“Stories can come in forms of narratives, anecdotes, conversations and reflections.” Dr Sarah Telfer’s 2018 TED talk

Good stories do more than create a sense of connection. They build familiarity and trust, and allow the listener to enter the story where they are, making them more open to learning. Good stories can contain multiple meanings so they’re surprisingly economical in conveying complex ideas in understandable ways. And stories are more engaging than a dry recitation of data points or a discussion of abstract ideas. 

A good introduction to storytelling is understanding the benefit across multiple learning preferences. In a 2017 Harvard Business article, Paul Smith is quoted as stating “Visual learners appreciate the mental pictures storytelling evokes. Auditory learners focus on the words and the storyteller’s voice. Kinaesthetic learners remember the emotional connections and feelings from the story.”

Start with a picture – use a picture to start the story. If you’ve never tried to tell a story in your classroom, use a picture to start you off. For example, a picture of a stressed out teacher can be used to start a story about a very human moment that you may have experienced as a trainer where things went wrong and the key learning points that it taught you. 

Think about the key topics you teach. What anecdotes, narratives or reflections helped you learn something elementary or important in your career. Perhaps jot down a few ideas now so you can come back to it later. 

How can you make your story compelling? What are the absolutely key things that you will need to do to ensure the story meets the outcomes that you want. 

Well, to start with, every story must have a beginning, middle and end. And each of these parts does something different.

The beginning introduces the listener to the scene. Just like an opening scene of a movie. You get the feel for the environment in which the story will unfold. For example, a serene beach scene might invoke a calm, nature-based story. An interior of a workshop might create a sense of accomplishment or focus, and so on. 

But you’re probably thinking, “I’ve seen plenty of movies that start on a beach and end up in a shoot out!” Well yes – you’re skipping ahead here. The story itself is told in the middle section. And you are free to take your listeners on an emotional journey during this time. 

In a learning context, the introduction can be as little as one sentence – for example: “Ten years ago, I sat exactly where you are sitting…Eye’s wide, head filled with questions, and a large amount of faith and hope in my chest.” 

Ok – that was a little dramatic. But you get the idea.

So now you’ve made a start – you have an idea, picture, and a few sentences to get things started. It’s now time to move to the middle part. The part where the lessons are illustrated clearly and the story unfolds nicely.

What I tend to do is write down the key words that I can identify as key learning points. These sit in the margin of a piece of paper or a Word document so I can review them if needed – and they help to keep my story on the right path so I don’t waffle or miss out on the intended outcome. 

There is no right or wrong length to a good story – only a bad story. If you’ve ever listened to someone recounting a night out, and it doesn’t ever seem to get to the point – well… you get where I’m going with this. A bad story is both TOO short AND TOO long at the same time. It’s too short if the point would’ve required a few extra words, and it’s too long if too many words were used to get there! You lose interest, get frustrated, and you’re altogether over it by the time it ends. You can imagine how that would feel in a classroom!

To give your story the best chance – write it down, read it aloud, and reflect on it by either recording yourself, or simply taking a different perspective, such as the listener, to see how it might translate to a learning environment. 

If you’re thinking that this seems like all too much work for one story – consider this: firstly, you can re-use your story for every new class you conduct. Secondly, you can make minor changes to a good story to highlight different key points, and lastly, doing the work now will make it easier for you over time as you discover the power of storytelling, and learn to refine your own process.

The end – or conclusion – of a story intended for learning, must contain these three things: 1. A moral. A reason that justifies the choices made during the story or a fact that identifies the right from wrong.

2.  Key learning points. At least one, but perhaps several learning points can be derived from one situation. These can be explicit – in other words, stated obviously. Or implicit, where the meanings need to be considered by your listener before coming to a conclusion. 

3. A definitive end. In this case, I like to end with a question to the learners. Usually an open question to start a discussion, or reflection on what they have learned. Don’t just finish the story and stare at your learners with anticipation. 

So that’s it – why stories are so important for learning and how to create your own stories that can have a lasting impact upon your students.

Good luck, and please leave a comment if you’ve had experiences around the topic of storytelling. Speak again soon!