Storytelling and Learning

We are curious people, primed for stories – it’s in our DNA. A good story grabs us at the very beginning and holds us. They begin with a punch, create a sense that things are not as they seem, and that consequences are imminent. We crave anticipation; it keeps us invested. The reason? Dopamine. Our pleasure/reward system is activated. It is exhilarating. And, it creates an investment in what happens next.

storytelling and brain, storytelling and learningSo, we know we love stories and that there’s some brain science behind it. Additionally, stories are more easily remembered than other forms of information. It makes sense that there is growing interest (and research) in how best to apply story-telling techniques in a learning context.


How to Apply Storytelling Techniques in Learning

1. Begin with Gusto and Get to the Point

“There has to be a ball already in play. Not the preamble to the ball. Not all the stuff you have to know to really understand the ball. The ball itself. This is not to say the first ball must be the main ball. It can be the initial ball or even a starter ball. But, on that first page, it has to feel like the only ball and it has to have our complete attention.”


– Lisa Cron, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence

It doesn’t take us long to quickly assess whether we want to invest our time in something. When flipping channels, TV remote in hand, we may only pause a moment. A split second decision is made about whether we’re in or we’re moving on. If your courses is mandatory, your Learners likely have no choice in whether they ‘tune in’ to ‘the program’. But, they will apply the same discriminatory technique – scanning for what is relevant, important, and engaging. To grab their immediate attention, cut the clutter. Keep the content minimal and specific to only what is necessary. Then, present it with interest.

2. Give it Some Consequence

“Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.”


– Steven Pinker, Cognitive Scientist and Harvard Professor

Stories…, well they make great stories. They are wonderful opportunities to experience what could happen if we did the opposite of what we should do. We accompany the protagonist facing his or her challenges as if they are our own, sharing in the experience, and learning from the consequences. Through story, we make sense of our world.

As Writer Lisa Cron explains: “Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them.”

3. Surprise Them

“Nothing focuses the mind like surprise. We crave that feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. We crave that notion that we’ve come in at a crucial juncture in someone’s life, and not a moment too soon. What intoxicates us in the hint that not only is trouble brewing, but it’s longstanding and about to reach critical mass.”


– Jonah Lehrer, Neuroscience Writer

We like to push buttons – not literally, but we find that people enjoy and respond to training when we elicit an emotional reaction. Especially in eLearning, it’s important to ‘humanize’ the experience. Unexpected humour, showing multiple perspectives on the same issue, presenting a situation from an opposing view – there are many ways to break the monotony and shake things up; chances are your Learners will appreciate it.


Here’s an example:


Adventures in Money-Laundering
Here is an example of each technique used in Anti-Money Laundering training. The story: 1. draws the Learner in from the start 2. is about consequences 3. presents a different point of view, with humour. Bonus: it is a two-part story, each is no longer than 7 minutes. That's some pretty impressive action-packed story-based learning, in less than 15 minutes.

Bonus Tip: Once you’ve got the Learner’s attention – don’t lose them with excess. But, don’t give it all away either… at least not all at once. Provide enough interest to compel them to continue through to the end.

Bite-sized LearningBe a Netflix (or equivalent). Similar to episodes (or chapters in a book) give Learners the autonomy to decide just how much they will consume in one sitting.

Create bite-size learning. Those who want to binge, will do so. Others may prefer to return again and as a result find it more palatable.