How Can Storytelling Improve Knowledge Retention?

By Vicki Kot, LX Design Manager

As a learning experience design manager I do a lot of ongoing research into learning behaviours, specifically how learners’ habits and attention spans are changing all the time. It’s interesting and at times terrifying the lengths that learning professionals now must go to, to create long lasting engagement with their content.

But that’s just half the battle, once the learners have engaged with the content, how do you make it stick? Working with healthcare training makes this a vitally important factor to consider, in fact you could say potentially life saving.

When we train topics such as behaviours of concern, CPR or verification of expected death, the situations may not be faced frequently in real life. Because of that we need to ensure the information is being embedded into the brain of the learner, so that when the training is required, it can be recalled.

Storytelling has been scientifically proven time and again to activate parts of the brain that don’t get activated through processing information alone. The more parts of the brain that are activated, the more likely it is that the information will be seared into the long term memory.

Stories also make the brain release chemicals such as cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin.

Cortisol helps with formulating memories, when you are involved in a story and the main character is under stress, you can also feel stress and consequently release cortisol, and it focuses your attention. I always think of Game of Thrones as a particularly cortisol fuelled watch!

Dopamine, otherwise known as the feel good hormone, actually helps to keep us engaged. When you are hearing or reading a story that is interesting to you, your brain can release dopamine which results in better engagement and therefore retention of the information.

Oxytocin is a hormone that enhances feelings of empathy, trust and generosity. The more empathic and connected people feel to characters in a story, the more oxytocin is released.

Essentially our brains run on electrical pulses, and when we hear stories our brains light up. Neuroscientists have this saying that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’*. So, when you’re hearing a story, you have all of these neurons that are fusing together, making connections, which leads to increased recall.

To put it in a healthcare training context, imagine if ‘Maria’ the carer undertook de-escalation training, and it wasn’t until 2 years later that she found herself in a situation with an individual displaying behaviours of concern, to a level that required her training.

If her training was delivered by procedures written out in text and bullet points, what are the chances of her remembering them 2 years later, when she is in an emotionally charged situation and starting to panic? If you ask me, the chances are pretty slim.

Now imagine if her training was delivered in story-led scenario based training where she got to know ‘George’ the carer and ‘Beatrice’ the individual with Autism, who occasionally displayed behaviours of concern. Maria went on a journey with George and Beatrice, she was engaged with the situations and most importantly, she felt empathy for both of them.

Now when she finds herself in a situation that requires her training, Maria will likely experience similar feelings to those she empathised with George and Beatrice feeling. This makes it far more likely that she will be able to recall the events of the story and the procedure that George enacted to de-escalate the situation.

Storytelling can make a difference to a huge range of training when it comes to increasing engagement and making it stick, and empathy is a key factor to get right. But not all stories light up our brains and engage us, they do need to follow a pattern and include a story arc.

I’m not saying you have to be an acclaimed author to write stories, quite the opposite. Important things to remember when trying to convey information in a story are, to anchor the content – make the listener or reader understand why the story will be important to them, make it relatable, provide a backstory for the characters and take the learner on their journey – trigger empathy and other emotions and you’ll be telling a memorable story.

How can you weave a story into your next project?

*This principle is known as the Hebbian learning rule: i.e., if interconnected neurons become active very close in time during a particular event, their connection strengthens and “a memory” of this event is formed (1). In other words, “neurons wire together, if they fire together”