The Incredible Power of Storytelling in Learning

Miriam Taylor (MT): I’m looking forward to this conversation. Who doesn’t love a good story? 

Jerry Zandstra (JZ): I come from a storytelling family. I’m not sure I heard much propositional truth as a boy. Most adults I knew wrapped what they wanted to communicate inside a story and, most of the time, the stories were funny. Some of my favorite memories are of sitting quietly while my grandfather, dad, and uncles told their favorite stories. They had a powerful influence on how I think. 

MT: Let’s begin with some definitions. What do you mean by “storytelling”? What are its essential components?

JZ: On the surface, this seems like an easy question to answer that includes every kind of story. But it isn’t. Stories come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They can be told or written and can come in the form of poems or prose. Most of us know stories when we hear, read, or see them. The good ones usually provide a powerful description of an event or series of events that evoke some kind of emotion or insight. Good stories usually have a perspective. By that, I mean that they have a point. They are not random. The characters in the story are compelling and interesting so those hearing the story want to know more. Stories also have some kind of arc. They begin somewhere, the characters experience something, and they end somewhere, sometimes in surprising places. The very best stories, for me, are the ones that leave me thinking and reflecting about the world around me. 

MT: How does storytelling connect to cognition and other elements of learning science?

JZ: Great question. Stories place the listener into a context and allow them to truly ‘enter into’ a situation. We can form an emotional connection with the characters, their circumstances, and the outcome of the story. Stories can move us in ways that a list of facts is unlikely to do. I think our brains are wired to hear stories and grasp them better than raw data. I read a quote once from a cognitive psychologist named Jerome Bruner that human beings are 22 times more likely to remember facts when they are wrapped inside a story. I have no idea if 22 times is the right number, but I do believe that for most people, we remember facts in stories because the facts are connected to prior knowledge rather than standing on their own. Stories seem to stay in our long-term memory better than raw information. 

MT: How does storytelling help immerse a learner and make the learning more engaging?

JZ: Actually, I have a story about that. The Wall Street Journal published an article in November of 2023 titled “The Power of Storytelling in Cybersecurity”. The gist was training that listed all the dangers of scams and the possible ways to prevent them did not really change the behavior of employees. The standard training approach has been to give employees training on the dangers of phishing, for instance, and then evaluate how attuned they are to phony emails, measuring who clicks and who doesn’t. Seems like a good approach except that the results were not impressive. The needle did not move much. Even more unsettling, the employees who were evaluated like this did not appreciate the test because it caused stress and distrust. 

MT: So let me guess. Stories worked better?

JZ: They certainly did. Instead of listing types of scams and ways to mitigate the risks, employees were told stories about their peers and their experiences with phishing and other scams. These stories stuck because the employees could relate to the experiences of their co-workers. The author of the article, Rick Wash, summed up the results: “Hearing about somebody else getting snagged by phishing, or narrowly avoiding it, makes people more likely to take security seriously and avoid the mistakes they have heard about….When a peer tells a cautionary tale, we can see ourselves in that spot, and we absorb the lessons much more deeply.” I really like the expression “absorb more deeply” because I believe that everyone in the L&D field aims for this goal in the learning experiences they create for their learners.

MT: What makes a story good (or bad)?

JZ: From the article I just mentioned, the first thing that makes a story good or bad is the listener’s ability to connect to the people or characters in the story. Are their challenges similar to those in my life and work? Can I see myself in what they are going through? Characters in stories need to be relatable. 

MT: Are there different kinds of stories that LXDs should consider?

JZ: Maybe not different kinds of stories but perhaps there are some guardrails. I mentioned earlier that I loved listening to my grandfather, dad, and uncles telling their stories at family gatherings. Most of them were funny but also had a point. A perspective on life. This worked because the people in my family came from the same culture and shared similar humor. Humor can be misconstrued or misunderstood between different cultures with a different sense of humor. We actually see this in the movie industry. Action movies–heavy on stunts and light on dialogue– tend to do really well globally. Romantic comedies created in the United States often have a much harder time finding an audience simply because the humor or the situations do not make sense to those outside the US. 

MT: What are the challenges of storytelling when learners are multinational, multilingual, and multicultural? 

JZ: Let’s start with going back to the point about being relatable. If the characters don’t look or sound like me, I may find it harder to relate to them. That is not, of course, always the case. Some of the most impactful stories I know have been about people who are nothing like me, but I am moved by their experiences. In a multinational company, I would suggest looking for themes that are universal and not local to one region of the world. It is also important to ensure the people in the learning experiences, whether b-roll or animation or avatars, are highly diverse. 

MT: How does AI fit into the creative process of building an effective story?

JZ: I have a good friend who is an expert in learning and the emerging field of artificial intelligence. He and I spend 45 minutes on a video call each week talking about the most recent developments. One indication of the fast pace of change is that we have new topics to discuss every week. A few weeks ago, I asked him for some guiding principles related to learning and AI. His first reaction was telling me what he calls his “60%” rule. AI, in most cases, will get someone 60% of where they want to be. 

I find this idea to be incredibly helpful. First of all, who doesn’t want to get very quickly to being 60% complete in writing an article, a story, or a script? Or developing an image, video, or animation?  Sometimes the most challenging part of creativity is simply getting started. AI can certainly speed things up. 

But then there is the other 40% that, at this moment in AI’s development, needs to be done by a human being actually thinking and reflecting on what they are creating and where they want to go. As AI continues to progress, the percentages will change but his strong belief is that the creativity of the person will always be needed to complete the task. I agree with him.

MT: I’m sure AI will continue to be a part of every learning discussion for the foreseeable future. And we will keep striving to understand its challenges and opportunities. I want to thank you for taking the time to have this conversation on the power of storytelling. 

JZ: Thank you for the thoughtful questions and interesting conversation. Let me end with one note of encouragement for learning professionals. If there is any way to include stories in your learning, do it. It might take more work and creativity than delivering informational facts, but the end result will be much better learning engagement and retention. It is worth the effort.