Storytelling: Using Stories to Engage Learners

“Once upon a time” are some of the most well-known words in the English language. As soon as you hear those words, your mind sets itself up to hear a story. Is it because we all heard stories as children, and it brings back pleasant memories? Or is there a deeper reason those words resonate with us?

According to Dr. Pamela Rutledge in Psychology Today, stories still have relevance in the digital age for a number of reasons:

  1. Our brains still make sense of information by looking for a story within the media information
  2. We relate to other human beings and their experiences through stories
  3. Stories are still how we think and make meaning of the world around us
  4. Humans like the order and resolution stories deliver
  5. Our brains are wired to process imagined experiences, such as stories, in the same way as a real experience, and respond in the same way
  6. Stories engage the right brain, where imagination is housed, and increase our empathy and creativity while evoking change

Most eLearning professionals understand that stories are the primary way to connect with your learners from the outset and keep them engaged throughout the course. Despite our inundation with technology and social media, our brains have yet to keep up with these changes, so look for reason and meaning throughout a story.

Using stories can improve your eLearning courses in two ways: by increasing learner engagement and instructional soundness.

Engaging your learners can begin with a story. What sort of story? It can be a real-life experience you’ve had or a recounting of someone else’s tale. The key elements of using a story effectively are to:

  • Emotionally connect with learners
  • Increase curiosity
  • Help learners relate to the content
  • Inspire them to take action
  • Encourage reflection

A good story isn’t just something you put into your course for fun, or because you want to make sure you get a chance to tell everyone about something that happened to you in the course of your experience. Stories in eLearning also serve the purpose of adding to the instructional integrity of your course by:

  • Providing context and relevance
  • Making information easier to remember
  • Clarifying complex and abstract concepts
  • Breaking monotony
  • Linking theory to practice

If you’re designing an eLearning course, you might be feeling a little downcast at the idea of having to think of stories that will be funny, engaging and relevant. It’s not an easy task, especially if you go blank trying to think of stories to illustrate the critical points in your course.

Where do you start? With your audience, of course. Who are they? What sort of stories would best enhance your course? Start with these tips to find the best stories:

  1. Know your audience. Develop a target learner persona and try to understand the context and language that would be most effective.
  2. Use a structure. Start with a “hook” to get them interested. Use action, a climax, and a resolution.
  3. Appeal to their emotions. Any good story has to appeal to people’s emotions through characters, conflicts, tension, and resolution in order for stories to resonate.
  4. Use visuals to embellish the story and create powerful, lasting images.
  5. Tie stories to the course. It’s great to be funny and entertaining, but if the story has no relation to the course content, you’ve missed a chance to teach the target lessons.
  6. Pay attention to detail. The goal is to create details that bring the story to life and reinforce the lessons you’re teaching.

Take a minute to remember a course you took in college that stands out vividly in your memory. Was there a story involved? What do you remember about it, and what was the professor trying to teach? No doubt the lesson has stayed with you for many years because of the story.

Remember, you don’t have to be an ace storyteller to create a narrative for your eLearning course. Just remember to make it personal, relevant and about the learning. No doubt you are already on the path to finding a story for your next course.

“And they lived happily ever after!”

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