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Harnessing the Power of Storytelling for Effective Learning

Think about the last great television show you watched. Was it a mystery, romance, fantasy, or sci-fi? What made it so engrossing? Did you care about the characters? Were you eager to see what happened next? This is the power of storytelling, and you can harness it for learning, too.

Stories are not only entertaining. They also help us form connections and make sense of what we learn. Effective storytelling captures our attention and inspires us to act. Storytelling:

  • Taps into our emotions: When we relate to the characters or events in a story, we are more likely to remember and act on what we learned. As Karen Eber explained in her 2020 TED Talk, « Emotions change behavior, not data. » 
  • Boosts learning transfer: Some training is overly focused on what people need to know, but stories show how characters use knowledge and skills in “real life.” This strengthens understanding and illustrates a pathway to improving performance.
  • Fosters empathy: Stories allow us to experience the world from other perspectives. This understanding can lead us to listen and build more supportive relationships with others, which in turn makes us better team members. Considering multiple viewpoints can also make us better problem solvers.

Plot and Characters

Just like any other story, a learning story can be plot-driven or character-driven. The plot often reflects the performance objectives or tasks the learner needs to achieve. But characters are important, too. Fiction writer Stephen King and neuroscientist Paul Zak both emphasize that memorable stories are focused on characters we care about.

In addition to thinking about the goals of the story and the steps that it will take, take the time to think through who your characters will be—even if you make the learner the “hero” through scenario-based learning.

Here is an example of scenario-based learning, which was built with The Training Arcade® Scenarios game builder. 

Elements of a Captivating Story

As with most learning experiences, it is best to start with an outline. Here are some key elements to consider:

  • Set the Stage: Introduce the context, the characters involved, and the central conflict. This provides a framework for the story and helps learners understand the situation.
  • Build a Relatable Context: A story that draws on relatable experiences and surroundings will foster a sense of familiarity and connection. If you are not sure where to start, observe people on the job or talk to subject matter experts. Their anecdotes often inspire a complete story.
  • Weave in Conflict: When characters encounter challenges, they capture our attention. These points of conflict naturally introduce opportunities for learning and feedback. So, identify key moments where characters face dilemmas or roadblocks. Bring the learner into the story by having them make decisions in the face of those challenges. 
  • Build Emotional Engagement: A captivating story doesn’t just inform; it evokes emotions. Think about how you can build and release tension throughout the narrative, communicate desired values and behaviors through characters’ actions, or use unexpected events to take the story in a different direction. This emotional engagement keeps learners hooked and invested in the story’s outcome.
  • Address Common Mistakes: We’ve all encountered situations where we’re unsure how to act but hesitant to ask for help. Storytelling can showcase how characters navigate new situations and common misconceptions. Subject matter experts are particularly invaluable for providing insights into common, relatable missteps that the hero of your story can learn to overcome.

The Lasting Impact of Storytelling

Well-crafted stories leave a lasting impression, prompting us to reflect on our own experiences and perspectives. They offer new insights and inspire us to apply the knowledge gained in meaningful ways. With relatable narratives and engaging characters, you can shift your focus from basic knowledge to real performance goals and create captivating experiences that stay with your learners long after the lesson is over.

To see a variety of storytelling examples, explore ELB Learning’s case studies.

Or, book a demo with us to see the storytelling projects that we’ve delivered. We’d be happy to help you harness the power of storytelling to create more powerful learning experiences.

 

References:

  • Eber, K. (2021, January 14). How your brain responds to stories — and why they’re crucial for leaders.
  • Human beings are wired for story: Here’s why. (2023, October 26). Forbes. 
  • King, S. (2013). On writing: A memoir of the craft. Shogakukan/Tsai Fong Books.
  • The power of stories. (2019). Harvard.edu. 
  • Zak, P. J. (2015). Why inspiring stories make us react: The neuroscience of narrative. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2015.