Thursday, December 1, 2016

Why Stories Drive Social Learning - Tip #111

Why did Susan Boyle become an overnight sensation?

According to Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman in their paper What Makes Online Content Viral?, “Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal.” The authors explain how evoking certain emotions in people increases the chance of a message getting shared. “If something makes you angry as opposed to sad, for example, you’re more likely to share it with your family and friends because you’re fired up,” Berger says.

Awe-inspiring content strongly influences emotions and increases action-related behaviors. Boyle's impressive and remarkable story captivated the hearts of her listeners and gave them hope. People realized that new doors can open at any point of life. Many were inspired to follow her footsteps.

Thanks to YouTube, Boyle became an instant international celebrity. Inspired by what she accomplished, millions of viewers exchanged insights about their feelings, their opinions and their own hopes. People from all over the world learned about each other. Boyle's story affirmed what Academy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer said: “The power of YouTube has made it the most valuable storytelling outlet our planet has ever seen.”

The challenge then becomes: How do we leverage social sharing behavior and formal learning content and instructions? Here are some ideas to help you get started on arriving at an answer.

Tip 1: Use language that encourages experience sharing.
Stories arouse emotions and enrich the mind. Consider these two approaches of giving information.

The first approach: “Constant exposure to loud noise is harmful.”

The second approach: “Do you know that Roy lost his hearing due to too much exposure to noise?”

The first approach states a fact; the second invites the listener to engage in a conversation and thus has a stronger impact than the first because it evokes an emotional response and a desire to know more.

When we get so emotionally involved with a story, we begin to identify ourselves with some of the characters. Because we are social beings, we are always in a relationship. Sharing what we feel, what we think and what we do just follows spontaneously. Emotions are as contagious as viruses.

To make experience sharing smoother, use language that encourages it. Examples include:
  • What has worked or not worked?
  • What are the frustrations?
  • What are the joys and dreams realized?

Tip 2: Encourage sharing of factual content.
Social learning, unlike formal instruction which is highly factual, is contextual and emotional, thus elaborates on a the wider scope of the story.  It melds facts with emotions and context, and weaves stories and factual content into seamless lessons. This is facilitated by stories, which act as emotional drivers and help create context for learners.

Present factual lessons using an emotional context that learners can immediately relate to. Introduce facts by highlighting its impacts on living situations.

Consider the following scenarios and how you can seamlessly incorporate facts into their emotional context:
  • What would a broken spare tire do to the health and safety of a worker?
  • How would listening help establish rapport?
Tip 3: Allow learners to share their interpretations of factual content.
When people share stories, they begin to ask questions. Have you experienced something like that? Did you ever feel the same way? How did you resolve it? Did it work? They share factual content that are meaningful to them.

Encourage learners to share their experience about a specific problem or situation. Guide them by asking questions like “Have you seen or experienced this in your life or situation?” or “What would you do to resolve this?”


Stories enhance successful social learning because they add meaning to factual content. They encourage learners to share their own stories. Hence, stories are preferred methods in social learning projects.


Jonah Berger, Katherine L. Milkman (2012) What Makes Online Content Viral? Journal of Marketing Research: April 2012, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 192-205

David Brooks. The Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens. Short Books: April 1, 2011

David Brooks. The Social Animal. March 2011

Brian Grazer. Susan Wojcicki. Time: April 16, 2015

Association for Psychological Science. Why Do We Share Stories, News, and Information With Others?. June 28, 2011

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

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