The Campfire

Why Storytelling is Such an Effective Learning Tool

You might assume that storytelling as a learning tool mainly applies to children. While it’s true that younger learners are more open about their excitement for story time, we never lose our love for narratives.

Connecting through stories is an entirely human disposition, one which drives how we think and act. While the comparison is often made, our minds are nothing like modern computers. We are exceptionally emotional creatures, which is how and why storytelling works.

Those that discover the power of storytelling are able to align their messages with honest feelings, finding that people are more attentive, and responsive, to what is being said. Here are the reasons why stories make a bigger impact than any table or chart could ever hope to:

1. We’re Designed for Stories

There is no debate that storytelling is an innate human ability. At the beginning of our evolutionary journey, telling tales was not merely a way to pass the time, but an essential survival tool. Through rudimentary movements, primitive grunts and cave drawings, we were able to impart insight, traditions, warnings and advice that allowed for the thriving of our species.

As current theory on the Pedagogical Power of Storytelling dictates, “stories have provided the vehicles for cultural transmission of knowledge throughout human history.” Consequently, “story-telling may be considered foundational to the teaching profession.”

A rich history of storytelling might explain our fondness for immersive tales, yet it’s as much to do with our fundamental psychology. We are literally wired for stories, using the same areas of the brain to process real and imaged experiences. When lessons are told through story, the material is heard and felt.
Our language and communication channels have changed significantly from the primordial growls of our ancestors. Regardless, the appreciation for storytelling remains the same. As the most basic and potent learning elements, storytelling is how we understand, shape and change our world.

2. Storytelling is Universal

While canons may vary between cultures, the worldwide prevalence of stories, myths and legends tells us that every culture uses plot to share and teach abstract ideas.

“The various forms of folklore,” as it’s long been suggested, is a “vital resource for a teacher… [as] a way of seeing a culture from the inside out instead of from the outside in.”

Leaders that understand the significance of stories as cultural markers give their own narrative more weight by exploring the common values that unite us are what we search for in the tales we’re told.
Likewise, businesses can use familiar storylines to share their company messages in a manner that seems instantly genuine to an audience. Larger brands create their stories in such a way as to maximize reach, simply by embodying unanimous cultural tenets.

Whichever kind of person I’m dealing with, I watch them find their own way of engaging with the narrative. Storytelling permits us to be together in the imagined world, where everyone’s interpretation is simultaneously unique and universal.

3. Narratives Connect People

The connection between storyteller and receiver is intense; the science tells us that as the plot unfolds, their brainwaves actually start to synchronize. Moreover, this neural harmony between speaker and listener becomes even stronger when the story is fully understood.

Part of the reason for this phenomenon is that your brain is constantly making predictions. You must empathise with the storyteller in order to gauge their perspective and motivations. In doing so, you are better equipped to come up with decent guesses.

The intrigue of anticipating the story keeps people engaged. As a learning tool, you are able to share vast amounts of information by presenting it in a novel, unexpected way. It’s actually quite jarring when a gorilla steals your lemons on a rainy Tuesday… sorry, when stories take unexpected turns.

“The student engaged in constructing his or her own personal narrative,” reads our earlier study, “may be more likely to learn the intended concept.” Experienced storytellers build familiarity and repeatedly challenge your predictions, meaning you’re encouraged to continue connecting and synchronizing.
At the same time, stories are reinforced every time they’re retold. Repackaging and redistributing keeps a story dynamic, whereby repeating what you’ve heard is a way to evolve the narrative and connection to more people.

4. We Get High on Stories

Decent stories need an inciting incident, colloquially known as the hook. Once we’re interested in a plot, we invest heavily. There is nothing quite like the human reaction to suspense, our desperation for resolution. Mystery invites a listener to decipher your story, to race towards the solution.

Resultantly, we find rhetoric pauses captivating and cliff-hangers plain offensive. I’ve been doing training for 20 years, yet people still approach me about stories I told them over a decade ago. One story with such a cliff-hanger in particular is a vital part of my TEDx presentation “The Magical Science of Storytelling,” which I use to illustrate the pain of a sudden loss of dopamine. As all storytelling is, by definition, dopamine-creating, it drives people crazy!

Stories don’t just influence our thinking, they drive chemical messages in the brain, what I call the ‘Angel’s Cocktail.’ An emotional climax creates a tingling sensations, measured in your blood as oxytocin. All storytelling is, by definition, dopamine-creating, characterised by the arousal you feel when you’re genuinely interested in what someone’s saying.

The stories of an individual, leader or company get us high in ways that simple bullet points and numbers can’t. Storytelling is the most influential learning tool available to us, largely because of our involuntary reactions to a well-told inspirational anecdote. Through manipulating narrative, my audiences are able to connect with me, feel human and learn effectively.

5. Stories are Memorable

As powerful a processor of information our brains are, they struggle to remember much when not encoded efficiently. As I mention in Death by PowerPoint, a disengaged audience will forget as much as 90% of what they hear after just 30 seconds. This doesn’t just apply to visual elements of a presentation, but also the way in which you use narrative.

Encoding facts and figures is part of explicit (or declarative) memory. It’s hard work. When you barrage an audience with dry data, they have a quick decision to make: should I invest my energy to absorb this information? As soon as there’s doubt, you’ve lost them. Thankfully, when that same information is integrated into a flowing story, people don’t have the same difficulty focusing.

In a technique known as ‘linking,’ or ‘link and story,’ target information is embedded in story as visual images. The more strange, ludicrous, or downright nonsensical you make the story, the more likely you are to remember the information. Here’s an example:

It was a brilliantly hot day. Business mogul Alan Sugar pranced through the meadow picking buttercups. Suddenly, three gigantic chickens flew over the hilltop. One by one, the birds dived into the buttercups, with such force that they smashed into pieces, each oozing a golden liquid. What a mess! To make matters worse, it then began to snow heavily. The entire meadow was soon snowed under. Not long after, the farmer came to shovel everything up. When his cart was almost full, he didn’t notice it begin to roll downhill. Faster and faster the wheels spun, as everything jumbled and tumbled together, until the whole thing was thrown from the hilltop, landing straight down the Farmhouse chimney. It took 35 leaps for the farmer to get home, only to find the mess had quickly hardened into a beautiful golden nugget.

This story, which took you a mere minute or two to read and visualize, actually contains a basic cake recipe:

  • Brilliantly hot day – preheat the oven
  • Alan Sugar… picking buttercups – mix sugar and butter
  • The birds dived into the buttercups – crack 3 eggs
  • The entire meadow was soon snowed under – mix dry ingredients
  • Everything jumbled and tumbled together – mix wet and dry ingredients
  • Landed straight into the farmhouse – pour mixture into pans
  • 35 leaps… golden nugget – bake for 35 minutes, or until golden brown

Simply because of the way our brains organize content, a story that flows rhythmically is more memorable. Our memory is contextual, meaning that isolated snippets of information won’t last long. Having a progressive narrative that’s easily followed is vital, especially when short-term memory is only around 30 seconds long.

Use Storytelling to Change Minds

Narratives evoke emotion, transporting us to distant yet familiar lands, whereby it’s simple to build upon fictions we already rely on. By tapping into this dependence on storytelling, you make lasting impressions and more effectively share knowledge. Connecting feeling to message elicits a greater reaction, where an audience is more willing and able to follow.

  • If you’d like to create your own stories as learning tools, here’s a few key tips:
  • Story decisions should be as pertinent to the underlying message as possible
  • You must have an inciting incident (hook) to engage people
  • Pace your story with dramatic pauses and talking speed
  • Find the emotion and emphasise it whenever you can
  • The message should be apparent from the story alone
  • Cultivate mystery by withholding information
  • Don’t cheat with an impossibly convenient ending
  • Use nonverbal communication to support yourself

When used as a learning tool, storytelling is not just the medium but the entire process. Leaders use narrative to present their ideas, yes, but also to advertise themselves. Such a technique allows you to express core values and genuine reflections of past experiences.

The classic advice of ‘write about what you know’ still rings true. The stories you tell should have a significant source, from which you can draw real emotion that engages people. It’s respected as real and valued as worthwhile, meaning you are in a better position to actually change minds.

There’s good reason why telling stories is the oldest mode of learning, alongside personal experience. It’s an efficient, long-lasting means of communicating beliefs, shifting attitudes and encouraging behaviours. When you understand the importance of stories as learning tools, as well as the best practices for constructing them, you can command a room and reach people in a fashion they’ll definitely remember.

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