MindEdge Online Learning

The Power of a Story


The Power of a Story

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By Erin Rodrigue
Editor, MindEdge Learning

Ask anyone to name their favorite Super Bowl ad, and they can likely answer in seconds.

Of the many hits throughout the years, Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” tops the list for many, myself included. The commercial—which aired in Super Bowl XLVIII—tells a heartwarming story of a puppy who escapes to a nearby farm, befriends a horse, and slowly develops a relationship with the horse’s trainer. Eventually, someone arrives to adopt the puppy, which culminates in a dramatic intervention by the horses on the farm.

Viewers felt an emotional connection to the commercial. They extracted meaning from it. Most important, they remembered it. Based on these results, you could say that “Puppy Love” exemplifies effective storytelling.

Since the times of cave paintings, myths, fairy tales, and fables, storytelling has captivated us as a species. Stories are an authentic part of the human experience; they influence how we think, how we make sense of information, and how we share, remember, and recall the past. Although the media have changed, storytelling remains one of the most powerful forms of communication.

But what does it have to do with eLearning?

The science of stories

A good deal of scientific research is putting a much finer point on how stories affect our learning processes.

A recent study by Emory University identified changes to the brain’s neural patterns that are linked to reading stories. Researchers tracked a surge of activity in the subject’s left temporal lobe— the part of the brain responsible for processing semantics in vision and speech. In layman’s terms, stories create more brain connections than straightforward facts, figures, and other raw data.

Other cognitive studies echo a similar conclusion: when a lesson is taught in the form of a story rather than with bulleted lists or pie charts, learners are more susceptible to internalizing it and, therefore, remembering it. Further, when stories are relatable or emotionally evocative, they facilitate a more profound sense of connection with learners.

We also know the brain releases several neurochemicals in response to hearing stories, including:

  1. Cortisol, which helps with awareness and focus
  2. Dopamine, which helps facilitate arousal; and
  3. Oxytocin, which, in combination with cortisol, produces both action and empathy

Engagement, enthusiasm, retention—aren’t these all important ingredients in eLearning?

How it works for eLearning

Getting lessons to “stick” is one of the greatest challenges for eLearning. If the message is too tedious or uninspired, the learner’s attention will fade or wander throughout the lesson. But if the message is too informal or humorous, you run the risk of entertaining the audience without providing any sufficient takeaways. Storytelling is an effective eLearning tool to present content in an informative yet engaging way.

Here’s how to integrate and enhance its impact:

  • Scenario-Based Learning

    Abstract concepts, particularly soft skills such as negotiation and leadership, often rely on the learner’s preexisting knowledge and experiences. As a result, these lessons may prove challenging to teach, especially in an eLearning environment.

    With storytelling, however, we can build realistic scenarios, create relatable characters, and teach soft skills through the journey of the protagonist, their actions, and the consequences of those actions. Then, when learners are asked a question— such as, “What would you do?”—they can put themselves into the situation and employ knowledge, logic, and reasoning to evaluate their options. Scenario-based learning becomes much more powerful when the story is both realistic and relatable to the learner.

  • Gamification

    The use of games for storytelling can make learning fun and engaging for remote learners. At the same time, delving deeper into an unfolding story also appeals to learners’ emotions and sense of curiosity. Of course, adding interactivity through games doesn’t simply mean asking the user to “click” more often. This is where storytelling comes in, creating meaningful interactions that require learners to recall information and make decisions.

  • Multimedia

    Stories fire up the imagination and engage emotions by activating multiple sensory areas in the brain, including the auditory, olfactory, motor, and visual areas. Audio clips, images, and videos can immerse learners in scenarios and give them a sense of being in a realistic environment. Some learners prefer to learn through reading, some through visuals, and others through sound—making it essential to use different media elements to enable different senses and styles of learning.


No technology, no matter how advanced, can match the capacity of the human brain. Storytelling has, is, and will continue to engage the brain on many levels, thereby serving multiple purposes in the learning process. Leveraging the power of storytelling can prove to be a highly effective tactic for engaging learners and increasing comprehension and retention.

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