Storytelling tips — our top 5 for learning designers

A hard cover book with its middle pages pages turned inward to form the shape of a heart to get across storytelling tips.

You are a storyteller.

Yes, you.

Whether you enjoy a long-winded anecdote or you’re a strictly straight-talker, your brain is hard-wired to tune into stories. Sure, it’ll pick up facts and figures just fine, but what really gets it going is something with a little more narrative flair.

From helping us to communicate danger, pass on knowledge, preserve cultural traditions and entertain ourselves and those around us, storytelling is a universal human experience. In almost every continent on Earth, cave paintings dating back tens of thousands of years show scenes of dancing, hunting, fighting, romancing and more, communicating stories that would otherwise have been lost to time and indicating that storytelling has likely been an integral aspect of human communication since the birth of language.

This is because the human brain is hard-wired to love stories.

Whether it’s one of these cave paintings, an epic poem, a printed text, an instructional video, your friend telling you about their weekend or your manager explaining why a new process is being implemented, common neurological responses mean that stories are more engaging, memorable and enjoyable than other forms of communication. Once you understand why, you can begin to tap into this and use storytelling to inform, support, advise, influence, entertain and delight – a pretty neat skill for a learning designer.

So, what’s actually going on in our brains to make stories so integral to the human experience?

And what can you do to harness the power of story in your learning design? We’ll reveal all our top storytelling tips below.

The science of storytelling

When we want to educate, give advice or influence a decision, many of us turn to logic. We present our facts and figures and pride ourselves on our rational approach. But the truth is, the human brain just isn’t wired to retain facts and figures for very long. Over the last decade, social and neurological research has proven what anecdote has long suggested – that stories are just more engaging and memorable than facts alone (in fact, up to 22 times more memorable!).

But why?

Well, you probably already know that different areas of the brain are associated with different activities. When we encounter new verbal information for example, the Broca’s and Wernicke’s Areas light up to help us process and understand it, and if we’re hearing that new information, our Auditory Cortex jumps into action too. We hear, process and understand. Impressive, but limited.

Now, when we hear a story, these areas still light up… but it doesn’t stop there! Stories typically contain more sensory and emotive language than facts alone, and this is where the magic happens.

when you hear about a sensory experience, your brain lights up as though you are actually living it. So while hearing the word “football” will light up your language and auditory processing areas, hearing “Pablo kicked the ball” will get your Motor Cortex interested too. Whether it’s colour, shape, sense, touch or movement, your brain doesn’t make much of a distinction between reading or hearing about an experience and actually encountering it in real life. This means that we don’t just hear stories, we feel them.

As a learning designer, this gets really interesting when we take it beyond the sensory and into the social. If we experience stories in much the same way as we experience reality, stories can provide an incredible space for developing our social awareness. Much like our Motor Cortex lights up when we read about Pablo kicking his football, areas of the brain associated with theory of mind come out to play when we hear or read about the thoughts of a character in a story. There is overlap in the neural networks used to understand stories and those used to interact with and understand other people.

This means that by sharing stories, we give other people the opportunity to experience the senses and feelings involved in a situation without them having experienced it themselves in real life. In often time-pressed training situations, this is veritable gold. Stories can act as a kind of mental simulation for practicing complex social problems, which makes them a powerful tool for giving context to theoretical learning and boosting the impact of training beyond the classroom.

Storytelling tips to enhance your learning design

So, now that we’ve established the magic of storytelling, how can you use this to elevate your learning design?

Read on for our top 5 storytelling tips for learning designers!

1. Be a collector

Our first storytelling tip is also one of the most important. The most valuable skills you can develop to become a better teller of stories is to be a collector of stories – you don’t have to be a great inventor to be a great storyteller. People are telling stories all the time so listen out, collect ideas, and build your own storytelling bank that you can draw on when designing training.

2. Start with the end in mind

When designing training, it’s important to always start with the end in mind (in fact, this is one of our core principles of learning design here at VTT!). The same applies when telling a story. Always think about who will be receiving this story, why it is relevant to them and what key messages you need to deliver. Being a great storyteller isn’t about what you want to say, but about what your learner needs to hear.

3. Combine story and fact

As a learning designer, it’s important that your training is engaging, enjoyable and memorable, but it’s also important that you pass on the knowledge or skills your learners are there to gain! Understanding the power of narrative doesn’t mean you should abandon facts and figures all together – in fact, the most powerful stories combine the two. Weave facts into your stories to engage your learners on an intellectual and emotional level, and you’re on track to achieve some serious learning transfer.

4. Sequence your content

Incorporating storytelling into your learning design doesn’t just mean using individual, distinct stories to make a point. In fact, your workshop, e-learning module, or other learning event is in itself a story, and one of the most powerful ways you can use storytelling is to improve the overall narrative. Always make sure your content is sequenced in a way that makes the links between elements clear. This can help to improve flow and create a narrative that makes learning more engaging and memorable than a series of disconnected facts will ever be.

5. Say it out loud

Sometimes, when you’re days or weeks into a design project that has you down rabbit hole after rabbit hole of researching, storyboarding, wireframing and quite possibly tearing your hair out, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees – or in our case, the story for the content. When this happens, take a step back. Try saying your content out loud, as your learners are going to hear it. That might mean reading through an e-learning module, or talking through a slide deck as a coach would for a virtual instructor led workshop. Either way, giving your brain the opportunity to hear the whole story out loud will help you to spot any narrative ‘icks’ and improve the overall flow.

So, there you have it! Those are our top 5 storytelling tips for learning designers. Remember, whatever kind of learning you’re designing, make sure to harness the power of story – your learners will thank you for it.

Want to learn more about storytelling?

Why not check out our storytelling workshop which gives participants the building blocks to collect, create and share stories that have impact.

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