Throughout human history and across cultures, humans have lost themselves in stories. A key question for eLearning designers is whether that deep engagement translates into learning and retention of information or integration of mores. The type of story, the medium, and even whether storytelling is likely to be effective varies according to the learning goals, but research indicates that using storytelling in eLearning can be a compelling and effective strategy for driving behavior change and instilling or reinforcing cultural norms.

Storytelling has been a means to transmit generalizable knowledge since the days of early humans, who relied on oral storytelling to share information on a wide variety of essential topics—including a community’s values—according to evolutionary psychologist Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, a researcher at the University of Oregon. “One of the most pervasive topics in forager oral tradition is social norms and practice,” Sugiyama wrote. “Stories are also used to condemn and discourage proscribed behavior.”

Sugiyama’s observation that diverse populations have, throughout human history, used storytelling to teach and enforce behavioral norms indicates that this strategy could be useful in an eLearning strategy with the goal of changing employees’ behavior or shifting a corporate culture. Research on the effect of an emotional story on test subjects’ behavior supports this belief.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has extensively studied the link between oxytocin, a hormone that regulates social interaction, and prosocial behavior. Upon realizing how strongly an emotionally charged movie affected him, he expanded his study to determine whether watching an emotionally charged story could trigger an increase in oxytocin—and affect behavior.

Zak found that watching an emotional video story—a father describing his efforts to connect with his terminally ill toddler son—produced both an increase in oxytocin and heightened empathy in test subjects. The empathy was reflected both in self-reports from the study participants and in their subsequent behavior, which included donating to a charity. The study participants’ oxytocin levels and behavior were compared with those of a control group who watched a neutral video, showing the same father and son at the zoo without mentioning the child’s illness.

Zak conducted additional studies to test the link between oxytocin level and prosocial behavior, and found support for such a link. In one study, where some participants were given an oxytocin boost, “those who received oxytocin donated, on average, 56 percent more money to charity compared to participants who received the placebo,” Zak wrote—even though the donations obviously could not help those specific (fictional) individuals. In addition, those participants “showed substantially more concern” for the characters in the videos that all participants watched. “Oxytocin makes people want to help others in costly and tangible ways,” Zak wrote.

This held, even when the “stories” tested addressed unpleasant topics, such as racism, gun control, and terror attacks. “We confirmed that stories that sustain attention and generate emotional resonance produce post-narrative donations—even stories on difficult topics. To the brain, good stories are good stories, whether first-person or third-person, on topics happy or sad, as long as they get us to care about the characters.”

What is a “good” story?

The next question Zak’s team explored was what constitutes a “good” story. “Narratives that cause us to pay attention and also involve us emotionally are the stories that move us to action,” Zak wrote, cautioning that a “bad” story will not influence behavior in the same way.

To test that hypothesis, Zak measured the physical response of test subjects to “stories” that thousands of viewers had indicated that they liked—he used the top 10 Super Bowl ads based on a 2014 USA Today poll. Participants watched the 10 ads in random order while researchers measured their neurologic response. The team had also created a rating system for the ads, which enabled them to accurately predict the viewers’ response.

It turns out that, while viewers might say they like an ad (or story), the brain has its own criteria for deciding what is a “good” or engaging story; some ads that were extremely popular, such as a Budweiser ad featuring a Labrador puppy and a Clydesdale, produced a flat reaction in viewers’ brains. “Our neurologic measures show that people’s attention wanders starting 15 seconds into the commercial,” Zak wrote, attributing the lack of engagement to viewers knowing what to expect, since the horses are a well-known symbol of the brand, even among non-beer-drinking viewers. “The suspense is gone.”

The power of storytelling holds across media; a story can be told orally, in writing, over the radio or a podcast, on video—and, increasingly, through immersive games and simulations. An engaging story follows the classic “story arc” and includes these essential elements:

  • An objective, goal, or conflict—a challenge that the main character must meet.
  • Characters—at minimum, a protagonist or hero. Many stories also include an antagonist or villain, someone who throws obstacles in the hero’s path, as well as a wise mentor who assists the hero and possibly an additional character or two.
  • A plot that follows the conventional story arc—introduction, development of the conflict or challenge that creates rising tension, a climax or turning point, and a resolution of the conflict or challenge.

An eLearning story focuses on a challenge or objective that encompasses one or more learning goals, and it generally ends with reflection that helps cement the learning. An understanding of both the audience and the medium are essential to creating engaging learning stories, according to Oliver Dreon, et al. (see References). Describing a series of math teaching videos that middle-school teacher Tyler Binkley created—and that became popular on YouTube—Dreon wrote, “The videos communicate in the current dialect of the middle grades students Tyler is trying to teach. His development of these short instructional movies involves more than simply learning how to create a digital video; it requires an understanding of storytelling using the current cultural vernacular, and the ability to integrate the medium as an instructional tool to illuminate the content.”

Using storytelling in eLearning can enhance learner engagement and aid in influencing a company’s culture and employees’ behavior. For a deeper dive into “How Stories Help Make Learning Stick,” register for The eLearning Guild’s Designing for Engagement Spotlight, an online event on January 31, 2018.


Dreon, Oliver, Richard M. Kerper, and Jon Landis. “Digital Storytelling: A Tool for Teaching and Learning in the YouTube Generation.” Middle School Journal, Vol. 42, No. 5. May 2011.

Sugiyama, Michelle Scalise. “Oral Storytelling as Evidence of Pedagogy in Forager Societies.” Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 471. March 2017.

Zak, Paul J. “Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative.” Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science. February 2015.