Today, employees want to find meaning in what they do. And a great way to instill meaning in learning and development (L&D) is through the power of storytelling. Storytelling is a human-centered approach to teaching employees new skills. “Stories are incredibly helpful for building empathy, for putting people into the shoes of others and helping them see the world from new perspectives,” says Bianca Woods, customer advocacy manager at Articulate.

Storytelling can also help employees make deeper connections with training material and how it applies to their role. Woods explains that stories are great for taking theoretical information and helping people see how it applies to their day to day. “It tends to make things click that wouldn’t have otherwise,” Wood shares. With the use of online training increasing over the past few years, integrating storytelling into e-learning is one of the most effective training strategies for L&D leaders. Let’s take a look at how storytelling can improve learner retention and engagement.

Improving Learner Retention and Engagement

Stories can shape our minds and leave a lasting impression. According to research, personal, emotionally compelling stories engage more of the brain, and, as a result, have a better chance of being retained than a non-narrative set of facts. This makes storytelling a great tool for increasing learner retention and getting the most out of your training investment. “Stories are amazing for [knowledge] retention,” Woods says. “It is very powerful for deepening people’s understanding.”

In addition to boosting learning stickiness and retention, storytelling can also help increase learner engagement. “If it’s good storytelling, it can be really fantastic for building engagement, getting people’s interest, keeping their interest and encouraging them to finish things,” Woods explains. In fact, learners are six to seven times more likely to recall information learned when it’s framed in a story compared to a list of bullet points.

Trina Rimmer, director of customer advocacy and product evangelism at Articulate, shares that “grounding learning topics in a relatable human story is so much more inherently compelling.” Since storytelling is such an effective way to hold learners’ attention, it can not only help learners retain information better, but also help them to engage more deeply with the training experience.

Best Practices for Integrating Storytelling into E-Learning

Here are some best practices to consider when integrating storytelling into an e-learning course:

  • Identify the hook: When creating a story for an e-learning course, the first step is identifying your hook. “If your first few sentences don’t grab someone’s attention, you might have already lost them,” Woods says. Sharing a shocking statistic or a surprising fact can grab the attention of your learners and encourage them to learn more. For instance, sharing that 70% of change initiatives fail may shock some learners and compel them to complete their e-learning course on how to successfully manage a change project.
  • Craft a compelling story: When integrating stories into e-learning, it’s important to understand what makes a good story. The story should be well connected to your learning content and embedded throughout the course. “You want something that clearly relates to the rest of the content and is pulling its own weight,” Woods says. “The story shouldn’t just be there for fluff.” An effective story should work alongside training content to help reinforce points or provide clarity on a specific topic.
  • Ensure relatability: The story must be relevant to learners and mirror the real business environment. “If you have to provide tons and tons of context to bring the learner into the story then that’s probably not going to be great content for training,” Rimmer shares. When stories are simple and based on real situations they encounter in the workplace, learners are more likely to retain the information.
  • Use informal language: Language matters when incorporating stories into e-learning. Avoiding stiff dialogue and using conversational, everyday language can help to engage learners. “You have to set aside your business writing and put on your conversational, warm, human writing hat,” Rimmer explains. Learners will be more apt to engage with the content if it sounds more closely aligned with how they communicate. And since the intention of using stories in e-learning is to boost learner engagement and retention, you want to ensure that it’s memorable.
  • Make it “sticky”: To ensure memorability, the story has to “stick” with your learners. For instance, Woods shares her experience with an e-learning course about cybersecurity awareness training related to phishing. The course was predominantly video-based and from the perspective of a fictional criminal named Frederick “Phisher.” The course uses Frederick Phisher to teach learners about phishing with a behind the scenes look at how he scams people. This is a great example of how to use stories to hold learners’ attention while instilling critical knowledge.
  • Create a safe learning environment: Stories can help to create a safe learning environment where learners can practice new skills and learn from their mistakes. For example, Rimmer designed a simulation game about navigating difficult conversations. In this scenario-based game, learners walk through the experience of accepting a job offer and having to make difficult decisions based on real-life challenges, such as negotiating the salary. This course provides learners with a safe space to fail and learn. “Sometimes we need a safe space to get a little uncomfortable and make some mistakes,” Rimmer says. “If you fail in some cases [in the workplace], it’d be pretty bad. So in the worst case scenario, you don’t get the salary you were hoping for in this virtual environment. But hopefully you picked up some negotiation tools along the way.”

The Bottom Line

Storytelling is a great way to motivate your learners to participate in training. A compelling story — when done right — can engage learners and help them retain more information. It can give them a safe space to make mistakes and learn new skills. To ensure the content resonates with learners, learning leaders must regularly collect feedback and evaluate the effectiveness of the training program. At the end of the day, if your learners are still talking about the course months later, you know it worked.

For more information on how to build engaging e-learning programs, visit