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The Science of Storytelling | Part 2

"As we all know, some stories are more effective than others. For example, we all have a relative who tells the same story at family gatherings—it seems to go nowhere and clears the room quickly. To avoid this fate, you must implement the key elements to effective storytelling that will ensure stories are both interesting and successful."

Kelly Prince    
March 27, 2019

Last week we talked about how stories literally light up areas of the brain helping to reinforce information into long-term memory. And while there’s compelling scientific evidence of this, more empirically, most instructors have first-hand experience of the engagement boost that comes with sharing a story in the classroom.

For this reason, it’s essential to enhance curricula with stories. As we all know, some stories are more effective than others. For example, we all have a relative who tells the same story at family gatherings—it seems to go nowhere and clears the room quickly. To avoid this fate, you must implement the key elements to effective storytelling that will ensure stories are both interesting and successful.

The Narrative Arc

If you’ve ever listened to a small child tell a story, you may find them adorable, but also observe they haven’t quite mastered the art of a narrative arc. Most children tell stories sequentially—”this happened, and this happened, then this happened.” All parts of the story are given equal billing and almost excessive detail is provided.

Contrast that with the experience of staying up all night when you have to work the next morning, unable to put a book down. You must find out what happens next, so you turn page after page, bleary-eyed–the compelling narrative pulling you along.

So, what makes a story so irresistible? Looking at the elements of a narrative, we can start with Gustav Freytag, a 19th-century German playwright, who created the 7-Step “Freytag’s Pyramid” for storytelling:

  1. EXPOSITION: the background, setting, characters, setting the scene
  2. INCITING INCIDENT: something happens to begin the action
  3. RISING ACTION: the story builds
  4. CLIMAX: the point of greatest tension
  5. FALLING ACTION: events that happen because of the climax
  6. RESOLUTION: the character solves the problem/conflict
  7. DENOUEMENT: French term meaning “the ending”

Now, we know you are sharing an experience, not crafting an Oscar winning screenplay. However, the pyramid can serve as a helpful checklist when putting together your own stories. At a minimum you need exposition, (the details) and inciting incident, (conflict) a climax, (the point of greatest tension) and a resolution.

(Schenker, 2017)

Let the narrative drive

Here are some ways you can craft your own stories:


Your story should be relevant to the learner and the subject matter. Share an experience you had with a resident who had cancer or diabetes. How did you care for that person? What tasks did you perform? Were you nervous? How did you feel? What mistakes did you make and what did you learn?

Create Cliffhangers

It can be hard to keep the classroom’s attention for long stretches. Break your stories up across lessons so that you maintain engagement. Tell a story that involves a sequence of actions, building toward a climax and resolution. Employ conflict and tension to keep the audience involved and wanting more!

Attention to Detail

Use details to paint a picture—the weather outside, what the resident wore, the color of the bedspread. Details drive the brain to respond to a story as experienced reality—as if it were something the learner was personally going through.Remember ‘neural coupling?’ Alex Blumberg is a podcaster and master storyteller from Gimlet Media and This American Life. He peppers his stories with details at key moments he wants the audience to remember. He says of this practice, “we are hardwired to pay attention to stories with details.”[1]

Make it Personal

Share how you were feeling. Share the impact you had on a family. This can light up the parts of the brain that respond to empathy, releasing the flow of oxytocin, the attachment hormone. Make your former residents the characters of your story. Use detail to share who they were and why they mattered to you. Your students will respond with interest and empathy, reinforcing the lesson’s information as a heartfelt narrative.

Use Surprise

Conflict doesn’t need to be negative. Conflict occurs any time our expectations don’t align with what’s going on. Hollywood calls this the ‘plot twist.’ Maybe a character doesn’t do what is expected, or the outcome of the story isn’t what the audience anticipated. Resolutions that reveal a surprise are especially memorable.

Some types of surprises you can use:

  • Tell the story out of order. “Non-linear narrative keeps the audience guessing at what surprising bit of information will be revealed next.”[2]
  • Include a detail that is “red herring” or false clue. This technique leads an audience to the wrong conclusion. Once the audience figures the real story out, it creates a fun ‘aha’ moment that is truly memorable.

Implementing these storytelling elements into a classroom allows for much stronger engagement and information retention. Students will be able to connect your shared experiences with the lessons at hand – and will much more easily be able to recall this information as they begin their own practice at work. Check back next week as we walk you through how to incorporate stories into your classroom for optimal learning.

[1]   Blumberg, A. (2018, February 14). Driveway Moments [Keynote Presentation]. Training 2018, Georgia World Congress Center, Atlanta.

[2] Hurwitz, N. (2019). Chapter 3, Lesson 8: Using the Element of Surprise in Visual Storytelling

[online course]. Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/using-the-element-of-surprise-in-visual-storytelling.html.

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