Learning Through Storytelling

Stories are not only a great way to communicate information, they are also a powerful tool for learning it. People remember information better when it comes in the form of a story. In fact, we are so good at putting stuff together into stories that we often get things wrong with it. Fortunately, you can take advantage of our natural tendencies to learn better. Besides making your process more fun, there are three main ways stories can help you learn: forcing careful thought, assisting recall, and providing deliberate practice.

Composition Requires Understanding

First, figuring out a story forces you to think deeply about your material and how to organize it. Sometimes this is relatively straightforward, like choosing which parts of a famous person’s life to focus on and how to sequence them. On the other hand, if you are trying to tell a story about how covalent bonds work, you don’t have the usual raw story material to work with: human characters, actions, and consequences. Applying the lens of “how do I make this a story?” forces you to think about what parts of your topic will be the characters, how you will represent the information as actions  in a satisfying sequence, and what will be the stakes and consequences. You can’t make these decisions unless you’ve engaged with the material deeply, so the simple act of composing the story does a lot of heavy lifting.

Structure Aids Recall

Second, story structure gives you cues to remember details. If you can remember the ending, when you get stuck in the middle, you can ask yourself “wait, what has to happen to get there?” By creating a story, you build logical cause and effect relationships that are easier to follow and remember than a simple sequence. In “The Three Little Pigs”, if I can’t remember what the second brother built his house from, it’s easy to go “what’s sturdier than straw but flimsier than bricks?” and bam, sticks. That is much easier than “What is the second item in a list of potential building materials?” The really cool thing is that you can use this approach to back into memorizing a sequence. If you need to remember things in a particular order (like a list of Kings or the periodic table), you can create a story where every event follows logically and is matched to one of the things in your list. Then when you get through the story, you just so happened to have gone through the list in order, without ever stopping to think “what is item number 37?"

Telling Reveals Issues

Third, the act of producing the story will reveal gaps in your understanding and your memory. When you get to a crucial part and go “aw, crud, what was supposed to happen here?”, you’ve just identified part of the material you don’t understand or remember very well yet. Remember effective practice? Telling the story creates an immediate form of feedback that can speed up your learning. This works well on your own, but it works even better with an audience. Does your story make them feel like they understand the concept you have represented? Do they have questions? Can you answer them? If you find any especially big issues, go back to composition and structure to revisit the basics of your story.

Tips and Tricks

Here are few small things you can do to get the most out of your learning stories.

Be vivid and concrete: We remember tangible things best. So instead of “the limbic system”, Tim Urban talks about “The Instant Gratification Monkey”. The more something can stand out in your mind, the better, so don’t be afraid to exaggerate and use visually clear stereotypes, like a cartoonist.

Anthropomorphize: As social animals, a lot of our brain is wired to care about people. So turn as much stuff into people as possible. Want to craft a story explaining the international power politics that led to WWI? Personify each nation as a kid on a play ground and describe their interactions. 

Make things emotional: Just like we are wired to care more about people, we have a preference for remembering emotionally vivid things. This is really just a specific tweak on being vivid - characters in your story don’t mildly dislike one another, they HATE each other. Warm regard? Nope, UNDYING FRIENDSHIP AND LOYALTY. Not only will it be more vivid, it will be simpler to remember.

Make things crude: Things that are shocking, gross, or sexy are much easier to remember (for obvious reasons). So wherever possible, put these elements into your stories. Two characters get into a fight? Make it a fight in a barnyard and they end up covered in filth. Need to explain a concept that involves two things coming together? Make it sex (and vivid, and concrete). 

Keep the structure simple: Don’t try to come up with some overly complicated plot. The goal is not to tell a story that will win a Nobel Laureate, it’s to help you learn something. So stick as close to some variation of “situation, challenge, complications, resolution”, preferably with a clear protagonist. These types of stories easily accommodate and encourage the other tips above, and are the most familiar and easiest stories to remember.

Obviously some fields take more easily to storytelling than others, but you’ll be surprised by how flexible a learning tool it can be. The next time you find yourself grappling with some difficult material, try composing a story to figure it out, structure it in a way easy to remember, and tell it to figure out where you still have work to do.


Want more stuff like this post delivered straight to your inbox every week? Sign up for my newsletter below.