Why Storytelling is the Surprising Key to Connection and Learning Retention
Long before human beings had access to theater stages, pen and paper, or digital blogs, we were telling stories around the fire to pass down traditions, values, and history between generations.
Since we first began painting in caves, humans have been drawn to the art of storytelling. Neuroscience research has demonstrated that even in today’s modern and digitally connected world, our brains are constantly still craving stories.
In fact, storytelling is one of the most underrated tools ⚒️ to have in our facilitation toolbox. 🧰 Our brains are wired for storytelling. It’s how we make sense of the world.
Stories encourage brain-based learning because they support an increase and improvement in the following ways:
👉 Focus + Attention
- When the average attention span is rumored to be between 8 seconds and 15 minutes long, stories help us pay active attention in the moment.
- Stories immerse learners in an experience where they can lose themselves momentarily but still actively engage different parts of the brain.
- We pay attention because our brain has been trained to leverage stories for survival, helping us to remember through anecdotes what berries are poisonous or which animals are dangerous.
👉 Connection + Empathy
- Stories can evoke emotions which are needed to connect to our long-term memory.
- Stories cause us to produce oxytocin in the brain (commonly called “the love hormone” because it’s often released when we are trusted, shown kindness, or cooperating well with others).
- When humans hear stories, our neurons activate and mirror in the same patterns as the storytellers’. 🤯 How cool is that?! Stories synchronize our brains and foster deeper emotional connection and empathy between the storyteller and the listener.
👉 Long-Term Memory
- It’s always easier to remember things when they are presented in story form – just think about when you used to memorize mnemonics for math or science tests – a simple yet effective form of storytelling!
- The emotional arc of a character driven story will always light up the brain more than a list of facts.
Hopefully you’re now convinced of the value of integrating storytelling into your upcoming learning experiences – whether they be online, in-person, or hybrid.
Here are 3 simple ways to do it:
🙋 #1 – NAME GAME: THE STORY OF MY NAME
When you bring a group of strangers together, learning each other’s names is often the first thing we do – and yet, we are so tired of hearing people introduce themselves only to have the group tune out and forget how to pronounce everyone’s name in minutes.
One of our favorite name games (from our Play on Purpose library) is “The Story of My Name”. Have each person introduce themselves by stating how to pronounce their name and a deeper story behind it.
This could be anything from:
- The story of how they came to be named.
- The deeper meaning or significance behind their name.
- The story of how they received their nickname.
- The relationship they have with their name, such as how they felt about it over the years.
Brains will automatically perk up, tap into the emotions, and recall names of the group more effectively. It’s also a great team connection experience for groups who know each other but most likely have never shared the story behind their name.
🗣️ #2 – CHUNK DOWN CONTENT WITH A STORY
We often hear from presenters and subject matter experts that they struggle with having so much content to deliver that it feels hard to make time for experiences.
So if you are in need of a simple hack to break down your content into digestible bites, be sure to weave stories as examples throughout your presentation. It’s a simple way to re-engage and help your audience focus and pay attention since the brain lives for those stories! Bonus points if you invite participants to do so the same and share stories from their own life experience that align with your content material.
In a recent Virtual Connection Lab on the topic of Inclusion, our founder, Jenny Sauer-Klein, shared a story about a time when she had felt excluded in a mastermind group she had been a participant in. There were cliques (one of which she got invited to and then disinvited from), and she was struggling with major imposter syndrome. When she confessed her feelings of not belonging, the leader of the mastermind told her that she could belong only when she chose to belong, that she had agency in the matter.
After Jenny shared that story in the Virtual Connection Lab, it was palpable how it opened up the room, as participants could see that the person leading the session on Inclusion, and whose explicit life purpose was connection, had also suffered from feeling excluded. The story created feelings of empathy and compassion and set the stage for deeper sharing amongst everyone.
🖼️ #3 – REFLECTIVE STORYTELLING: THE STORY OF X
The beauty of storytelling is that it can be applied to any topic! You can always invite participants to tell a story about a significant experience related to leadership, connection, empathy, project management, anything – you name it!
We also love to take it a step further and invite participants to actively listen to each other’s stories and reflect them back in a drawing. The original inspiration for this activity comes from our friend Adam Rosendahl at Late Nite Art.
Here’s the way it works:
- Invite participants to think about a story or significant memory in relation to the theme of the event. Try to go beyond “tell a story about creativity” and be more specific with a prompt like “think of a story when you faced a creative block and had to overcome it.”
- Then move participants into breakout rooms where each person has around 2 minutes to share their story.
- Next, bring everyone back to the main room and invite them to draw an image that stood out to them from the story that their partner shared. The image can be literal, figurative or abstract. Play some music in the background to spark creativity while everyone draws for about 2 minutes.
- Finally, have them do a round of show and tell, going back into the same breakout rooms to share the drawings with their partners.
There is something incredibly powerful to have your story heard, acknowledged, and reflected back to you in the form of a visual drawing. It builds self-awareness for the storyteller, seeing their own story through someone else’s eyes, and also builds empathy and connection between participants.
The “artifact” is a great take-home memento from the training. If online, you can invite participants to take a photo and share the drawings with each other through the chat or via email.