Making Facts Stick With Stories – Jiggling Atoms

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Even technical, software and scientific information can be made engaging and fun for learners because everything and everyone carries a story within themselves. Crafting story development is crucial to the success of emotionally fertilized content integral to learning.

Oftentimes, I hear workshop participants and clients say,
“Scientific fact, software and technical content do not have stories in them.”

Richard Feynman, the renowned Nobel Laureate who has worked in Caltech for many years, has proven otherwise. Feynman has a knack for making complex scientific discoveries and explanations very easy to understand by using day to day experiences. For example, he explains the nature and characteristics of atoms and molecules by using the boiling water illustration. The hot plate and boiling water atoms and molecules jiggle and transfer their heat to other atoms and molecules. They are constantly bouncing, dancing and colliding. This is what happens in boiling water. The behavior of atoms is a fact, while the boiling water is a real-life phenomenon.

Boiling Water

One might think of the boiling water as an illustration. But in actuality, it is a real-life event and told as a story. Look at this example below. Which statement grabs you instantly?

Life is full of trials and tribulations
I started work at 3:00 am and finished at 11:00 pm, totally exhausted.

The first statement is a fact and a technical content, whereas, the second statement is a story.

Many experts agree that stories work to instantly grab learners’ attention and help them relate the content to real-life situations, hence, helping them to retain and apply the content. Stories carry with them the real-life and emotional aspects of learning. When we use stories, there is no need to grab learners’ attention. Learners are naturally drawn to stories, the characters and their experiences, and will automatically lend their attention.

Emotions as Integral to Learning

According to Rosenfield (1988), emotions have important connections to memory. Caine and Caine (1991) said stories add and help in storing information, thus triggering its recall.

“The emotional depth and range that learners have, affected their actual capacity to grasp ideas and procedures. Similarly, content that is emotionally sterile is made more difficult to understand. … To teach someone any subject adequately, the subject must be embedded in all the elements that give its meaning. People must have a way to relate to the subject in terms of what is personally important, and this means acknowledging both the emotional impact and their deeply held needs and drives. Our emotions are integral to learning. When we ignore the emotional components of any subject we teach, we actually deprive learners of meaningfulness.”

Stories and Storytelling Carry Learning Ideas

Stories and experiences are the carriers of emotional content. Stories, which I call organics, have different forms: narrative stories, anecdote, example, metaphor, demo, illustration, meme, and other forms that bring the emotional and real-life aspects of content.

Two Types of Content – Stories and Facts

There are two types of content: (1) the Technical which are factual, objective, mechanical content and (2) the Emotional which are real-life situations, personal context and understanding of the content.

The technical and emotional content work hand in hand. However, we discover that in designing presentations, e-Learning, mobile learning and social learning, there is even a greater need to magnify the emotional side. There is practical reason to this. In classroom or facilitated sessions, the good instructor or facilitator can successfully relate the technical and emotional content by sharing their own stories and experiences. Unfortunately, in much technology delivered learning, the facilitators and stories are absent and we oftentimes find the lessons to consist more of technical or mechanical content. Something is lost in the conversion. The emotional content is “lost in the translation”.

We need to make our learning content more emotionally fertile, not sterile.

Craft in Story Development

The underutilization of stories as a learning design tool is caused by the inherent nature of how most developers receive the source of the content today and the leadership culture that frowns on the “softer and touchy feely” preconceptions of stories.

Most professionals involved in design learning – designers, developers, subject matter experts and leaders – lack the experience that go along with the content: The lesser the experience of professionals with the content, the more removed they are from real-life context and meaning of the content. It is not surprising that we have a deluge of PowerPoint presentations in eLearning and other learning approaches. On the other hand, the more the experience with the content, the more the professional can create stories to help learners learn.

Nonetheless, there is a craft in plucking stories representing the meaning of logic and fact to help learners. By carefully selecting stories to explain the data and technical information, the more we discover and are able to practice our craft better.

Test your craft

The “jiggling atom” example tells us that we can make our learning more fun, engaging and easy for the learner by using stories.

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”

One thought on “Making Facts Stick With Stories – Jiggling Atoms

  1. I so much appreciated "Making Facts Stick with Stories".

    Woke up this morning, made a cup of coffee and began to write. I found myself discouraged about writing instructional tutorials, so I went to read some information on e-learning.

    I then read your article and found new inspiration infused within!


    Samantha Mariah

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