Storytelling: from a primal instinct to an impactful learning tool

Blog / News | 14-04-21

Storytelling. The term has become increasingly popular in recent years and is being used more consciously for a multitude of purposes, but in reality, it is as old as mankind. The first communications we can find, such as cave paintings, folk tales, and plays, are all forms of storytelling. After all, in those times, this was the only way to convey messages and knowledge. The urge to tell stories is within the human being as a kind of primal instinct. Thousands of years have passed since then and now we record everything in books, digital formats, presentations, videos and even VR. To say the least, we’ve become a lot more sophisticated in storytelling, the means we do so, and the applications for it. Nevertheless, storytelling is still an important part of who we are. Now what about the use of storytelling in (corporate) learning?

Learning from stories

When we talk about storytelling in the learning scope, we’re talking about another way of conveying information instead of a dry enumeration of data and facts, phrases or protocols. And we still see too much of this dull way of transferring information. An alternative to presenting information in a boring format would be to tell a story or a case. In that story, for example, you introduce a fictional employee who encounters specific problems or dilemmas on the work floor, making certain choices (or letting the participant make the choices), followed by the accompanying consequences. This form of information transfer engages the employee to consider: What is the scenario? What is expected of me? What happens if I respond like this, or the other way? This form of learning enables employees to better identify these situations in real-life and then know how to act accordingly. Making mistakes is not a problem at all, it is all part of the learning process ultimately showing employees the right decision for the situation on the work floor. This form of education is also called ‘risk-free learning’.

More about the use of case stories in corporate learning can be found here.

Remaining realistic

Keep it as realistic as possible. Use stories and cases that can actually occur on the work floor and are close to experiences that employees have. It is, therefore, more logical to create a character a colleague can relate to. A purple gnome with a unicorn as a sidekick (for example) is less likely to appear in the workplace compared to an average Joe that could be your colleague with the same problems and obstacles. When you can create realistic scenarios, you benefit from the many advantages of storytelling. 

The many advantages of storytelling

Storytelling has countless advantages, especially if you want to convey a message to someone. It lends itself well to learning tools, both in education and in the workplace. If storytelling has so many advantages and is at the basis of human civilization, why don’t we see it used more often in learning tools? Frequently, we see static e-learning modules or dry enumerations of facts. That’s not wrong at all, but storytelling can be more effective, not to mention more fun. There is plenty of evidence that storytelling has a stronger learning effect. And this is why:

  • Empathy. Emotion is stimulated when people care more about a story and the character involved. They start to relate to it and empathize with it. If the character makes a wrong choice, it evokes an annoyed emotion in the learner. If they make a good choice, this is reflected in the emotions of the learner as well. Stories bring the ‘audience’ together with emotion.
  • Involvement. If you want to create more involvement between people and ideas, storytelling is the way to go. Because of the strong emotional connection people feel, they become more involved with the stories, the subject, and the characters. Think, for example, of a strong plot twist to captivate people and hook the reader.
  • Meaning. Stories give more meaning to data and facts. When people are involved in a story connecting to the plot and main characters, the reader absorbs the knowledge conveyed and creates meaning from the facts presented.
  • Visible consequences. People easily see the usefulness of a certain learning objective, due to the clarity it has in the story. For example, if in a story, a problem is prevented or solved you can immediately see the usefulness of having the right information at your disposal, what choices you can make with it, and what the consequences are. Being put face to face with the facts enables this awareness.
  • Motivation. All the work that goes into analyzing a story creates more motivation than a simple learning module. In general, more time is given to a story, heightening the learners investment in the knowledge piece. The above points also make it easier to realize behavioral change. Bonus: stories are shared and related to more easily.
  • Memory. Storytelling stimulates memory. Stories activate various areas in the brain, such as language, imagination, and cognitive empathy. These areas of the brain are directly related to memory. People remember stories better than dry facts and data, so take advantage of it!
  • Structure. By following a storyline, you bring a common thread into your learning module. It offers structure, like a beginning, middle and end. Good for you, the assessor, and for the learner as well.

We can continue with this rhetoric for a while. But all these points are related and the point is clear: storytelling is what you have to do!

How to do it?

If you read this, you might think it is a lot of work to apply storytelling in your learning modules. Good news: it’s not so bad. You can make it as crazy as you like, but you can still use some simple elements to apply storytelling in your courses. Think of creating a character, a situation, a (learning) goal, a problem (or plot twist) and a solution. As long as you keep it realistic you already will have a solid base! Start small: invent a character, give it a name and repeat the use of the character with new problems that arise in the story.

Tell it with storytelling

If an employee interacts with productive dilemmas, scenarios, or stories about certain situations and stores them in their memory, the brain will recognize the situation when it occurs in practice. The participant can then be more likely to act in the way according to the learning story. Storytelling thus contributes directly to improving skills on the work floor. With all these benefits, what are you waiting for? Good luck with your next story!