Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away, there lived a … If you are already interested in who that enigmatic character is and what adventures he engaged in, you are human. We have a natural inclination to be captivated by a good epic and our expectation levels rise as soon as there is an indication of something like that. Even in immemorial times, the first people used stories to explain their own existence and everything from the cycle of life to natural phenomena.

Tales and legends also played a big role in passing knowledge along and managed to make the important aspects memorable. The ancient cave paintings discovered in different parts of the world are the earliest illustrations to really old anecdotes.

Even with the amazing perks of today’s technology and the advantages of being able to use all sorts of immersive techniques, storytelling is a powerful tool in e-learning.

The neuroscience of stories

Storytelling has the ability to tap into different parts of the brain. When something is taught in the form of a story rather than with bulleted information or pie charts, people are a lot more susceptible to remembering it. Cognitive science recognizes narrative as a basic organizing principle of memory. Basically the whole brain lights up when a good story comes up.

From very early on, we tell ourselves and others stories about our actions and experiences. Accuracy is never the main objective – coherence is. If necessary, our minds will come up with things that never happened simply because they are fundamental for the narrative.

Stories fire up the imagination and engage emotions. They can easily activate multiple senses in the brain — auditory, olfactory, somatosensory, motor and visual. The words that they are made of spark our faculties thus setting paths for the brain to imagine, elaborate and recall.


Read more: Making sense of the senses in e-learning courses (Part 1)


The wiring of our brain

There is consensus that we remember and learn better when something is delivered via a story. The question remains why that happens and how come this is still so powerful when there are so many new ways of receiving information. The simple answer is that it is basically the way our brain is wired.


Read more: The learning brain and why L&D professionals should care about it


A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And that is precisely how we understand to use reason. We primarily think in narratives throughout our days. The plans we make in the morning about our itineraries, our errands and the order in which we will go about them are mundane copies of Odysseus travels.

Even something as simple as deciding on what to have for lunch has a story behind it – of what we like, of previous experience, of personal diets and the image of ourselves we want to project. Jeremy Hsu found that in fact “personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

How it works for e-learning

Stories have the power to create the ultimate immersive experience – no technology, no matter how advanced and wonderful, can match the capacity of the human brain. When the learner internalizes a story it is does not only have a tremendous impact but it also becomes very personal. As a result, the engagement of the individual to the topic rises exponentially and there is a true and powerful emotional connection to the content.

Storytelling therefore represents a very effective delivery method as it can make information memorable by creating relatable scenarios with which the audience feels empathy and relate to the narrative and its content.

Malcolm Knowles, John Keller, and other learning theorists have found that adult learners must see the relevance of something in order to feel it is worth the effort of learning about it. Illustrating concepts in the context of a story that individuals can relate to is crucial to the learning process. By making it easier for learners to incorporate knowledge into their mental models in meaningful ways the realistic context of a story makes information easier to remember.


Read more: Successfully using storytelling in the modern organization


How to incorporate stories in e-learning

Stories pertain to the creative. As does instructional design. Surely there will always be new and unprecedented ways of incorporating meaningful stories but here are some examples of what has already been done and proved to be efficient:

Audio narrative. People are used to listening to stories. Having an experienced presenter read out the narrative can get people really passionate about the message. Without the distraction of visuals, learners will focus on what is being spoken and their own imagination will paint the tale making it more personal.

Video. Video has all the benefits of the audio version and some more on top of that. Seeing the storyteller on a screen will give learners the opportunity to get more information by reading non-verbal expressions. For longer stories this works best.

Comic strip. Comics are enormously engaging. With them it is very easy to emphasize settings and character emotions. Another perk is that the dialogue can be very different than the usual corporate slang and thus will receive a lot more attention.

Social media. A short story can work very well as a text-based narrative that invites to a threaded discussion. Depending on the point of the story, e-learning designers can ask people to share their own experiences and thus personalize the narrative.

Closing thoughts

When looking for effective ways to engage e-learning audiences, storytelling should be top of the list. Harnessing the power of narrative will help learners relate to the content and make the necessary emotional connections for it to be remembered.

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