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Jun 2006

I want to tell you a story ...

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Shaping the future of learning

Is there any learning tool older or more sustainable than the story? We think not. We’re pleased to see a resurgence in storytelling in elearning. Here's why....


What’s the story?

All cultures and all societies, regardless of sophistication, have storytelling as a root form of communication. From Aesop to the Grimm brothers, stories have been used to convey moral code to children. In adult and professional life, we learn about our partners, friends, and organisations through the stories they tell. Some argue that telling stories is what makes us create and remember who we are. As Roger Schank, a leading figure in cognitive science, and author of the seminal work Tell Me A Story puts it. "We need to tell someone else a story that describes our experiences because the process of creating the story also creates the memory structure that will contain the gist of the story for the rest of our lives. Talking is remembering."

Why do stories work as learning devices? Let’s look at some of their characteristics.

They engage the heart before the mind

Stories are not just a sequence of facts. The most important aspect of any story is what happened next. For the listener to care, they must be engaged emotionally and become captivated by the story, and the storyteller. Successful novels such as the Da Vinci Code captivate their readers who want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens. Stories in learning work if we care about what happens to the protagonist. For stories to work in your learning, your learners must identify with the storyteller. Think about who can play that role in your organisation.

They stick and come back quickly

Stories are memorable in a way that facts and figures are not. We liked the way a recent presentation put it: “Facts are smooth, stories are sticky”. While a fact or two may get away from us, especially if large volumes of information are delivered, the human mind seems to have a natural coding system for remembering the ‘plot’ if not all of the facts. According to research this is because we have inherent indexing systems, which enable us to compare stories to other stories that we know, we recognise similarities and differences. There seems to be no limit to the number of stories we can handle and recall. We may not consciously recall them, but we are thinking “I’ve seen this plot unfold before. What happened last time? How can I make/not make that happen this time?” If the story has you at its centre, all the better, as we remember our own experience best of all. But a well-told story can be just as powerful as an index item in our memories. Think about your content: could it be presented as a series of stories?

We buy them

The good advertiser knows that a testimonial is more likely to convince customers than any bland statement of benefits. When the storyteller is someone we know, respect, or simply conveys authority, we are more likely to accept and believe the story. This is because many (and some would say the most effective) stories involve the teller explaining what they did wrong, how they made a mistake they won’t repeat. Ever read those newspaper columns called “my biggest mistake” or suchlike? They’re compelling for all the reasons here: they’re personal, memorable, and convincing.

If told right, they can inspire

Stories are inspirational because of the emotional connections they make. We make a strong personal connection with characters in stories that can lead us to be inspired. Increasingly companies use legendary stories to demonstrate their commitment to customers or innovation, they promote an uplifting experience to their staff.

What’s in it for learning?

It’s no surprise that stories are being adopted within the elearning world. They bypass any learning theory and go straight to our human hard coding.

The ability to add audio or video clips, especially with the rise of podcasting and vodcasting, can reinforce the power and reach of the story especially if it is personal to the person telling the story. For a while, video took a backseat in elearning, but as broadband improves, and tools like YouTube make it easy to share video, we predict a return in the use of video to tell stories.

Here are some ways in which stories can feature in your learning:

The worst mistake I ever made

It can be difficult to explain how to avoid mistakes when designing training. Most people assume they won’t make them and move on. Stories in which people (particularly respected people in your organisation) share their mistakes, the consequence, and how they’ve avoided them since, can be very effective. They accelerate people’s experience vicariously. They show senior people to be honest and open. And they help people to realise that mistakes can happen to anyone..(if you’re doing this, get a senior person to go first and set the tone).

The plane on Christmas eve

If you know anything about FedEx, you probably know the story about the employee who was responsible for sending our parcels to arrive for Christmas eve. There was one package that was overweight for the final plane this person was loading. The person had a choice: commission another plane to take off that night at considerable expense for this one package, or put it on the following morning’s plane, knowing it would not arrive for Christmas. The person chose to commission another plane, and despite the huge cost, was applauded in FedEx for making the right decision and making good on their promises. I heard that story 15 years ago in a business administration course. I don’t remember anything else from that course.

That story says more about FedEx than any annual report, or ad ever will. FedEx use it to convey its values and beliefs – concepts that are notoriously difficult to convey directly. Stories like this one can be used to tell your new hires what you are and what you believe in – they are believable and memorable through their details. It’s no surprise that we see many stories used in elearning induction.

The guru speaks!

Leaders and gurus are commonly expected to communicate in the form of stories. It makes them human because it’s about their personal experience, not a lofty set of precepts handed down from on high. Some of the best stories we’ve seen in elearning are in the Harvard Business School’s “Getting to Yes” course about negotiation. There you had a compelling storyteller, Roger Fisher. Fisher had vast experience in negotiation, including hostage negotiation. He wrapped every lesson he knew up into a ‘let me tell you a story…’. The video (and it was important that it was video in that case) conveyed more good insights into negotiation than any number of simulations and passively written case studies. It was personal and drew the listener in – and each one was delivered with a ‘so you see, you really do have to do X..” conclusion. Do you have gurus who are natural storytellers in your organisation? Get them talking.

Sharing the stories

Referring back to Schank’s point: storytelling is a social act. You should ideally provide channels for people to add their own experiences. It’s saying “me too, I have had that experience” that helps us belong, either in organisations or society. Using podcasting, blogs, or just simple email can be a way of starting a chain of stories in your organisation. Communities of shared purpose and practice are a natural vehicle for shared stories too.

In future Kineo articles we’ll be running a series of stories from learning, sharing the experiences of our colleagues in the learning and development world. If you’ve got something you’d like to share, get in touch at



Shaping the future of learning

Kineo helps the world’s leading businesses improve performance through learning and technology. We’re proud of our reputation for being flexible and innovative, and of our award-winning work with clients across the world.