Five tips for effective storytelling in learning

By Steve George January 04, 2016

pair of feet on grass lettered 'What's your story?'‘You wouldn’t believe what Gina did at the weekend. Seriously! You would not! Totally OMG!’ — That’s what the woman on my train is telling her friend, anyway.

And it got me thinking … Not so much about what Gina did or didn’t do at the weekend – but about stories.

So let me tell you a story …

A few years ago I interviewed a candidate for a Learning Design position. As part of the interview she explained that the reason she had ended up working in learning was because she liked telling stories. Throughout her working life this was the common thread through all her positions, through all her roles – roles which, on the face of it, may have seemed unconnected, but which nonetheless had this common thread of storytelling running through them.

Why do I remember this interview so vividly? Because the candidate told me a story about herself (of course), and stories work for learning and recall … in fact I’d even argue that the best learning is often based on a story. There are many reasons why storytelling is important in learning, not the least of which being that our brains are actually wired to respond to stories differently from how they respond to straight information dumps.

The primacy of storytelling in learning

The childhood thirst for stories is educational for us, and there is an instinctiveness to the way children seek stories out. It has even been proposed that the story instinct is as powerful an innate characteristic as the language instinct, and that this is apparent in play and much more. A not uncommon conversation with my young daughter might go like this:

‘Daddy, why is that lady carrying a big bag?’

‘Maybe she is coming back from the shops? What do you think?’

‘I think she has all her favourite things and is going to see some friends to show them. They’ll probably eat cake.’

Why do children do this? They are creating a narrative because narrative creates meaning, and meaning creates understanding of events they may be encountering for the first time. And as adults we do exactly the same. Our jumping to conclusions, our stereotyping, our sweeping assumptions are all based on stories we tell ourselves to create understanding. We have a broader foundation of experience and context with which to guide our narratives, but the principles are common.

Human memory doesn’t really even begin until we are able to string events together in this way and make connections, and the more we reinforce those connections between events in the real world, (and between fictional and real events), the stronger those connections become. That’s an important point for learning: it’s why in learning design we look to create hooks that tie the learning experience to the real world, even if we necessarily use examples that are more abstract. It is these stories, and the connections they forge, that ultimately make recall possible.

So what story can you tell in your learning which will hook a learner? And equally, what story do you want learners to tell each other when they’ve completed your learning? If this is something you’re interested in exploring, the internet is full of articles and posts on how to structure a narrative to maintain interest – but just to get you started, here are my personal top tips.

Five tips for effective storytelling in learning

  1. Keep it real. Keep it real. The temptation can be to go for a big shock or cataclysmic event to try and hook your audience. But often that’s disengaging – base your events in recognisable reality for a bigger impact.
  2. Create a character (or more than one). Give them a personality – maybe base them on a colleague. Give them a backstory too. Write a profile for them that will probably never make it into the learning but will make your writing of them more real.
  3. Don’t lose the plot. What is your captivating opening? What is your big close? What is the struggle in the middle needing resolution (through application of the learning)? What surprises can you throw in? Understanding your audience is key here too – what insights do you have into them that can feed in?
  4. Remember this is learning – the learning outcome has to be considered. The style and tone also need to reflect your audience and your customer.
  5. Role-play the dialogue. It’s the hardest thing to get believable.

As I type this I’m still on that train to a customer meeting. There are people all around me telling stories to each other – stories about holidays, work conversations, the football at the weekend … it’s how we communicate the things we want people to remember and pass on. Why should the way learning is designed be any different?

(P.S. I could tell you about what Gina did at the weekend, but sometimes a cliff-hanger where you plug the gaps yourself is better …)

Comments 3

  1. A great piece that is just as relevant to creating compelling content for any reason. The Western Front Association would say that it is an ‘educational’ organisation. We are dealing in history, rather than fiction, but there is still every reason to tell stories.

    Most tellingly, when content is shared to our Facebook Page it is always the best story that is read by thousands.

    This also came home to me sailing across the Atlantic last month. No Internet! So how did we fill the time stuck on a boat together for days on end? We were either reading stories, or telling them. And of course, the best stories stick. One of the crew recalled how he was hit on the head and thrown into the Atlantic: our worst fear. That story has stuck word for word, and I only heard it once.

  2. Great article. I am a fan of story telling. In my line of work as a coach and educator, having a story brings your subjrct to life. I tend to use personal stories linked with the subject matter, and so I am engaged but also quick to reiterate the session isn’t about me.An insightful article thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *