Digital Storytelling 1 - Why tell stories?

This is the first in a series of posts on digital storytelling I'll be doing over the next few weeks. These will cover some thoughts on moving beyond slideshows, answering concerns about superficiality, suggestions for assessment and bringing together my favourite links. It's an attempt to get my thoughts in order, not state anything revolutionary.

See this post in it's original context

Stories are about how we experience things and not about how things actually are.

McKillop 2004

Given that humanity has been telling stories for thousands of years, it's not something I think we do enough of. At least in education for "grown-ups". In other areas we're telling and absorbing stories all the time So why are stories important and why use them in education?

We tell stories because they affect us emotionally, they communicate meaning and not just facts, they describe change and they bring us in touch with our audiences.


Stories are meant to create an emotional response in the audience. The emotion is a way of helping us to understand what the story is trying to tell us and also helps us to retain the information. Chris McKillop from Robert Gordon University says:

"We remember stories with ease and struggle to make sense of abstractly presented facts
and figures." (2004)

Perhaps it is the fact that we can use emotional memory with stories that helps with the retention of information. Incorporating an emotional aspect can be uncomfortable to many, especially if working and learning in an environment that prizes rationality and the dispassionate communication of ideas and facts. If, however, you are concerned with reaching and affecting an audience then creating stories can be very powerful.


Good stories are about something, and that something is often above and beyond what the words or pictures are saying. Classical myths have lasted in western culture this long, not because they're just entertaining, but because the stories of Narcissus, Tantalus, Sisyphus and the like help us to articulate something about what it means to be us. Even a simple story about how I got to work this morning can tell you lots about me beyond the banal facts.

So, a story in a leaning context is not only a way of presenting some facts about something that happened but a way of highlighting and reflecting on what the wider meaning might be.


Stories are about change.The classic structure of stories usually follows the pattern of: established normality, some sort of external trigger, struggle and climax, then the "new normal" is established. Think about Toy Story, A Christmas Carol, Ben Hur, Sense and Sensibility, Star Wars. Even Memento, if you're feeling brave enough.

Put simply, stories are about the move from one state of affairs to another, describing the different stages on the journey on the way. Which sounds like a description of learning to me.


Stories are told, not kept. A story that is dreamt up but never leaves the head of its creator could be a great story but it is in the telling that it comes alive. It's a social activity that involves the storyteller and the audience in an active process.

In considering your audience you determine what information is important to include as well as how you tell it in such a way to engage people. Leaving stuff out is sometimes as important as what gets left in. This critical thinking process is an important skill.

Oh, and they can be fun too and that's not such a bad thing.

What would you add to this list?


McKillop, C (2004) ‘Stories about…Assessment: supporting reflection in art ...

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Comment by Chris Thomson on December 23, 2010 at 8:35
Totally agree, Mark. The other benefit is that the audience is more of an active participant in a well told story. For the story to be worth anything, the audience has to apply it's own set of meanings.

Thanks for the comment. :)
Comment by mark turner on December 23, 2010 at 7:08
To expand on your 'meaning' context Chris I like stories simply because they add interest to learning content. My area of training is business and I encourage our managers to give a business presentation with real life stories of business situations they've encountered based around their presentation topic. Telling a story about how a new business process was implemented previously is more interesting than simply stating and reciting the benefits and logistics of a new business process.


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