical.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking is a mental process that is applied when one is trying to achieve some goal or set of goals.  Whereas critical thinking is all about analysis, logic and reason, strategic thinking is about planning.  It involves being able to understand cause and effect and seeing several steps ahead in order to achieve some desired outcome. 

Strategic thinking does not exist in a vacuum.  Strategic thinkers typically must employ solid critical thinking skills to analyze and understand their current situations, then layer in strategic thinking to forge a path forward.  When thinking strategically, a person should also use critical thinking to discern the likely outcomes of one planned action versus another.

Entrepreneurial Thinking

Entrepreneurial thinking can also be called creative thinking.  It involves seeing things differently than most other people.  Entrepreneurial thinkers are able to identify opportunities that others may miss.  They’re also able to see problems and develop solutions that others might consider “outside the box.” 

Entrepreneurial thinking also doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  An entrepreneurial thinker must think critically about the ideas that he or she generates.  Otherwise, they run the risk of developing “flashy” ideas that are unworkable in the real world.  They must also think strategically when working to bring the best entrepreneurial ideas to reality.

Here’s another important point:  critical, strategic, and entrepreneurial thinking skills can be taught.  Sure, most people will have differing natural aptitudes for various types of thinking. For example, Person A might naturally be more “entrepreneurial” in their thinking whereas Person B might be more inclined to think critically.  However, people can learn to use all three types of thinking.

Coming next…

In upcoming articles, we’ll explore two different aspects of all this that will be relevant to L&D professionals.  First, we’ll take a look at how L&D can use critical, strategic, and entrepreneurial thinking to improve the way L&D engages with its stakeholders and increase its effectiveness.  Second, we’ll dive into how L&D can help improve its learners’ critical, strategic, and entrepreneurial thinking skills.


  1. Halpern, D. F. (2014). Thought and knowledge: an introduction to critical thinking. New York: Psychology Press. Note: This definition is a compilation of various definitions from pages 8 and 9 in the source listed including one obtained via consensus from among 500 policy makers, employers and educators.

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