The Story of Learning


Lately everything I read or see is related to the power of a story.  Dan Pink, who links motivation to achievement, wrote a blog about Story1. Don Miller wove the power of story into his book about making a movie about his life.2 My minister used a personal adoption story to bring home a sermon. The McKinsey Quarterly published an article this monnth on the power of storytelling. Since I am focused on facilitating learning, the story behind these messages has become clear.

Basically, stories are how we all communicate. Since the beginning of human history, stories were used to pass on knowledge. Before alphabets, stories were scratched on cave walls. Long before paper, oral history was best remembered by use of the story. Today stories are told in books, audio/video, and graphically or some combination. Formats change, but human processing remains the same.

 Stories are universal, a part of every culture, continent, or community.  Stories are powerful because our brains are hard wired to pay attention. If I ask you to tell me about yourself, very few people will tell you just facts; most of us will launch into a story about our past to answer the question. How can you tell if someone is getting old, both chronologically and socially? They keep repeating the same stories.

More importantly, stories are how we learn[1]. Most of us will sit up and pay attention when information is presented in a story format instead of factual format. Listen to any lecturer, and see if they intersperse stories into the information/knowledge they are presenting. The good ones all do. I start all my workshops with a story of a speaking faux pas that always relaxes my audience,and me too. Having lectured and taught for a few years, I am acutely aware of the change in the attention level within a group when I add a story. It’s as if a light bulb goes off. Of course, if I tell too many stories and ignore the information, the opposite occurs. Like so much of life, moderation is the key.

And the information is retained longer when attached to a story.  Information is just facts, bits of data. Stories provide a context to link information to our experience. I see street signs all the time and forget more than I remember. But if I have a story associated with that street, it’s retained forever.

Computers are a fascinating example of this. Computer games are really just interactive stories that allow the user to create the action and the ending. Learning to use a computer initially was difficult because programming was based on remembering basic steps and formulas. But when interactive graphic stories in the format of games were used to train users of the Apple IIe, a whole generation of five year olds learned computer skills previously beyond the ability of their parents. Anyone remember Mavis Beacon Learns Typing? Recent studies a generation later confirm that surgeons perform better if they grew up on video games.

So why should a story be part of quality learning?

The answer is easy. If you want lasting, transformative learning, use a story to drive home the point, not randomly, but intentionally. That’s what the pros do. John Maxwell, the leading presenter/authority on leadership, works stories into all his materials. Stories ignite our imaginations. And what we can conceive (imagination), and believe (faith) we can achieve (transformation). I can still remember  Maxwell’s story of Bill Lear getting turned down several times trying to convince GM the value of adding a radio, as an example of why persistence pays.  Dale Carnegie told a story of Andrew Carnegie and his nephews to illustrate self interest in How To Win Friends and Influence People.3

Who knows? Someone may tell a story about how your story helped them learn the skill they needed to advance. Wouldn’t that be a story book ending?

[1] www.danpink.com, “How a Tuna Fish Sandwich Can Turbo-Charge Your Career.”

2 A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Don Miller,  Thomas Nelson, NY, NY, 2009.

3 How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie, Simon and Shuster, NY, NY, 1936


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About pro356rick

I am the founder of Pro356 Consulting which focuses on promoting organizational wellness, productivity, and profitability. I hope to share insights I have learned from so many others in living my life. If they prove useful to anyone, then my time here is well spent. While I have a Harvard MBA, I think I learned quite a bit as a 11 year old paper boy. And I know I will learn from anyone who comments back. Wishing you a masterpiece day, Rick
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