Storytelling in learning: A tale as old as time

Storytelling in learning: A tale as old as time


If you’re anything like me, when you think of ‘storytelling’ you think of your childhood. You think of the stories you were told before bed, or those you were told through Disney films. However, we rarely consider the role they play in our adult life. Stories are central to human existence; we’re programmed to absorb them, it’s why we gossip, watch TV and day dream.

Storytelling is so ingrained in us that a 1944 experiment1 showed that we will even give a ‘human’ story to the movement of shapes (shown below).

All but three of the subjects in this experiment interpreted the shapes above in terms of actions of animated beings, i.e. as humans. So, how does this inclination for storytelling affect our lives?


“Those who tell the stories rule society” – Plato

Though the above quote comes from Plato, the Athenian philosopher during the classical period of Ancient Greece, it is profoundly relevant in today’s society. Our lives revolve around storytelling; we write a meaningful card to a friend, we raise a toast at a loved ones wedding, we’ll even tell a eulogy at a funeral. All of which simply come down to telling a story.

But we now have the technology around us to facilitate more storytelling than ever. Of the top 10 websites in the UK today*: 7 are based on sharing knowledge, facts and ultimately stories. Coupling these web giants with the social media industry, that is said to be worth $46bn in the US alone, those who tell stories, and those who facilitate storytelling, really do rule society.

But with this abundance of storytelling in society today, our learners are overloaded with information. They are distracted by stories which directly appeal to them, and their personal interests; taking them away from the task at hand – which in our case is digital learning.


Good stories make us care

Good stories cut through the noise of today’s media rich world. That’s why some TV series perform really well, while others miss the mark. But the art of a good story is the emphasis on the audience, rather than the plot or protagonist. When it comes to storytelling in formal learning; this is more important than ever.

Good stories allow the audience to form a connection between their own lives and the story being told. This creates a common ground for the audience, and a mutual understanding. Simply put, a good story makes the audience care. We see this all around us in day-to-day life, it is a key element of relationship building. As learning designers, we need to take the art of storytelling to build relationships, and use it to build connections between our learners and the learning content.


Storytelling in learning for adults

Adult learning, in comparison with childhood learning throughout our school years, is more often than not built around the learners interest. However, when creating digital learning for organisations, we’re often dealing with broad reaching subjects, to a wide target audience. Though your learner should have an element of interest in your course; for example any individual employed at an organisation should be invested in learning about health & safety in their workplace; the degree at which they’re interested often varies.

This varying interest makes designing learning for adults harder. However, it’s this variance that causes learning designers to turn to storytelling. Storytelling in corporate learning can:

  • Improve understanding of, and participation in, organisational culture
  • Increase cohesiveness in teams
  • Create higher quality relationships within the organisation.

To ensure successful storytelling for adults, Michelle Kaminski, co-author of Teaching Leadership to Union Women: The Use of Stories, teaches us that our stories must have two key elements:

  1. The story must be related to the goals of the class.
  2. The protagonist must face a choice, where all practical options have both pros and cons.

A great example of storytelling in elearning is this bribery and corruption course we’re developing for a company called MTC. The course, which is branched scenario training, is based on Netflix’s hit film: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. It directly applies both of Kaminski’s criteria as it:

  • Directly relates to the goals of the class; by teaching employees how to deal with vulnerable service users.
  • Allows learners to make a choice, as the protagonist of the story. While also ensuring that all choices have pros and cons; and have varying degrees to which they are right.

Alongside applying both of Kaminski’s criterion, the storytelling in this course also ensures learner retention, through the use of visuals.


Storytelling through visuals

Though most of us will consider storytelling synonymous with a book, Storytelling through visual mediums is not a new concept. Humans have long used pictures to communicate stories, dating back 30,000 years in Africa through rock art. But in the media rich world we currently live in, storytelling with multimedia has become all the more important, especially in learning. This is due to different levels of retention between text and visuals. It is said that when we read text it enters the short term memory, whereas when we look at visuals, for example an infographic, it enters our long term memory (and therefore aids recall).

In instructional design, the multimedia principle tells us that using text and graphics is more conducive to learning, than just text alone (Clark & Mayer, 2016). We are lucky enough to have an abundance of easy-to-use resources at hand to aid our learners in this way; from Storyline 360 to Vyond – all of our favourite elearning software aids storytelling in learning.


But not any story will do

It can be tempting to crowbar an elaborate story into our elearning courses, for the sake of making them more interesting and exciting for learners. But unless your story has a purpose, it will not work. Take this example from Shane Snow’s TEDx talk at Columbia College for example:

In this example, Shane asks people who they’d give their money to; a homeless person with a sign saying ‘Homeless I need help’, or a homeless person with a sign saying ‘Mom told us to wait right here, that was 10 years ago’.  Based on the assumption that storytelling fosters connection and understanding, we’d assume that the second option would get more ‘votes’. However, due to the elaborate nature of the story – respondents didn’t believe the sign, thus chose to donate to the first one instead. This is a clear teaching to us as learning designers, our stories must relate to the learners and be truly believable to work, otherwise, our learners will see straight through them.



Storytelling is paramount in adult learning, it allows our learners to empathise and creates an emotional connection with the  content. However, to ensure storytelling is use appropriately and effectively we must ensure:

  • The story is both directly related to the learning content and our learners interests.
  • Is realistic and believable in a real-life scenario.
  • The protagonist of the story faces a choice, where all of the options are feasible routes to take.

Couple these three points with the use of compelling visuals, you will have a digital learning course that your learners will want to ‘binge-watch’ in no time.


*At time of publishing the top 10 websites in the UK were: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

11944 study carried out by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel.