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Think of your favourite book or film, or even the spine chilling ghost story you were told as a child that never really went away. If you were to make a list of every single piece of information you recall from that story I wonder how long it would be?

For example, it’s not a stretch to imagine even one of the less ardent Harry Potter fans could remember hundreds of tiny details from those books and films. This is incredible, if you think about it. Not only could people remember very complex storylines with ease and characters as if they really know them, direct quotes will likely become embedded almost automatically.

Harry potter

To put it into perspective think back to school or university, or to the last work training course you went on. Then think back to what you considered your favourite topic — how many details can you truthfully remember? 10? 20? Not many compared with some people’s encyclopaedic knowledge of books or films (Oh and don’t try to cheat by thinking of details from an A-level literature course or something, that doesn’t count)

Sometimes listing out points, facts or methods can be useful — it can be time efficient and direct. But how well does it serve as a learning tool?

Say there’s a 15 page PowerPoint with each slide containing 5 points. That’s 75 individual nuggets of information that your brain has to retain, given to you in a passive, inactive and plain fashion.

Researchers have found that words with strong sensory associations excite our brain much more than plain, undescriptive text. For example, “I’ve pulled the main themes out of your memo to bring to our meeting”. That word ‘pulled’ has physical, sensory connotations, and makes it more likely for the words to stick. We use metaphors in our discourse to be more engaging.

When we hear a story our brains busily search for a similar experience to relate it to, whether than story is something joyful, painful, disgusting, or anything else emotive. Our brains are hardwired to search for connections in our past experiences — in fact, there is a certain part of the brain activated when making these emotive connections called the insular cortex. So when you next meet up with a friend and they’re telling you about how they nearly lost their temper the other day with someone or other, consider how hard your insular cortex is working, subconsciously, to make that story as interactive and easy to understand as possible.

3d rendered illustration of the human brain anatomy

There are lessons we can learn from this (that pun wasn’t intended, promise). Storytelling can be a great persuasive tool. Making people use their insular cortex and relate what you are saying to an experience of their own allows you to connect much more easily to what you’re saying. That’s why barristers like to retell the defendant’s story with as much gusto and emotion as possible. They know the Judge and Jury will connect emotionally to what they’re saying.

The best orators also do the same thing. Looking at one of the best known speeches the world has ever seen it’s not hard to pick out the key sensory description:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkTw3_PmKtc

“We will FIGHT them on the BEACHES”. Very, very powerful.

It also has implications for L&D. If you have 20 people in a room and you need them to concentrate on you and take what you say away with them (remembering it for longer than it takes to get home and pour themselves a glass of wine), then a story or two – at least some description – could be key.

Plus, it’s quite hard to yawn and check your watch when your insular cortex is working overtime.

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