Using storytelling to improve e-learning outcomes: The what, why and how

Telling a story is the most powerful way to activate our brains. When we listen to a PowerPoint presentation with bullet point lists, for example, the language processing parts of the brain are triggered. We learn the words that are being used, but that’s about it.

On the other hand, stories light up the entire brain. The story doesn’t just trigger language processing – your brain reacts as if the events of the story are happening to you.

The story talks about delicious foods? The sensory cortex lights up. Talking about movement? The motor cortex gets activated. The more your brain engages with the communication, the more you’re likely to learn and recall the material.

What are the ways in which storytelling is effective in e-learning?

Establishing relevance

Learning for adults, in a corporate setting or elsewhere, is challenging. Children have a steep learning curve – adult learners, on the other hand, need to see the relevance of the material to be motivated.

By communicating information in the form of stories rather than usecases, adults relate better to the information being provided and are more likely to stay involved.

Engendering trust

When you tell a story that makes an impact, learners internalize it as if it occurred to them. It triggers an emotional response and emotional engagement. This doesn’t just help the learner absorb the details of the story and the emotional payoff. It increases his/her trust in the material.

Learners believe the content and, therefore, are more likely to recall it.

Improving recall

You may have memorized chunks of the periodic table when you were in high school. Do you remember it now? On the other hand, chances are that you remember that ‘slow and steady wins the race’. That’s because 63% of people remember facts better when they’re presented within the context of a story, whereas only 5% remembered the information when presented in a traditional learning format.

Learners may not remember every detail of the story. However, it is easier to remember the gist of a story, and the moral or learnings derived from it, than a set of facts. 

Increasing engagement 

Another reason why you may remember your childhood stories better than scientific data is that stories are fun! The learner is actively engaged and involved in the narrative and eager to hear what happens next.

In e-learning, since the next part of the story is the next module in the curriculum, this ignites active learning.

How can you use stories in e-learning?

Course structure

Some course curricula lend themselves naturally to storytelling. By creating a story framework, the entire curriculum becomes part of a simple Status Quo – Conflict – Resolution narrative structure.

For instance, for sales training, you could define a pair of salespeople as protagonists. For each module, the narrative can flow from the two protagonists learning (from their mentor) how to prospect, then how to talk to their leads, and how to service the customer post product delivery.

Engaging protagonists and realistic storylines are key when using storytelling as course structure.


As the name suggests, microlearning involves splitting up a complex topic or course into bite-sized modules that are easy for the organization to roll out and for the learner to consume. Studies show that more than 50% of information is forgotten by the learner within the first day of learning! By reminding the user of the main points learned the previous day, microlearning can boost concept retention by as much as 80%.

By its nature, microlearning needs to be highly interesting and engaging. A story works perfectly in such contexts. A short anecdote, with a learning built-in, is a great way to optimize microlearning and increase recall. 

Assessments and gamification

Building stories around a branching structure gives users playable cases to provide hands-on learning. These cases can be used for roleplay-oriented assessment and game-based learning. 

For example, the learners can face a scenario and select from various dialog or action options. Based on correct or optimal selections, they can unlock achievements. Instructors can assess progress based on this roleplay.

Simple narratives

There is a tendency to believe that complex, multi-layered stories are the only kind worth telling. In e-learning, nothing could be further from the truth. The more realistic the stories are, the greater the learners’ sense of empathy. As it’s easier for adults to engage with new concepts when they find it immediately relevant, creating a story that directly mirrors reality helps the learner associate with the protagonist, learn and remember better. To further improve story effectiveness, keep the story simple with short words, fewer adjectives, and simple nouns.

Storytelling is one of the best ways to engage adult learners and get them involved, especially in online learning. By preparing short, simply written, realistic and relevant stories for your e-learning course, you’re likely to see significant improvement in learning outcomes delivered.

To get started on relatable, interesting stories that work for your course, get in touch with our experts today!