Learning through Storytelling – Your Most Powerful Teaching Tool

January 10, 2017 in
By Stacy Cook

If a learner attends a workshop, and he doesn’t remember a single thing from it, was it worth the time? Anyone, learning professional or otherwise, would likely shout a resounding NO WAY! Learning new information and using it to do something on the job is the essence of workplace learning. So how do we make new information stick?

Enter Nelson Dellis. Early in his teens, Nelson’s grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. As a young man he had the painful experience of watching his grandmother’s declining health and, maybe more painfully, her declining mind. It was this experience that inspired Nelson to work on improving his memory. He has since won the US Memory Championships three times and holds the US national record for memorizing the most names in 15 minutes (201 names, to be exact). His secret? Turn everything into a story. Don’t just remember Bob, Jim, and Beth. Think about Bob running to the store to grab some Jell-O for Jim until he ran into Beth shopping for bananas (apparently the more the absurd the story, the better it is for memory).

Storytelling for learning is as old as man. In our earliest days, cave men drew stories to help teach new generations how to hunt and gather. In the Middle East, when a community couldn’t find an answer to a major problem, a Hakkawati (storyteller) would narrate stories suggesting solutions so that members of the community could derive their own answers. Native American cultures that did not have a written language used storytelling to pass down history, customs, rituals, and legends. Such traditions exist all over the world and suggest one thing: stories are essential to learning and development.

Managers, trainers, instructional designers, leaders—anyone responsible for helping others to learn—can benefit from harnessing the power of storytelling. So let’s take a closer look at what the world of neuroscience can tell us about the usefulness of storytelling. Then, we will look at a few ways you can weave stories into your efforts to help people learn.

The More You Remember… the More You Remember

The University of Waterloo’s Counseling Services pulled together a study to come up with the Curve of Forgetting. The experiment was pretty simple. First, they took students who knew nothing about a subject into a one hour lecture. Then, they tested the students to assess what they knew after the lecture was over.

And then they tested them again. And again. They tested them every day for 30 days. What did they find? After just 24 hours, students forgot 50-80% of what they learned. By day 30, students forgot a whopping 97-98% of what they learned. Essentially, when human beings hear something once, our brains quickly put it in the same pile as that random conversation we heard on the street. It just isn’t important, so our brains get rid of it.

They tried a different approach. After 24 hours, they had the students spend just 10 minutes reviewing the information. Then, every seven days they had them spend just five minutes doing the same thing. At the end of the 30 days, students only forgot about 10-15% of what they learned. When we repeat information, the brain flags it as more important and it will work harder to keep it.

Now, this might seem like a business case for ongoing performance support after training (and it is!), but there’s another lesson here. If learners (even those learning brand new information) can relate what they are hearing to something in their past experience, it is as though they have heard it before. The brain is already logging it as something important to retain even if it’s the first time you’ve heard the idea.

Feelings are Memorable

Storytelling also taps into the powerful emotional centers of our brain, which also help retention. The concept is known as ‘neural coupling’ and the brain chemical oxytocin is behind it. The more emotionally compelling a story is the more oxytocin we produce. This causes us to remember the story for a longer period due to its emotional content and our brains response to it.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said
people will forget what you did,
but people will never
forget how you made them feel.”
– Maya Angelou

It’s Science: Stories Capture Our Attention

Uri Hasson, a Neuroscientist at Princeton University did some interesting research on the impact of storytelling on groups of people. He hooked up five subjects to an fMRI, which shows patterns of brainwaves, and recorded their brain activity while exposed to different types of stimulation. First, he looked at the brain patterns of subjects who sat in a silent room. Then, he played a recording of random sentences spoken out of order. Next he examined the brain patterns of people listening to a good story (feel free to watch the TedTalk).

What did he find?

When the subjects sat in silence, each person had a different brain pattern. When they listened to scrambled sentences, the auditory parts of the brain started to look exactly the same from one subject to another but the rest of the brain was showing different patterns. Then, things really got interesting. As subjects listened to an engaging story, the brainwaves started to completely synchronize. The entire brain scan was nearly identical across all five of the subjects.

If that wasn’t interesting enough, they also scanned the brain of someone telling the story. What do you think happened? The storyteller’s brain and the listener’s brain had exactly the same pattern. Talk about being on the same page!

So, it’s not just that we find stories more interesting. We are biologically wired to synchronize and connect with others who are telling a story. We are less distracted and more focused, which is a great recipe for learning.

Incorporating Storytelling into Learning Interventions

 What does this mean for our learning interventions? The more time we spend on sharing content via stories, the more the learning will stick. The more learning that sticks, the greater likelihood that our learners will improve on the job. Bottom line: good training depends on good storytelling.

As storytelling is a basic human instinct, it usually comes naturally to find a story that can compel the audience. However, if you need a hand in constructing an educationally reverent story, there are a few tips that can help you.

The first thing to think of is the character you’d like to introduce, and what it is about them that will interest the learners in a relatable way. These characters should be realistic and of a similar demographic to your audience. You also need to think of a setting or event which helps drive the narrative, and that is also relatable and realistic. The narrative should develop into a climatic end, which should conclude the overall message you want to convey.

Of course, there’s no point in going through all this effort if you’re planning on dumping it onto a PowerPoint slide as a giant piece of text for learners to read. You need to deliver this story in a way that helps learners stay focused. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Trainers can start by identifying relevant stories to tell when delivering training. The best stories are those that are short (about 1-2 minutes) and highly relevant to the content. Mix up the types of stories that you tell. For example, when talking about difficult conversations, you might tell a personal story of a sticky situation where you had to have a tough conversation with a co-worker. Or, when talking about a new process, you might use a persona to walk through the process and show what it looks like from a unique perspective.

Instructional Designers can start by using unconventional modalities to share stories. For example, say your organization is rolling out a new performance management system and you are tasked with training the workforce. You could create a short, 1-3 minute explainer video that describes the process your organization used to design the system as a way to give learners better context for the change. Or, if you are creating mandatory training for managers on supervising union employees, you might create an infographic that statistically tells the story of the benefits to a positive relationship with the union.

Managers and Leaders can start by using stories to inspire the organization, to set a vision, to teach important lessons, to define culture and values, and to explain who you are and what you believe. About 15 years ago, I worked for a real estate development firm that focused on rehabilitating historic structures. One part of the company’s portfolio was the Mansion Hill Inn, a beautiful historic bed and breakfast in Madison, WI. One day I got a tour of the Inn from the President of the company himself. You see, the Inn was one of the first properties that he ever developed and it held a special place in his heart. As we walked through the 9,000 square foot home, he told me stories about Alexander McDonnell, the architect of the first Wisconsin Capitol building and the home’s original owner. He talked about preserving the finest details, like the Great Room’s stained glass windows, as a responsibility for future generations. He told me how important history was to him because the lessons of the past help enrich our future. In these stories, I learned a deep appreciation for taking time to understand the paths people have taken to get to where they are today.

His story taught me a valuable lesson that has enriched my understanding of the world. What stories do you have to tell?