The Power of Storytelling in eLearning

Table of Contents

Most people have words they don’t like. For me, it’s office jargon like ‘bandwidth, ‘blue sky thinking’ or ‘pinging’ emails.

For my brother, the most irritating word in the world is ‘delightful’. Years ago, he worked at an estate agency where ‘delightful’ was seriously overused; it featured in every advert and every property description. It even trickled down into normal conversation – delightful coffees, lunches, dates and holidays were had by all. Because of this experience, there are few things less delightful for him than the word itself.

Why am I telling you this? There’s no chance I’d have remembered such a trivial fact if my brother had just said “I hate that” and moved on. Because of the story, I still remember his disdain for ‘delightful’ more than a decade after he told me. Translate this into a more useful setting (like the workplace training in your learning management system), and you’ll find that any information can be cemented in memory, if it’s part of an engaging story.

Making eLearning Content That Works

There are three key elements that make great eLearning content; First, it has to engage learners and get their attention (best achieved through dynamic visuals, witty voiceover and a good dose of humour). Next, the content has to deliver information in a way that makes sense of all the facts and figures – tricky when you consider the different ways individuals prefer to learn. Finally, it has to be memorable.

According to Paul Smith, a successful corporate trainer and author, around 40% of people are in fact ‘visual learners,’ that learn best from videos, diagrams and illustrations. Of the rest, 40% are ‘auditory learners’ (think lectures and discussions) and 20% are ‘kinaesthetic learners’ who understand through doing, experiencing or feeling. Storytelling is an unusual teaching method because it contains elements that work for all three.

As you might expect, those who learn through listening do well when they hear a story. Visual learners do too – because the descriptive element allows them to picture the scene and visualise information/scenarios in a way they aren’t able to when presented with lists of facts and figures.

Here’s what’s really interesting though: when listening to a story, our brains allow us to feel the same as we would if we were experiencing the subject for ourselves. This makes storytelling an ideal teaching tool for kinaesthetic learners because they still gain the ‘doing’ experience without actually being hands-on. Sounds like something I just made up? I can back this up.

A Princeton neuroscientist called Uri Hasson delivered a fascinating TED Talk in 2016 called this is your brain on communication. If you don’t have ten minutes to watch the video, here’s the gist: As a story is being told, activity in both speaker and listener brains align. On MRI scans, you can actually see the same reactors light up in both as the story progresses.

“When she [the speaker] had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs.”

Basically, the minds of listeners react the same way upon hearing a story as they would if they were recalling an experience of their own. This means that lessons told through stories can implant ideas, feelings and experiences into the minds of learners. You don’t get much more engaged than that.

What About Retention?

Training is pointless if it isn’t memorable. The last thing you want after investing in a learning and development programme is a bunch of employees who can’t remember enough to make use of the courses they take. That’s another great thing about learning through storytelling – it helps us to recall information long after it’s delivered.

A great example of this theory in action can be found in a study by Stanford professors Gordon H. Bower and Michal C. Clark. Their experiment saw two groups of students tasked with memorising sets of ten, unrelated words. The control group were given their sets and told to remember the words in whatever order they chose. The second group were then asked to embed those words into stories and remember them this way. When tested later, the students who constructed stories were able to recall six to seven times as many words as those in the control group.

Now, imagine those words were facts about health and safety, sales strategy, marketing practices or whatever subject you want to teach. By conveying information through storytelling, it’s up to seven times more memorable. That’s a huge difference – one that significantly impacts the ROI of your eLearning content.

Holly Helps (yes, that is her real name) is part of the innovative team at iAM Learning – creators of engaging animated eLearning content that improves performance and encourages professional development.

Drew Stinger

Drew Stinger

Drew has been immersed in the learning technology space for over six years and has loved every minute of it. From working in global ad agencies (McCann Erickson), and professional sports organizations (go Jazz!), and now in learning technology, Drew has gained valuable insights in the world of managing teams, clients, and peers. Drew loves enabling individuals and teams to have more open, effective conversations centered around connection, alignment and growth and has seen the impact it can have on employee satisfaction and productivity. Skiing, biking, netflix-ing (that’s a word right?), and being a remote working dad, are just a few of his passions!

Table of Contents

Latest Blog Posts
Onboard, Develop, Advance Major Elements of Talent Journey - Blog Post Feature Image
Onboard, Develop, Advance: What Are the Major Elements of a Talent Journey?
Discover the considerations, practices, and learning management system (LMS) features you’ll need when...
Read more
Performance Feedback Is Incomplete Without Peer Recognition and a Start-Stop-Continue - Blog Post - Feature Image
Performance Feedback Is Incomplete Without Peer Recognition and a Start-Stop-Continue Approach—Here’s Why!
Feedback is the lifeblood of performance management. Not only is it essential for employees to receive...
Read more
3 Signs It Might Be Time For a New LMS - Blog Post - Feature Image
3 Signs It Might Be Time For a New Learning Management System (LMS)
Learning management system (LMS) migration is a big investment—but if you can’t recognize when you need...
Read more

Connect with Us!

Fill out the form and a Product Expert will be in contact with you shortly.