Storytelling For Learning
We know that stories have been an integral way to teach since the dawn of humanity. While pictures drawn on cave walls might seem different from your last mandatory training, they are fundamentally the same. Both are designed to transfer knowledge from one party to another. Sure, one might have been to warn against predators or tell the legendary tale of the first fire, but the goal remains the same: to use a compelling story to move the audience to change, act, or feel emotion.
The first and most enduring type of content, stories are powerful tools for teaching and inspiring others. They can also be used to teach yourself new skills, learn about history, and even change your life. In short, storytelling is simply the best way to inspire learners to act, no matter what century you’re in.
Why Stories Work
When we tell stories, we’re typically engaging the part of the brain responsible for releasing the feel-good hormones: endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin. We refer to this as the “Angel’s Cocktail”: the right balance to elicit connection between learner and content. When you hear a story about someone overcoming a barrier and emerging triumphant, it usually releases dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for feeling motivated and powerful. Find yourself tearing up when a story pulls at your heartstrings, or excited by the prospect of the protagonists falling in love? That’s oxytocin, which makes you feel empathetic and bonded to the subject material. If you feel satisfaction from a happy ending, that’s a rush of endorphins, which are released when you feel relaxed, happy, and satisfied.
Once you understand what happens to your brain when it hears a story, it becomes more apparent why stories work as a learning tool. People love stories because they help us understand ourselves and our world. Stories give us insight into other people’s lives, and they allow us to connect with them. We feel empathy when we hear a story, and we often act based on what we think another person would do in a similar situation. When all of these emotions and senses are engaged at once, it creates a powerful opportunity to turn a story into an impactful, engaging learning experience.
The Three Types Of Stories
There are three main types of stories: narrative, parable, and allegory. Use the right story for your type of content and learning for the maximum amount of impact and knowledge transfer.
1. Narrative Stories
These are straightforward, linear narratives that describe an event or series of events. A narrative tells the listener the details and typically allows them to draw their own conclusions. In your personal life, a narrative tale is your best friend describing her misadventures on last night’s blind date. In a learning context, however, narratives could explain scenarios and hypotheticals that ask each learner to imagine how they’d act in such a situation.
These are short stories that use symbols to illustrate abstract ideas. Parables are ideal when you want learners to feel something, but experience it in a safe space. Complex or sensitive topics can be difficult to tackle head on, but when encased in a parable, learners receive new information without feeling singled out. Parables require learners to explore themes, and can safely investigate the consequences of characters’ actions: an empowering way to learn something new and feel confident to act in their own roles.
These are longer stories that use metaphors to explain complex concepts. If you’ve ever broken down a business concept like a football play, for example, you’ve utilized an allegory to teach steps in a way your learners can connect with and understand. Allegories help create a bond between learner and content, even if the topic isn’t one that typically inspires emotion.
How To Write A Successful Story That Inspires Action
Here are the basics. A successful story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. It should also have characters who are relatable and believable. For training purposes, learners need to be able to see themselves in the characters so that they connect with the storyline. Avoid making characters super specific, or with features that exclude individuals. Diversity is the name of the game when crafting compelling, connective narratives.
A story should always start with a hook that grabs readers’ attention. It’s the hook that binds the learner to the material from the very first sentence. The best practice is to use the beginning of the story to help learners see what’s in it for them. Will this story teach them a new concept? Will following the narrative reduce negative outcomes, or increase their skills?
Once you’ve hooked the learner and tapped into their empathy, the story needs to provide enough detail so that readers understand what happened and why it matters. To make sure that your story has an impact, consider these three questions:
- What does the story need to accomplish?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What is the desired outcome?
With this framework in mind, you can create the outline of a story that has recognizable characters, a clear journey, and a pathway to success. This template ensures that you evoke the exact emotions required for an impactful story: empathy, engagement, motivation, and your learner’s very own happy ending.