Storytelling in Instructional Design

Storytelling in Instructional Design

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Term2.png Storytelling in Instructional Design

Storytelling can be a very powerful tool in learning design. Storytelling is one tool in the instructional design toolbox. It helps to understand how to act and react to certain situations. Stories engage our thinking, our emotions, and imagination all at once. They bring coherence to the chaos of information and experiences we are exposed to, organizing and connecting them in a meaningful way. This facilitates engagement, favoring attention, sense making, and action. Stories have the power to make a point more fascinating and memorable, adding credibility to an idea. As a story resonates with the listeners they are more comfortable to take in the message and act upon it.

The human brain is much more used to remember facts told in a narrative format than in a simply descriptive one because human beings are wired by stories. As the authors of Influencer: The Power to Change Anything put it “Simply giving the take-away message of an experience often leaves people unmoved while telling the full story changes hearts and minds.”

Research has determined that our memory is organized in compartments. The sensory memory normally takes in all the informative stimulus, discharging just a portion considered to be useless. John Medina, author of Brain Rules says that “we do not pay attention to boring things. We get through them, but it’s not sinking in.” The short-term memory has very limited space. There is a scanning process where the brain will be looking for “connections” to facilitate storage in the long-term memory and later retrieval. Learning occurs only in the long-term memory. This is where information can be retrieved and acted upon.

Storytelling is an instructional tool with which designers deliver information dynamically as opposed to the conventional method where information is delivered statically. Since memory is the process of creating, storing and retrieving, the more we create relationships with the human nature the greater the chance the message being communicated will be retained. Stories influence attention, memory and decision-making.

Learning designers normally use stories with two main purposes:

1) to deliver information through a narrative that is based on facts and experiences, but which would be more difficult to retain if presented in a descriptive format (e.g. case study);

2) to assess the learning progress where the stories appear under the form of problem based or case based exercises.[1][2]

Storytelling can provide variety in the learning experience and enhance the “chalk and talk” approach. They can be used at the very beginning of a sequence to gain the attention of the learner, in the middle when introducing a complex concept or at the end as a way to summarize information.[3]

Stories engage our thinking, emotions, and imagination all at once. As listeners we participate in the story with both mind and body as we enter the narrative world and react to it. Storytelling is a human art form that teaches about the human experience.[4]

It bonded the early human communities, giving children the answers to the biggest questions of creation, life, and the afterlife. Stories define us, shape us, control us, and make us. Not every human culture in the world is literate, but every single culture tells stories.[5]

"Our wisdom, our intuitive knowing is imbedded in the stories we tell. Storytelling is the oldest form of communication. The first thing people do upon meeting each other is begin telling stories. According to brain/mind research, we organize information in story form. It is how we make sense of the world around us. And it is how we communicate that understanding to another. Stories allow us to bypass the linear and access whole brain learning."[6]

Stories have also the feature to remain in long term memory and help to solve everyday problems, ensure survival, and pass on this wisdom to other generations. For all these reasons they can be great ways of presenting instruction to learners. In particular because:

• Humans are wired to stories;

• We pay attention to stories and want to know the ending;

• It helps us connect our own lives with stories;

• We remember good stories;

• Inspires purposeful talking, and not just about the story-there are many games you can play;

• Raises the enthusiasm for reading texts to find stories, reread them, etc;

• Initiates writing because children will quickly want to write stories and tell them;

• Enhances the community in the room;

• Improves listening skills. [7]

How ordinary learning design compares with storytelling for learning?

Learning Design Storytelling
Learning Strategy Plot
Objectives Moral of the story
Instructors, moderators, facilitators Characters
Break components into pieces Holistic approach: all is integrated
Simply put the learner in the middle of the content: to learn Contextualize the situation, creates scenes and drives the learner’s imagination, engaging it to construct meaning and learn.
Tell stuff the learner need to learn and keep reinforcing it to make sure it is retained. Establish connections through emotions to retain attention, construct meaning and act upon when it is needed.

Toolkit.png How to create an effective story

The most important thing is to keep it simple! When you begin to compose a storyline it is important to focus on just one main concept at a time. You don’t need to convey all the information. Isolate the key points you want the learner to remember and concentrate on correlations. What is the most important point for the learner to walk away with? The answer is the message, write it up, keeping it simple.

1. Analyze the content: select what content you will develop. Telling good stories means having good stories to tell. Look for : anecdotes, historical narratives, case studies, allegories, thought experiments. These are great places to start.

2. Grab learners’ attention: maintain the attention of the learners focused. You can do this by opening the story with a hook. A hook is a surprising element, an interesting incident, question, or problem that encourages the learners to keep paying attention.[8] Keep J. Medina in mind: we don’t pay attention to boring things!

3. Stimulate curiosity and imagination: A story should challenge, stimulate thinking, create emotional resonance, and live on in the minds of the readers/listeners.

Using storytelling to deliver information in the instructional design process implies following few steps, also known as the ADDIE model: design as storytelling

       Step 1. Analyse:

• Identify the conflict: consists in identifying the problem that needs to be solved to achieve the performance wanted.

• Getting to know the learners: Who are the learners? How does one of their day to day lives look like?

• Consider the learners’ environment.

• Decide the form of the story: What kind of story shall be used? A fictional story? A longer story? What multimedia supporting elements should the story include?

       Step 2. Design: Design the plot of the story.

• Draft a script. It doesn’t need to be a detailed one, but needs to present the key outline. Introduction: How do we relate the instructional story to their own lives?

• Escalating action: the information is delivered progressively starting with the most basic concepts and ending with the most complex ones. The modules need to be scaffolded.

• Climax (the peak): assessment activities should challenge the learners in accordance with what has been previously provided engaging the learners in critical thinking.

• Resolution: provide learners support to transfer the information provided into their lives. At the end they have to see the relevance of the training they have been provided with.

       Step 3. Development/Implementation/Evaluation:

• These three stages take place almost simultaneously when creating an instructional story. Evaluate the objectives, design and instructional methods constantly throughout the development and implementation phase.

• Keep only the content that supports the plot (need-to-know content).

• Answer the questions: What facts, concepts and principles could support the learners in solving their real life problems? Did you provide them with the big picture? In other words: do they know the context?

• Hand out the story for reviewers to see the story from the eyes of the audience.


• Your main character(s) need to relate to your learner. They should care about them.

• What is the theme of your story? Where does it take place?

• Who is the main person or character in the story?

• Who are the supporting characters?

• Know where the end is from the start, this will help you focus. You don’t want the listener to be distracted from understanding the central theme or message.

• Create a timeline working backwards from the end to start. Think about what comes right before the end and keep working backwards until the beginning of your story.


• Check your facts: dates, locations. If you are going to relate on date consider that it should not be time sensitive if you want your production to have a lifespam (e.g. a video animation);

• Length: The attention span is short. Keep videos/animations under 4 minutes.

• Audience: Make sure is are speaking globally, both geographically and culturally.

• Video/animations: What will make them successful will happen before you ever record or script. It is what content you will record in the first place.

•Telling good stories means having good stories: Look for anecdotes, historical narratives, real case studies, for example.


See also: Storytelling, Instructional Design, Problem-based learning, Case-based learning, ADDIE

MATERIAL.png Additional Materials
Document Content
How people learn This infographic explains the brain's learning process. It explains in a visual way the transition from the sensory memory to learning and the main factors involved.
The main elements of a story This infographic shows what are the main elements that should be used to create a story.
What is storytelling? This infographic explains some very brief points on the connection between storytelling and learning.
Storytelling techniques This infographic highlights some of the storytelling techniques. It is based on the article[11] taken from the website

Link icon.png Web Resources
Below you have a list of resources that provide additional information on different aspects of Storytelling.
Link Content
The Basarwa’s right to water and livelihood in Botswana

(Video, 4 minutes)

This short video has been addressed in the course "Human Rights and Environmental Protection for Sustainable Development" and gives a good example of application of the storytelling techniques.
The Endorois community of Kenya and their right to development - Episode 1

(Video, 4.01 minutes)

This video is the 1 episode of the story of the Endorois community of Kenya and has been used in the "Human Rights and Environmental Protection for Sustainable Development" course to give the possibility to reflect on some of the main topics of the course. It's a good example of application of storytelling for learning.
The Endorois community of Kenya and their right to development - Episode 2

(Video, 3.55 minutes)

This video is the 2 episode of the story above.
The Endorois community of Kenya and their right to development - Episode 3

(Video, 2.22 minutes)

This video is the 3 episode of the story above.
Social Media Guidelines at Hitachi Data Systems


This video of Hitachi Data Systems Academy gives a good example of how storytelling has been used to explain the correct use of social media.
Programme Ibtikari -Sauvons le tourisme algerien-

(Video, 6.43 minutes)

This video has been used as a hook for a training workshop on entrepreneurship development. It's an introduction to engage the participants with the main assignments they would have through the workshop.


  1. Problem based learning
  2. Case based learning
  3. When to Use Stories
  4. Storytelling in Teaching and Learning
  5. Why Storytelling in the Classroom Matters
  6. Learning and Growing Through Stories
  7. Why Storytelling in the Classroom Matters
  8. How to Create an Effective Story
  9. Storytelling and Instructional Design
  10. Instructional Design
  11. 8 classic storytelling techniques