Why stories slide into our memories without effort

Why stories slide into our memories without effort

We ended last time with the assertion that moving to narrative-based learning provoked significant, and truly positive, changes in my business school classrooms. As we saw, among the most noticeable benefits of teaching this way was that students’ retention of course material increased dramatically. This was an outcome I had anticipated from the beginning, though this “memory effect” turned out to be even far greater than I had predicted.

Most importantly, the first few sets of examination papers I read showed that students were remembering not only the stories but also the theoretical concepts associated with the cases we had discussed.

These results were exceptionally gratifying. In the end, this clear and consistent improvement on exams encouraged me to reflect still further on why the lessons of our cases were so much easier to recall than the concepts from lecture-based teaching.

For me, this was all taking place during a five-year period of intense focus, both on my teaching and on my doctoral dissertation. And, it often happened that the experiences of my classroom were confirming what I was seeing in my research.

At the same time that I was studying the advantages of narrative over other forms of communication, I was also observing it firsthand among my students. As such, I was becoming more and more fascinated by the notion that story is indeed the best way to learn and remember things. With the students, stories from our case studies seemed to slide effortlessly into their memories.

As I continued to explore the link between narrative and memory, I began looking more closely at the question of exactly why this would be so. One of the primary conclusions from my early readings in this field was that stories are so memorable because they are vivid, dramatic, and concrete at the same time. They leave us with colorful images, of course, but also with something tangible to hold in our minds.

This duality, that narrative is both colorful and tangible, is among the most important sources of its power as a communication device. Because it can be simultaneously emotional and rational, narrative reaches us in a more holistic way than other forms of discourse. Indeed, it is perhaps the only way to touch a listener’s head and heart at the same time.

Looking back on this time in my professional life, I realize now how very fortunate I was to have such an opportunity—to be applying the theory of my research so directly to an innovative dynamic I was implementing in my graduate school classes. This crossing of theory and practice was not part of a conscious plan but rather the result of happenstance. Both my dissertation topic and my teaching were evolving, and each one in ways that would encompass varying facets of narrative.

Moreover, I certainly was not fully conscious of it then, nor aware of how much I was learning myself, for I was busy living in the moment. Reprocessing the experience years later, though, I came to understand what a truly remarkable period it was for me and for my world view. As I often comment to my audiences nowadays, we live life moving forward, but we can only understand it looking backward.

In any case, learning from these years would form the foundation for much of my professional activity since that time—in teaching, consulting, and public speaking.

The next post will explore other elements that explain the power of storytelling as a stratagem for all types of communication.


Image: Flickr user Nick Kenrick