Monday, August 22, 2016

Change Learners’ Minds By Changing The Stories They Tell - Tip #103

What is the Story Picture in Your Mind?

Suppose you received a message from your boss that he/she wants to see you as soon as you come in. However, it doesn’t say why. How would you react? What scenes are running in your head?

Here’s another scenario. What if your loved one is out of town on a business trip. You expect a text once he/she has reached the destination. True, the scheduled arrival was late last night but it’s already morning and no text has arrived. How does that make you feel? What thoughts are rushing through your mind?

Give yourself a few minutes to go through the questions and answer them. Is there a common thread in your answers? 

These events are both imagined situations and the answers you provided were based on a story you’re telling yourself. Whether positive or negative, the story you tell yourself is about what could possibly happen or what possibly happened.

Making Inferences, Recognizing Patterns

Telling ourselves stories isn’t limited to exercises like those above, though. Without even realizing it, we tell ourselves stories all the time. We go through a narrative or several narratives from the time we wake up until it’s time to sleep. Geez, even our dreams (or nightmares) are stories, too!

Stories are natural for humans. They’re central to our existence. Cultures worldwide have their own stories to share. In fact, we’re so enamored with stories, that we find stories even when there aren’t any!

Have you ever looked at the clouds on a clear, sunny day and thought you saw a unicorn (or some other figure) taking shape? Our brain is so hardwired to recognize patterns that we imagine seeing patterns when in reality they’re just puffy balls of mist. 

Why is this fact important and how can trainers and designers use this to their advantage?

In one study, scientists found that when someone tells a story, their brains and the brains of their listeners synchonize. When certain parts of the storyteller’s brain lights up, the same parts lit up in his/her listeners’ brains as well. This amazing phenomenon occurs because the brain can’t tell real experiences versus imagined ones.  As a result, the storyteller was able to let his/her listeners experience what he/she experienced. In short: “By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains,” according to Uri Hasson from Princeton University, one of the study authors.

Social psychologist Jennifer Aaker adds, this means stories should be able to take listeners where you want them to go.

Craft Your Signature Story

As trainers, we aim to see our learners take on the desired behavior. Stories should reinforce the lesson. Since stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone, it’s a great tool to use especially when we want a lesson to stick to our learners’ minds even after the session is over.

Aaker suggests, trainers should develop their portfolio of signature stories. A signature story is “a story that after you tell it, people who listen to it somehow look at you differently.” Signature stories (1) shape how learners see you and (2) can be used as a tool of power and (3) persuasion.

When crafting your signature story, remember to ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Why are you telling the story in the first place? 
  • Why would the audience want to listen? 
  • Why would the audience care? 
  • Why would the audience want to share the story?


Stories are powerful tools to persuade people to change their perspective. Asking questions helps learners make inferences to make the story, integrate themselves into it, and as a result make the lesson more memorable.

As a trainer or designer, what is your signature story? What kind of stories are you known for or would like to be known for? Share your thoughts.


Tip #102: Cognitive Tunnelling: How to Achieve Focus Through Stories 

Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior. The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 57, No. 2 (April 1944), pp.243-259

Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson. Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2010 Aug. 10; 107 (32)

Jennifer Aaker. Harnessing the Power of Stories. Stanford Graduate School of Business, 2013

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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