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The Importance of Storytelling for Effective Learning

In the first part of our storytelling series, we discussed how our brains respond to stories—namely, how effective stories trigger the release of certain neurochemicals. We learned that a good story needs to catch our attention, make us identify with the characters, provide a resolution we feel is desirable (or one that teaches us a lesson), and leave us with something to take away. Broadly, this can be summed up that good stories need to be entertaining, relatable, and have a purpose. Now, let’s build upon that knowledge, and examine why storytelling is such a critical component to how we learn.

We evolved to learn from stories

Long ago—as so many stories have begun—early humans and our hominid ancestors communicated through pantomimed movement (charades, anyone?), primitive vocalizations with tonal expressions (grunts, growls, and other sounds typical of early mornings), and drawings, paintings, and carvings that put many of our artistic skills to shame. These were all vehicles of communication, or more specifically, ways to tell stories. That’s how we learned about our world—the many dangers, food and water sources, geography, and other essentials for survival.

As languages developed, and our communication abilities became more advanced, storytelling continued to play an important role in our survival by bringing us together in groups, strengthening our bonds to one another through shared experiences. Through these shared experiences, and the passing down of information and traditions through stories, we formed societies. And here we are, social creatures who love a good story because—whether inherent to our species or not—learning through storytelling has become ingrained into us.

In all its variants, many scholars agree that communication through storytelling has played an important role in our development as a species. Storytelling is one of the oldest methods of human communication and has become central to how we learn and process information. It’s how we’ve survived and progressed to become the modern day constantly connected communicators we are. So, it’s only natural that having evolved as captive audiences to stories that shaped our survival and understanding of the world, that stories remain a key component to how we learn.

Great stories stay with us

Storytelling in the modern age isn’t limited to fiction—we tell stories all the time in the business world through marketing and in the way companies present themselves to internal and external stakeholders. Think about an impassioned speech you may have heard, perhaps from a company’s founder relating how they grew from a small startup into a global powerhouse with billions of dollars in revenue. You hear about the successes and setbacks, tales of long nights and early mornings, the effort, drive, and emotion that have all led up to the present day.

Interlaced throughout the story, the storyteller includes the important facts and figures, but they aren’t the focus; rather, the data serve to support the story. By telling a story such as this, the storyteller has helped create a communal bond between the audience, emotionally tied stakeholders to the company (and its people), shown how great ideas occurred, how failures were overcome, and how all this combined to create present day success. On top of that, we also got the important data to support the story.

Now imagine that same person simply listing year-over-year growth figures, past and present revenue targets, the number of sales leads generated, and so forth. While this is a very direct approach to presenting information, and efficient if all you care about are the numbers, what’s missing is the humanity—it’s purely data. We can learn from data, but without context—without the story behind it—it lacks impact, and quickly leaves our memories without influencing how we think or behave. Stories create buy-in, stories stick in our minds, stories give us behaviors to emulate, goals to live up to, setbacks to learn from. Bullet points and raw data simply don’t elicit these kinds of responses from us.

Stories make complex information relatable

In learning, distilling the essence of a topic down to something palatable for the audience is critical. When presenting complex or abstract information for the first time—or to non-specialized audiences—keeping learners engaged, information relevant, and language easy to understand are all things that teachers do to be effective. As children, we learned this way through the stories we read and heard that taught us valuable life lessons, social norms, and morals. As adults, we continue to learn in the same way.

The late astronomer and popular scientist, Carl Sagan, did just that with the show Cosmos, taking astronomy and astrophysics and making them accessible to television audiences. How did he do this? By telling stories. Through stories, he made the wonders of space and the vast mysteries it contains relatable to an Earth-bound audience of (largely) non-scientists, and made us want to keep learning.

Recap: Learning through storytelling

We all learn from stories, and we are all storytellers. From our youth, and all through our lives, we learn from stories because it is a natural, human way of learning. Our ancestors taught one another how to survive through stories, which is why we exist in this day and age. The stories we hear in our daily lives impact us, motivate us to grow, to improve, and to change—the lessons they teach staying with us long after the details have faded from memory. And stories make difficult subjects or abstract concepts easier for us to digest, perhaps piquing our interest enough to where we, too, become masters of the subject and can teach others through our own story of how and why we learned.

The versatility of stories in learning spans all subject matter, from the basics of survival and our first experiences with social norms, to the topics we master in school and as professionals. No matter what we are trying to show or teach our audience—whether it’s marketing a product, ourselves, or our company, or teaching complex topics like astrophysics—stories engage and excite like no other means of communication.

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