Storytelling: The Essence of Living and Learning

July 5, 2023
Storytelling: The Essence of Living and Learning

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

Stories are an intrinsic part of society and culture. From religions and political allegiances to nation-building and corporate identities have been carved out of stories and narratives. Empires have risen and fallen, and leaders have built upon legacies hiring court poets, scholars and historians who can capture and hold the attention of multitudes.

We learn our earliest lessons through allegorical tales. Sometimes it's a hare and a tortoise. Sometimes a crocodile and a monkey. Sometimes a fox and a heron.

Stories work because they simplify information, provide an analogy for relationships and behaviours in the real world. People are moved by tales and lore because they give people the scope to realize versions of realities without being invested in situations physically. Stories thus become the sandboxes to simulate fantasies.

Consciously or unconsciously people turn to storytelling as part of their jobs - be it for a sales pitch, or to clarify a point to colleagues by using anecdotes or analogies.

But, how could the power of narratives, of storytelling be leveraged for learning and development or more specifically for learning in a digital era. 

If you haven't already heard of this, the method is called scenario-based learning.

What is Scenario-based learning?

Scenario-based learning is exactly what it sounds like. Learners are dropped into relatable albeit hypothetical situations, where they are supposed to opt for a series of responses in interconnected scenarios that follow a narrative around their roles in the real world.

In the process, they develop an awareness of probable consequences to their responses, their personal approach and attitudes and hence the wherewithal to improve on the mistakes they made.

A great advantage of this is that the entire process is participative and suggestive rather than being prescriptive. In other worlds they get to simultaneously put on lab coats and be test subjects, instead of  someone lecturing them on what is right and wrong.

The learner hence gets an understanding on the choice levers and gets familiar with a spectrum of decision between ideal and practical. These realizations are organic and foster meaningful behaviour once they are out in the real world.

As part of SBL, storytelling within simulations can be used to:

1. Simply complex subject matter into simple relatable scenarios

2. Setting up context for an immersive, self-driven role-play exercise

3. Give people a perspective around a set of decisions and likely consequences, thereby improving situational awareness and decision making

4. Highlight emotive aspects of real-life scenarios and develop an understanding of responses

5. Help de-familiarize everyday situations, thereby helping people resolve mental blocks and bring attitudinal changes.

The effectiveness of scenario-based learning in simulations


As an L&D tech company with an array of 25+ business and behavioural simulation suites, we have time and again turned to storytelling to imbue corporate learning with one thing it often tends to lack i.e. context.

More recently we launched CatalyX, our latest self-learning simulation platform to help people master a range of everyday competencies at work. CatalyX currently has a set of 10 simulations that leverage storytelling and narratives to drive topical understanding and polish key skills needed to excel in the modern workplace.

Just think about this for a second. The number of people you must have met who told you that growing up, this subject or that was a turn off for them. You ask them why and they would tell you they didn't understand the use of learning it, where and to what they could apply it? What they could gain from it?

In short, it is very important that learners get a substantial direction about the relevance of knowledge exercise when they undertake it.

“Good stories surprise us. They make us think and feel. They stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that a PowerPoint crammed with bar graphs never can.”

Joe Lazauskas and Shane Snow, The Storytelling Edge

A barrage of imperatives prescribed or reams of factual information presented often fail to drive learning. It is because they don't convey to the learner how they would be useful to them in their work-life. With story-telling using narratives within simulations that are based on learner's work-life, learning becomes specific to the context of their work and organization's.

The value of emotional connect

In 2009, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, two New York journalists went about browsing the flea market for junk to conduct a social experiment they called the Significant Objects Project. They ended by buying a 100 pieces of junk for as little as $ 1.29.

In months that followed, as part of their scheme, the duo auctioned the objects on ebay for a fantastic sum of $3,612.51. That's a 2800% profit! Ask how?

Rob and Joshua built stories around each of the auctioned objects. They roped in notable authors to share stories and columns on how those objects mattered to them. The emotional connect these narratives generated converted into the perceived value of the object, that were just junk to begin with.

Narratives within simulations accomplish something similar. Often presenting completely prosaic situations that people face at work to learners in an interesting new light. Thereby, giving people the scope to emotionally connect to the aspects of their roles and tasks, and how to respond or deal  with them.

Scenarios with relatable characters in a relatable setting prod people to empathize and get past their mental blocks in the process.

Holistic Feedback

Cognitive Science scholar, author of The Design of Everyday Things and the first User Experience Architect at Apple Inc., Donald Norman in an essay titled 'Being Analog', once wrote ,"We are analog beings trapped in a digital world, and we did this to ourselves."

Men have designed machines to work on binary codes. A value can have an iteration of 1 or 0. Men however by themselves are more nuanced beings. Often trapped in situations, we don't always make decisions between what is simply right or wrong, 1 or 0; but many times our decisions fall in between, between the ideal and the practical.

Stories within simulations help to replicate the analog signature of situations that learners encounter at work, touching on a wide range of variables that often need to be taken into account for decision-making. This is one of the musts for nurturing soft-skills among learners.

If the feedback that learners receive post scenario completion reflects the nuances of the situations, helping the learners situate different aspects of their soft-skills on a spectrum, it creates the ground for improvement once they are back to the real world.


One of the persistent problems with the multitude of e-learning repositories is their lack of context, their usage of generic content that doesn't inspire emotional connect with the learner. Storytelling as part of Scenario-based learning within simulations is a tested method to overcome these shortcomings to engage learners meaningfully.

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