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Storytelling: A Worthy Emotional Ride

by Laurel Scharien

I’ve never been more invested in learning success than when my kids learned to drive. They are twins, so they began driving at the same time. A boy and a girl – with opposite personality traits and levels of patience – were learning skills that require competence to avoid injury or even survive. Anyone who has parented teens knows the angst I was trying to suppress and how high the stakes of this learning were.

My husband and I knew it was a job for someone with expertise and credibility, who didn’t also remind them to sort the recycling, so we hired a professional driver training instructor. And while the kids developed decent driving skills, I was fascinated by what my husband and I did, as anxious parents who wanted these lessons to “sink in”. We told them stories.

I was 36 then and had been driving for about 24 years. Don’t do the math; I grew up on a farm. My husband had a similar driving career, with more machinery experience than me. Between us, we had an impressive collection of cautionary tales.

Imagine a story database. The young driver mentions safe braking distance, and our worried-parent brains instantly retrieve stories about stopping with loads, stopping on ice, being distracted by our friends in the car when we should have been preparing to stop.

The characters in these stories were relatable, and the kids felt an emotional connection to these driving peers from the past. Their cringes were real as I described sixteen-year-old me, in my dad’s car, sliding on ice into the back of pickup truck. They were likely connecting this to their own past experiences, like sliding head-first into the boards during a hockey game, which led to an ambulance ride. I’m cringing now, but that’s an unrelated story.

Their driver trainer provided information and practice, while we told stories packed with context, strategies for contingencies, and even a few memorable laughs. Today, our 22-year-old kids don’t question the value of keeping a blanket, candle, and shovel in their cars during the winter. I’m sure that tip is in the driver’s manual, but reading it once is not why they’ve adopted the practice.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful teaching tools humans have. Information conveyed in stories helped our earliest ancestors survive. Our brains are wired to easily receive, connect with, and store information packaged in a narrative with a solid plot.  

As social creatures, we empathize with characters, feeling their emotions and considering how we would act in their situation. That experience becomes ours, and the related information is stored in our brains like we lived it. In fact, psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests our recall of information learned from a story may be 22 times better than what we read or heard without a narrative context.

It’s not surprising that storytelling is trending. It’s an increasingly popular strategy for marketing, used in product testimonials, podcast immersion, admirable profiles of food producers and as a hook for potential donors. Scientists are now embracing storytelling to add authenticity to data, and corporate leaders are using stories to inform and inspire their employees.

I didn’t realize I was tapping into such a powerful learning tool when I told my kids those cautionary driving tales, but it was coming from a place of deep evolutionary impulse: protecting my offspring.

I often use storytelling in e-learning instructional design work. Stories are an elegantly simple vehicle that may be packed with information and driven down a memorable road.

I could go on, but enough about me, go pack your winter survival kit and remember to leave plenty of stopping distance on icy roads.

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