How Do I Encourage Learner Retention? STORIES!!!

3 Traits of Sticky Stories

Storytelling provides powerful and unique ways for learners to encode and recall information.  There are three main reasons why our brains find stories so sticky (see Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point):

  1. Stories follow a universal framework That means less work for your brain. When you brain works less on organization, it frees up processing power to capture new information as it pours in. Regardless of where you are from in the world, every story has common elements that we expect to hear.  There is always a beginning, middle, and end.  Additionally, there’s a setup, an introduction of the players, and an environment they operate within.  Finally, there’s a point (or moral) to the story, which is usually pretty recognizable.  All these are natural mental storage components of storytelling.
  2. Stories are sequential. When the brain starts to hear a story, it shifts from using semantic or declarative memory (which favors a rote/”drill & kill” pedagogy to remember isolated facts) to a learner’s episodic memory, which naturally and chronologically stores your own lived experiences and others’ stories.  For example, if I were to tell you 7 random tips about golf, you’d need to expend mental energy trying to organize those facts somehow, possibly grouping like items or using some other strategy.  (Much of your cognitive capacity would be wasted on developing infrastructure.) But if I tell you the story of a particularly gripping golf hole, composed of 7 significant events, then the sequence of events provides a lot of the mental organization for you.  Additionally, there’s an internal logic to events in stories (e.g., sinking a, 18-foot putt for birdie can’t happen before teeing off with an exceptional wind at my back.)  In fewer words, more order = easier mental encoding.
  3. Stories have discrete characters.  Human brains love details about people, their personalities, and their character traits.  It’s especially easy to do this if we know the people in the story.  That way, we have all that background information already scattered around our brains to draw upon, a) making it easier to remember, and b) queuing up expectations about how they will behave. But like how every good joke needs a twist, a memorable story’s character confounds your expectations.

3 Universal Keys to Retention

  1. Is it unusual?  Which is easier to remember? A picture of a generic horse, or a rainbow-colored one with a jetpack strapped to its back?
  2. Is it important to you?  It’s easy to remember the daily weather report better when you have scheduled a round of golf for later that day.
  3. Is it a familiar format?  If you typically use feet to measure distance, you’re less likely to remember someone’s height if they give it to you in meters.

While this list of knowledge-retention principles is not exhaustive, if you had to remember only three for use in future presentations or trainings, these are my favs.

These 6 Principles in Practice

Allow me illustrate these six, retention principles in a story.  Recently, my friend Amy told me a personal story about the importance of following divine inspiration while she was on her LDS mission in Germany.  Here’s my re-telling of The Long-Lost Passenger:


Out of breath, Amy and her super-tall mission companion nearly missed their bus home after a long day of unfruitful proselytizing.  They were both feeling anxious because mission rules stated that all missionaries must be home by 9:30pm, and it was already 9:20pm. As they took their seats they were astounded to recognize a former investigator, whom they had tragically lost track of weeks earlier, standing nearby doing a crossword puzzle.  Immediately, Amy felt the distinct impression to stay on the bus and speak to the man, regardless of their curfew.  Amy glanced nervously at her watch…

Although incomplete, Amy’s story is already memorable for me because it contains the 3 universal keys to retention explained above:

  • Unusual — Amy’s story was set in a special place and time in her life; not just your everyday bus ride.
  • Important — Her story was share in response to a personal dilemma I had just been talking with her about. My mind and emotions were primed to receive it.
  • Familiar — I am very familiar with the restrictiveness of mission rules, (and coincidentally the elation of locating a lost investigator.)

Additionally, Amy’s story contains all three of Gladwell’s sticky storytelling elements:

  • A universal framework — A beginning, middle, and (we’re still waiting for the end/moral.) The setup was in telling about the long day of sharing the gospel. The players are Amy, her big companion, and the long-lost investigator doing a crossword. The environment was on a German bus.
  • Sequential — Amy shared the gospel during the day, she caught a late bus home, then she saw an old investigator once on the bus.
  • Discrete characters — My brain has already developed a complex schema of who Amy is and how she typically behaves. Additionally, it also helped me see her in the story because I could see her right in front of me. Additional details about each character (super-tall, and cross-word puzzler) made it easy for me to visualize each player.

So far, Amy’s story has illustrated the universal three keys to retention very well. However, the story’s true conclusion is missing one element that could bolster its memorability—a twist.  Amy and her companion predictably decided to make an exception to mission regulations by staying on the bus, and reconnecting with the man for a full hour before exchanging new contact information and setting up a follow-up appointment.  However, to make the story even more memorable for me, the facts could be changed to confound the listener’s expectations regarding typical missionary behavior of always acting upon spiritual promptings.  How much more compelling would the story have been if Amy had said that she ignored the prompting, and the missed opportunity still haunts her to this day!  That would have really driven home her point—never disregard a divine prompting.

Summative Quiz

What are the three universal keys to retention?

  • Rainbow-colored horses are u_u_ua_.
  • Knowing the weather forecast before paying for a round of golf is i_p_ _t_ _t.
  • Using feet to measure distance is _a_i_ia_ (to U.S. Americans).

What are the three retention benefits of storytelling?

  • Stories use a universal _r_m_w_rk.
  • Stories are naturally s_q_ _nt_ _l.
  • Stories have discrete _ha_a_ _e_s.


Note: Julie Dirksen’s amazingly-practical book, Design for How People Learn, provided much of the inspiration for this post.


About bryantanner

I'm obsessed with learning via the appropriate technology. My professional mission is to effectively deliver instruction to learners in a way that yields the greatest results for all stakeholders involved.
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