Humans are wired for stories. It’s how we process the world around us, providing a lens we can use to interpret life. The average American spends approximately 13 hours a day consuming media, much of it in the form of narrative form. Our thoughts, emotions, and actions can be powerfully altered by a well-told story featuring characters and plotlines that resonate. And yet, learning experiences often lack this important ingredient.
Without a focus on story, workforce development often centers around content rather than people. The result is that workers, including decision-makers, can’t see the value of learning. But with a story woven through materials, people can more readily absorb and remember what they’re learning.
At Duarte, we build courses by finding patterns in the work our consulting team does. We craft empathy-filled presentations for some of the world’s most powerful brands, and then we translate our findings into training anyone can use to apply stories to presentations and conversations. Due to this story-first approach, our workshop satisfaction rating averages 9 out of 10.
Three Reasons Stories Matter
A significant amount of research has been conducted to provide a deeper understanding of how humans respond to stories. It’s given us insights into how people’s brains function when they hear information communicated in story form:
1. Stories are how humans interpret the world
To better understand how individuals judge others, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel in 1944 created a short, animated film. This crude, minute-and-a-half-long, black-and-white piece features a large triangle, a small triangle, and a circle that move around the screen and in and out of a rectangle.
Heider and Semmel showed their film to a group of test subjects and, afterward, asked them to describe what they saw. Almost every subject described what they observed in story form, even though all they saw were shapes moving. These stories varied from individual to individual, but they shared a common thread: a “bully” (the large triangle) was mad at, or wanted something from, the “victim” (the circle). The smaller triangle distracted the bully’s attention and locked the bully inside the large rectangle. As the small triangle and circle escaped, the bully broke apart the rectangle, smashing it to pieces in a fit of rage.
Heider and Simmel concluded that humans don’t view the world around them literally. Instead, we view it through a lens of story; for example, perceiving simple moving shapes as characters in a narrative. We attach literal-minded things to narrative unconsciously. For instance, if we’re in a meeting and an attendee arrives late, splattered in mud and grease, we don’t simply shrug and think, “Oh, they’re covered in stuff.” Our brains instead narrate what might have happened. We create a backstory to help us comprehend what we see.
2. Stories stick
For people to grow and change, they need to recall what they’ve learned. Shocking statistics can jar somebody in the moment, but stories leave a longer-lasting impression.
In their 2007 book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath cite a study in which Stanford students were asked to listen to presentations and then, later, report on what they could recall. The presentations included two types of content: statistics and stories.
When asked what they remembered, only 5% of respondents recalled a single statistic, whereas 68% remembered at least one story they’d heard.
Because of the way stories engage our brains, they’re more memorable than facts — even strong, powerful facts.
Why does this matter? If workers can’t recall key points they’ve learned, they’re less likely to apply new knowledge on the job and create long-lasting behavioral change.
3. Stories release powerful chemicals
Stories help listeners focus, remember, and act because they alter the brain’s neurochemistry.
Studies show that when listeners are enthralled (or, “transported,” as story researchers describe the phenomenon), the stress hormone cortisol is released. Their minds absorb drama and tension, resulting in nervousness or anxiousness. This is the reason moviegoers grip the theater armchair when a character walks into a spooky house. It’s why they grimace as the romantic lead stumbles in an effort to fall in love.
This release of cortisol (which normally gets a bad rap as the “stress hormone”), actually helps listeners pay attention. That’s why we focus more intently on stories with higher levels of drama. More cortisol is released, and our focus increases.
Stories also boost the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. Dopamine not only makes us feel good (which is one of the reasons we relax at the end of a taxing day by watching movies and television shows), but research shows it also greatly increases memory.
Challenge Yourself to Incorporate Story
We’ve discovered that the more Duarte develops training content based in story, the more we create empathetic, powerful, transformative materials.
A big reason people become learning professionals is to change lives and help people flourish. Incorporating story into your strategy can help you do just that, so you can transform your people and your learning culture.
Want To Learn More About the Power of Storytelling?
Join Degreed for LENS 2021 where, as a keynote speaker, Nancy Duarte will discuss many ways to use storytelling principles to enhance learning and development. Explore the smartest ways to harness technology and data about the skills people have (or don’t have), so you can make better investments in hiring, managing, and developing all of your workforce.
About the Author
Known as “the Storyteller of the Valley,” Nancy Duarte is CEO of Duarte, Inc. and author of six best-selling books on communication. Since 1988, her firm has worked with the highest performing brands and executives in the world. The insights from those engagements get transformed into training everyone can learn from. Duarte is a communication expert who has been featured in Fortune, Time Magazine, Forbes, Fast Company, Wired, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Los Angeles Times, and CNN. As a persuasion expert, she cracked the code for effectively incorporating story patterns into business communications. Oh, and she has two grandsons and a grand-dogger.