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The Instructional Designer’s Guide to the Galaxy Stories: Part 1

on December 22, 2016
Resources Unlocking Talent
Learning Design

I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to reading. I can already hear your protest. And—wait—is that the sound of you rolling your eyes? Hear me out.

I am a voracious reader and I don’t say that lightly. In 2016, I read 100 books. Yes, 100. And this is where I tell you all about the 100 exemplary pieces of business literature that I read and how it improved my career or impacted my work. Except…nope. About half* of the books I read last year were a little bit more like…


(I could tell you at least 42 reasons why this is the best book ever.)

Now before you click-away or at the very least double check that this is indeed a business blog and I am indeed a blogger focused on learning and development, stay with me because this will all make sense in a moment. Because I’m not really addicted to reading. I’m addicted to stories. We all are.

Once Upon a Time

It all started with this guy.

Once Upon a Rock
Once upon a rock…

Well, not exactly this guy. But people have been telling stories for 40,000 years. So much so that our brains have been cultivated since our earliest ancestry to pay attention to and remember stories.

Stories appear in our earliest childhood memories and have taught us right from wrong, good from bad, light from dark. The same can be true for stories crafted for adults. But the power of stories shouldn’t be reserved for just your down time—they can be brought into workplace training as an effective means of transferring knowledge.

The structure of a story—beginning, middle, end—is a pattern that our brains recognize and respond to. Good stories also follow ups and downs, tap into emotions and get us to empathize with the character (unless that character is Zaphod Bebblebrox). Creating that emotional connection enables us to remember more of the information shared with us. (Interested in why? Check out this fascinating YouTube video.)

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

If you get a chance to watch the video, you’ll learn all about mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are part of the reason why emotion and stories are so powerful. Our mirror neurons fire even when we read a story and connect with a character. Here’s how it works:

According to Maria Konnikova, “A key element of emotional memory formation is the direct line of communication between the amygdala and the visual cortex. It tells our eyes to pay attention at moments of heighted emotion. The amygdala may also signal the hippocampus that it needs to pay special attention to encoding this particular moment.”

When we’re implementing any kind new knowledge, skill or behavior, we definitely want our learners paying attention. In 1980, three researchers from University of California compared the memorability of narrative texts—such as the story of Noah’s Ark—and expository texts, such as encyclopedic entries. They found that subjects remembered the narrative texts 2X as well as the encyclopedic texts. In a separate study, researchers also found that memory for emotional scenes was significantly higher and the vividness of the recollection was significantly greater. (Source )

Storytelling and Training

So what does this all mean for you? Think about your learners. How have you been capturing their attention? Has it been more Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Encyclopedic Galactica? When done well, incorporating storytelling into your training is an impactful way to capture attention and get your message across.

In my next blog The Instructional Designer’s Guide to the Galaxy Stories: Part 2, I’ll share a simple framework for turning your encyclopedias into stories. Because, after all “It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems with just potatoes.”

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