Twelve ways that stories help people learn

I write for learning, and a lot of my time is in identifying engaging and authentic stories to help people get to grips with new concepts and skills. Here are ten ways that stories can make even the most difficult subjects interesting.

Stories and learning

  1. It’s tried and tested
    Whether it’s the stories from the Bible or Aesop’s Fables, some of our oldest wisdom is packaged as stories. Of all the works of Plato, which one has been the most enduring? The dissection of society that he framed using the story of an island called Atlantis…
  2. They add context
    It’s no good presenting people with a knowledge if they don’t have any idea how they apply to a situation. It’s like handing someone the tools without giving them the instruction manual.
  3. They add personal relevance
    Some learners might ask “why do I need to know this?” You can tell them but show them instead. A simple example that’s close to their hearts can convert a skeptic in a few seconds.
  4. They engage people emotionally
    What effects you most deeply: statitics of cancer deaths or the story of one person fighting their personal illness? Which is most likely to captivate you for half an hour?
  5. No one likes to be alone
    If learners are studying remotely or electronically, they’re on their own. That’s a rather lonely learning experience. Putting people into your training gives someone else to share the journey with – someone who’s travelled the same path before.
  6. You can put the learner in charge
    Whether you’re training face-to-face or creating e-learning, you can stop the story at any time and ask ‘what would you do next’? The more realistic the scenario, the closer this is to practice for the real world.
  7. They provide role models
    Do you want people to apply behaviours and follow examples? What does good – and bad – look like? Why describe it when you can show it?
  8. They have a beginning, a middle and an end
    Stories show events in sequence. They show an initial situation, the actions that are taken and the consequences. This makes them a well rounded way of describing processes in a context. They also give an easy-to-follow way of showing how different actions result in different consequences – think Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors.
  9. They’re memorable
    World memory champions can remember a pack of playing cards in seconds. Popular methods for memorising cards include weaving narratives around the sequence, using visuals to represent cards and using imagined narratives to organise the cards in their minds. So how does your learner remember a long list of bullet points? they probably won’t. Using a narrative gives the learner a chain of events that’s easier to recall later. The more visual and stimulating you can make the details of your story, the better.
  10. Stories don’t need to look like training
    Learning stuff can be hard work. Does watching a video, playing a game or reading a comic seem as hard? Learning doesn’t have to be a chore and story-driven approaches can be wrapped up in a range of palatable narrative forms.
  11. They’re real
    Do you have real people who can tell real stories? Let them tell them. Stories from the front add edginess and authenticity that no amount of theory, diagrams and bullet points can.
  12. You can have fun
    Of course, you don’t have to base your stories completely on reality. You can use analogy, add drama or transplant your story into a completely different context to make learners think outside the box. Depending on your subject and audience, you can even add humour.

About Matthew

Matt likes writing, fancy chairs and procrastination.