Storytelling in Learning: Rae McKenzie
Special to The Institute for Performance and Learning
Once upon a time, there was a poor girl with two ugly step sisters…we all know how that story ends. I would bet you knew the title of that story was Cinderella before you finished the sentence. It is a story that endures. But why? Simply put, it evokes emotion and connects us to a place of understanding and personal experience. That connection helps us to remember Cinderella’s story and the lessons held within. That connection is what the power of story can do for your learning.
In our fast-paced world, we need to capture a learner’s interest quickly and help them to integrate information into their long-term memory as easily as possible. Neuroscience has shown that the sensory cortex within the human brain will become active when listening to stories vs. plain facts and figures. Stories help the brain to connect information with past experiences, and therefore, cement into memory. Simply put, the emotion created through story helps us to remember. Emotional association trumps any other type of processing and helps with recall.
The question then becomes, how do we take our dry material and make it come alive through story? To do that, a story must be both believable and relatable.
Choose characters that your audience will be able to connect with, and don’t forget to include some sort of struggle. Let me demonstrate:
A friend of mine was out for a hike when he found a butterfly cocoon. When my friend looked closer, he could see a tiny opening. He watched as a tiny butterfly fought to get out of the cocoon. Hours passed, and finally he decided to help it by cutting the cocoon open. He took out his pocket knife and cut the opening much larger. The butterfly emerged but its wings were misshapen. My friend kept watching, expecting the butterfly to unfurl its wings and flutter away…but nothing happened.
The butterfly remained malformed, never able to fly. While my friend had tried to help it, he had actually doomed the butterfly. He didn’t realize that the struggle to get out of the cocoon was a necessary part of the development of the creature. The tight squeeze, through the tiny opening in the cocoon, was needed to force fluid from the body to the wings so it could fly.
When you read the story, did it evoke sadness for the doomed butterfly, or make you upset at my misguided friend? That story demonstrates the need for leaders to recognize when it is important to let their people struggle on their own to grow and develop rather than to spoon feed them. Did it demonstrate the leadership concept effectively? It’s a simple parable that people will remember long after the training session has ended.
To do this well, it is important to stay simple. Make the concept memorable by crafting a story that is relatable, believable and has an emotional catch. By following that simple rule, you will help your learners pick up concepts faster and retain them longer.
Rae McKenzie will have her own session, Using Storytelling to Make Your Learning Come Alive, at Symposium (June 16-17).