Storytelling Works. Doesn’t It?

It is conventional wisdom in the learning community that storytelling is an effective form of training. I think we all have an intuitive sense that storytelling engages the emotions of our learners and helps them understand concepts in context. But what does the research show? If you google “storytelling and learning” you will find the following claim made over and over again:

  • “Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests we are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has been wrapped in a story. Why? Because stories are memorable.”
  • “Research shows that messages delivered as stories can be up to 22 times more memorable than just facts.”
  • “Well, research by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner shows that stories are 22 times more memorable than facts. Stories engage the emotions of listeners and keeps their attention. That is why PR professionals have been using storytelling to build brand reputation for years.”
  • “Because stories are facts wrapped up in context and delivered with emotion, they are more memorable. In fact, Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, said that a fact, wrapped in a story is 22-times more memorable.”

Regular readers of my blog know that when I find a learning “statistic” repeated over and over again as fact — as if we were discussing the distance to the moon — I become suspicious. At least in this case the statistic is attributed to someone — Jerome Bruner — but never with an actual scholarly reference (the ur-reference to Bruner seems to have come from Jennifer Aaker of Stanford Business School in a popular YouTube video.)

I studied Bruner a lot in graduate school; my thesis advisor was a big fan.

There are two things to know about Bruner: (1) He was a giant in, and one of the founders of, the field of cognitive psychology and (2) he was a public intellectual who popularized the field, especially within the context of childhood education. As a popularizer he was sometimes inclined to make grandiose claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny. One if his most famous quotes on childhood education is that “We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any age of development”. With all due respect to Bruner, I have yet to meet a three year-old capable of understanding Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

So, where does his quote about storytelling actually come from? There is a claim that it comes from his book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. I’ve not read the book and I don’t have a copy, but some people who have can’t find the quote. And even if the quote does exist somewhere, is there research evidence to back it up?

So, what does the research evidence say about storytelling? It turns out that while there are lots of claims about its effectiveness there is a dearth of actual research.

In one study:

the authors found that students remembered about 50% more from narrative text than expository (straight recitation of the facts) text.

In another study:

the authors found that college students who learned a list of words and were instructed to embed the words in a story remembered six to seven times as many of those words as students who just memorized the list of words. One caveat here is that the students were instructed to create their own stories, which may be a more powerful memory aid than hearing a story told by someone else.

So, does storytelling improve learning? Probably. 22 times? Unlikely.

2 thoughts on “Storytelling Works. Doesn’t It?

  1. Great article on a timely topic for trainers. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon to promote storytelling in the learning process, a little more difficult to truly explain why storytelling or narrative may increase retention in a way that is meaningful for workplace learning. The recommendation to ask learners to construct their own narrative from newly learned facts and concepts as a means of increasing retention is a keeper.

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    1. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that active story construction by the learner would lead to improved retention vs. passively receiving a story from the instructor. I would think it wouldn’t be difficult to set up an experiment to test that hypothesis, though I don’t know of any study that has.

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