Why does storytelling help us learn?

In the fourth of our series of blogs from our in-house Learning Experience team, David Sharkey explains why storytelling is such a powerful learning tool.

Written by David Sharkey
Published 22 September 2022
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Why does storytelling help us learn?
People love stories. For as long as there has been language, people have told stories. Advances in technology have meant the way we tell stories has evolved, but the reasons we enjoy them has remained largely unchanged.

Good stories can elicit a range of emotions: joy, anger, upset, empathy, and nostalgia. They help us make sense of the world. And that makes them ideal for learning.

Here are four reasons why storytelling is such a useful learning tool:
  1. Stories follow a logical progression. Stories are usually told in chronological order and incorporate cause and effect. Learners can use this logical flow to recall key details from the story.
  2. Stories are fun. Not every learning experience is going to be a laugh a minute! But, at the same time, you don’t want learners to describe your course as “boring.” A bored learner has switched off, and they’re unlikely to change their behavior, learn new skills, or remember new knowledge. A story can inject some fun into a learning experience, and keep the learner engaged.
  3. Learners want to know what happens next. A good story will keep us hooked, because we’re eager to find out what happens next, and how the story will end.
  4. Stories are “sticky.” Throwing paragraph after paragraph of text at a learner is a sure-fire way to overwhelm them and make them lose interest. Your key messages are more likely to stick if the learner is engaged.
Now we know why stories work, how can we use them to make better learning experiences?
 

Want to learn more about storytelling? Listen to our podcast!

In a recent episode, Ross Garner, Ross Dickie and David from the Mind Tools L&D Podcast crew discuss the benefits of storytelling for learning. 

Don't have time to listen to the podcast right now? Continue reading our article below.

Simulations

People tend to learn best from real-life experiences. But real-life experiences have real-life consequences.
E-learning simulations provide a safe environment for learners to tackle real-life situations without the fear of failure.

Imagine you’re building a course that helps customer service employees navigate difficult conversations. One option is to provide a simple list of “dos and don’ts” for speaking to customers.

Learners may well remember some of the tips. But without setting the tips in context, people may struggle to apply them to their work.

A more effective approach would be to incorporate the tips into a story. For example, an irate customer phones up, and the learner is invited to choose the best way to continue the call. There’d be plenty of learning going on, but the “what will happen next?” nature of the story would keep the learner engaged.

You could even incorporate audio or video, to provide a more immersive experience.


An overarching narrative

A technique I often use when designing a learning experience is to have a narrative that runs throughout the whole course.

The first section (often an animation) introduces the learner to a fictional character who works in a job like theirs. The character will make a mistake, often by not following the proper procedures. Throughout the rest of the course, the learner will explore why the mistake happened, and make decisions that affect what happens next.

This approach, where the learner makes decisions, puts them in a position of authority and makes them feel capable.

One of the primary reasons people enjoy video games is the feeling of competence they get when they successfully overcome challenges.
As learning designers, we can tap into this desire to feel capable by providing a series of challenges that increase in difficulty as more knowledge is gained.


Storytelling pitfalls

We’ve explored some of the ways storytelling can enhance a learning experience. But there are also a few pitfalls you should be aware of:

  • Don’t overcomplicate things. Authors will use hundreds of pages of a book to set up complex storylines and develop interesting characters. As learning designers, we don’t have this luxury. Get to the point of the story quickly, or you risk confusing the learner and diluting your central message.
  • Keep the metaphors to a minimum. Remember, you’re not writing “War and Peace”! You’re building a learning experience. It’s possible that not all your learners will be native English speakers, so try to write in plain English, and stay focused on the message.

If you find yourself building a learning experience that feels a little on the dull side, look for opportunities to incorporate storytelling. Fun to write and fun to read, a well-crafted story will make your learning experience more memorable, and increase the chances of your learners retaining key messages.

 

About the author

David Sharkey

David Sharkey

Learning Experience Designer
David is a learning designer with a background in web design and technology.

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