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How To Use Stories To Improve Your Learning Outcomes

29 Nov 2017

How To Use Stories To Improve Your Learning Outcomes

What’s wrong with these images?

Stories - unfinished

We all love stories

In a harbour on the eastern shore of Mexico, a whole flotilla of ships was ablaze. The sailors had no chance of putting out the fires and were distraught at the thought that they could never return to their Cuban homeland. But what had caused such a disaster? And what do the images above have to do with stories?

Are you curious?

Your mind likes to know the how’s and why’s and the in’s and out’s. It wants things sorted, finished, tidy, completed and put to bed. It can then file them away and forget all about them. But forgetting isn’t really what you want when you’re training people – or even when you’re learning!

A way of keeping minds open

As anyone who has been on a course with me will testify, I tell lots of stories. They may be case studies, made up stories or real stories, but they all have one thing in common. They don’t get finished…

Well, not straight away anyway

Stories engage our imagination and creativity. They take us away from our usual thinking. But stories are also valuable for teaching people stuff. We remember stories and ideas associated with those stories a lot more easily than dry, factual information. The beginning of a story engages our curiosity — we want to know what happens next and, more importantly, we want to discover the ending. But once we’re aware of the conclusion, our mind closes that loop, and we stop learning.

So I pause my stories and reconnect with them later

By not telling the end of the story immediately, participants’ minds stay open to learning. After they’ve completed an exercise or two to integrate the learning – and asked a few questions (one of which is frequently, “How does the story end?”), I’ll finish the story and close the loop.

You can apply the same open-loop principle to your work

Don’t give the brain what it wants! Try not to leave a piece of work at a place where you’ve finished a part or section of it. Once you’ve completed part of it, your mind will put it aside, and you’ll find it hard to get traction when you restart. Far better to stop when you’re excited and interested because your mind will be eager to maintain the momentum and get back to it.

Here you go!

stories - finished

Does that feels better?

Hernán Cortés had landed his fleet of ships in Mexico in the spring of 1519, having sailed from Cuba the autumn of the previous year. His 500 sailors were tired, hungry and homesick. Cortés knew that seeing the boats anchored in the harbour meant his sailors constantly yearned to return home. He ordered the ships to be set on fire. His crew immediately realised that there was no longer a possibility of returning homeward to Spain – and their old way of life. He effectively forced them to change their mindset and commit to making Mexico their new home.