Storytelling in learning: How to make it work

Storytelling in learning is one of the most effective ways to engage your learners. Regardless of age, profession or nationality, we all love stories.
 
A friend of mine once went on a workshop about negotiation skills. He told me about a story that delegates had been told on the course. It went something like this; you may have heard it or a version of it before:
 
Two explorers in the Arctic kill an elk. They divide the elk in half and start to make for their next camp on separate sleighs drawn by huskies. A pack of wolves smell the blood of the elk and start to pursue the explorers. The first explorer hears the baying of the wolves and decides to gee up his dogs to outrun the pack. After a somewhat tense pursuit, the wolves fall back and instead turn their attention to the second explorer. Explorer Number Two decides on a different course of action. He cuts off an elk steak and throws it to the wolves to divert them. Although this seems to work initially, it only has the effect of making the pack more determined in pursuit. They catch him, devouring both the unfortunate explorer and the elk.
 
In the negotiation workshop my friend attended, this had been used as an analogy about negotiations. If you give up something too easily, then the other side will only pursue you for more concessions. A catchphrase in the course was “Don’t give the other side an elk steak”.
 
I thought of this story the other day when I was trying to find a way to convey a new concept to a diverse audience. I was considering whether I could use a story or more particularly, an analogy, to do this.
 

 

So, what is an analogy?

The dictionary definition of an analogy is:
‘the comparison between things that have similar features, often used to help explain a principle or idea.’
 
Using analogies is a very old tradition dating back to at least the ancient Greeks. Professor Edith Hall in her book Aristotle’s Way explains how much the ancient philosopher Aristotle respected them. According to Hall, Aristotle highly valued the skill of drawing analogies. He believed they offered an opportunity for ‘accelerated learning’.
 
Today, telling storytelling in learning is commonplace. If you are a learning designer, you will probably already use a range of storytelling techniques in your projects. You might for example, tell the story of a company’s history or create scenarios where learners use their decision making skills. However, using analogies can also be very useful but these must be deployed with care. 
 

 

To be successful, analogies need to be:

 

Used sparingly

You can probably only use one analogy per course. Using more than one will overload your course with ideas, making it difficult for learners to retain information.
 

Reflective of the learning goal

Your analogy should be genuinely reflective of the principle you want to get across. For example, the elk steak analogy would not work very well if it the workshop had been about relationship building

 

Cross-cultural

If you’re delivering to a global audience, your analogy must be cross-cultural. Some analogies may not translate well to international learners, so bear this in mind.
 

Non-patronising

Your analogy needs to be appropriate for your cohort of learners. Don’t patronise them with something too simplistic, or over dramatise the story, it may turn learners off.
 
 
What’s more, in the digital world we live in, do not be afraid to take your storytelling one step further. For example, video can help bring your story to life, in ways words would struggle to. But, regardless of medium, analogies can be very powerful and live long in the memory. Take the elk steak story: I never even attended the workshop. But years later I still remember the story, proving the ultimate success of storytelling in learning.

Want to learn more about storytelling in learning? Check out this on-demand webinar from Cursim, our learning design agency:

 

Editors note: This blog was first published in December 2018. It has been updated for clarity, with fresh new content included.