Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to share knowledge and skills, or change attitudes and behaviours. Stories transmit our values and culture; our expectations of how to behave and what behaviour to expect. We learn everything through stories.
So, what makes storytelling so effective for learning? At their basic level, stories are the link between people, ideas and values; the things that bring us together and the common threads of our existence. This gives us a unique way to transfer knowledge and learning in an impactful way.
Stories help us make sense of the world
We are far less modern than we would like to think. Humans are driven by the more basic bits of our Neolithic brains. Our neurotransmitters allow us to simplify our representations of world, to peel back the cacophony of extraneous noise and focus on what’s important. If we didn’t use mental shortcuts billions of bits of information would overwhelm us every minute of the day.
That’s where stories come in. We stack these representations of the world up and push the events of our lives next to them, the relationships between these things become our memories. These interconnected stories or narratives are woven together and allow us to experience life as something that makes sense, something that is continuous.
Stories build trust and engagement, helping us accept new ideas
New memories or ideas that bear relationships to our internal narratives are more easily remembered as they chime with the stereotypes in the internal world we have created. That which is unfamiliar or unrelated is more difficult to weave into our story, more difficult to learn.
Good storytelling builds a connection between the storyteller and their audience so that new or unfamiliar information can be absorbed. When we build that relationship in a learning environment, it means the audience are open to trust and engage with the teacher.
Due to their very nature, stories also allow us to convey complex material in a universal way that everyone can understand.
Stories make things memorable
Information alone is not enough to get an idea to take hold. Our brains are not wired to retain pure facts and logic for very long. As our memory is intrinsically linked to emotion, we remember things much more vividly when it is related as a story.
John Medina, in his book Brain Rules, explains how this works: “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’”
With training and coaching, this means that when people remember the story, they remember the reason it was being told. We can use this to make ideas and learning ‘stick’.
Three months after experiencing training and development activity participants retain 55% more material, ideas and meaning if they experience ideas (65% recall); when simply told information, recall is only around 10%*. Research has also shown that the brain does not distinguish between being told or shown something through a story and experiencing it first-hand.
If you want to make an idea come to life and stay fresh in people’s memories, show it through a story.
*Whitmore. J. (2002) Coaching For Performance: Growing People, Performance and Purpose Paperback. Nicholas Brearley Publishing.