Tips for Storytelling in Learning

These are my live blogged notes from the InSync Training Byte session “Once Upon a Time, Storytelling WAS Learning” by Tom Campbell and Karin Rex. My side comments and thoughts in italics. Any errors, typos, or awkward phrasing are mine, not Tom and Karin’s. You can watch the recording here.
Tom started with a story about how he visualized his presentation. What tool did he use for the animated drawing of figures and captions? Bought on Shutterstock? Self deprecating humor, good specifics to help us visualize the setting with him.
Why don’t we just give learners a book and command them to read and learn? We need to make the material come alive by adding context through teachable stories.
Why are we more engaged when we hear a narrative? Brains switch off when we see a slide full of bullet points. Our brains are active for language processing but nothing else. When we hear stories, our brains light up all over–we experience a story as if we were part of it. Our brains are wired to learn from stories.
Why do stories work? It’s a narrative about cause and effect. We’re constantly making up little stories about our lives and how things happen.
How do we come up with stories to make content come alive?

  • Ask SMEs for real examples
  • Reimagine classic stories and retell them

Example classic story: are you laying bricks or building a cathedral? Retold for instructional designers on focusing on the big picture and business impact rather than getting lost in the details of “order taking” for developing courses.

The Story Arc, as drawn by a Learning 2.010 Workshop Participant
Story Arc

Story Arc (table adapted from “Once Upon a Keyboard” by Karen Scott)

  • Introduction
  • Conflict/problem
  • Complication, rising action
  • Climax
  • Resolution, conclusion

TED Talks Storytelling Techniques by Akash Karia: Great TED Talks include great storytelling to share a message without the audience feeling like they’re being lectured or preached to

  • Get off to a good start. Don’t start with the presenter intro. Start with a story.
  • Add a surprising element. Conflict–two strong opposing forces where the outcome isn’t certain.
  • Be detail oriented, craft mental movies. Give sensory information. Show don’t tell. Engaging the senses helps learners remember the story. Specific details add internal credibility to the story.
  • Stay positive. The hero should succeed (usually). More motivational and inspiring to action, doesn’t leave learners on an emotional low.
  • Spark the right key takeaway. What do you want to change?

Psychological Learning Process. Make things stick.

  • Support attention
  • Activate prior knowledge
  • Manage cognitive load
  • Promote rehearsal and encoding
  • Practice retrieval

Stories help us activate prior knowledge, minimize cognitive load so more brain power focused on learning transfer.
3 tips for presenters: Stand up! Speak up! Sit down while they still like you!

Questions and Answers

Q: If not using bullet points in a PPT presentation, what do you use to display stories?
A: Full bleed photos are good when you can. Visuals to match the stories
Q: If you have hours of material to cover, how many stories?
A: Think about one story for every major objective
Q: Story-based e-learning with no audio
A: Use closed captioning. Just having the picture of a character and having that thread increases retention (cited Karl Kapp citing research saying 80% increase–I need to verify this stat)


Image Credit: The Story Arc by Wes Fryer

10 thoughts on “Tips for Storytelling in Learning”

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  3. Very interesting post that highlights how important is (digital) storytelling in affecting the human brain. People tend to focus more, according to research, when they watch an ad. on TV or online or through a poster that includes storytelling, because it triggers more areas and neurons of the brain. The same happens in information processing in the educational world. The internal networks of the brain have to work together during this process to assimilate information. Due to the information learning process of the brain, learning through our senses (auditory and visual learning) can make the brain store, retain and retrieve information in a better way. So, for example, when watching an advertisement or a text that includes a story, the brain can retrieve information especially if the person has experienced himself/herself a similar situation like the one that the ad/text is portraying (cognitive learning). This way there is a connection that the brain makes between former experience and the one being processed at the moment, so there is very high possibility that the brain will remember many details from watching or listening to that ad/text. This is why, storing and retaining information is better achieved through storytelling and that is why many organizations worldwide are using this technique for marketing reasons, or in the educational world, for students to learn and store information easier instead of reading an endless text that causes no emotion and makes the audience feel, like it is mentioned in the post, as being lectured or preached.
    Nina Dagre

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