So, here’s a question: What’s easier to remember? Abstract, theoretical concepts or inspiring (possibly real) stories?
Stories, obviously. No two ways about it.
Ask anyone the plot of the classic fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, and they’ll launch into an animated narration of how a slow-and-steady tortoise beats an overconfident hare to prove perseverance triumphs over haste.
Ask the same people to explain the Pythagoras theorem; good chance most will fumble briefly — “umm something about a right-angled triangle and uhh… a hypotenuse…” — before throwing up their hands in surrender.
We know, we know, it’s been ages since you last heard of that math concept, but you also seem to remember the long-lost story of the Deathly Hallows like it was yesterday. Yes, Harry Potter fans, looking at you!
Why is that?
The MAGIC of stories, that’s why! They transform bland explanations into invigorating experiences.
The secret ingredient in storytelling is emotion, which, as we know, is the building block of human connections.
You’ve probably heard or experienced first-hand how often public speakers, philosophers, and leaders rely on classic tales, parables, personal anecdotes, and experiences to put their point across.
In doing so, they immediately strike a chord with their audience, who are out there thinking, “oh man, this person gets me!”
To give you an example, who better than a formerly obese teenager who was bullied throughout school to GET why it’s so difficult to tackle low self-esteem?
Well, let’s put aside the examples for later. Here’s the meat of the matter:
For the influential coach, storytelling is THE ultimate tool for making learning effective. Why? It makes articulating a concept so much easier.
For the listener? It’s just simpler to process and remember information when it’s structured as a story. (Case in point, the Deathly Hallows scenario we explained above.)
Sounds straightforward, yeah?
But here’s leveling with you: That’s not all there is to storytelling. What else is there? Let’s shed some light on its significance.
a) Makes your teaching interesting-as-ever to listen to AND remember
Once upon a time, when smart classes and online learning were still a thing of the future, teachers relied on stories to share their knowledge.
Think back to your years in the classroom: which are the moments you remember most fondly or at least vividly?
Was it an English class where you stumbled onto a particularly riveting story? Or a Social/Science class when you learnt about a game-changing discovery, perhaps, Christopher Columbus discovering America or Marie Curie discovering Radium?
How about Neil Armstrong landing on the moon? Oh, and remember Archimedes discovering buoyancy and presumably running down the streets of Syracuse naked whilst screaming “Eureka!” That got our imagination drumming, didn’t it?
You are probably also thinking of the time when one of your teachers shared a fascinating personal anecdote and had the entire class hanging at their words.
Whatever your memorable moments may be, chances are they have little to do with dates, formulas, or definitions.
Much of what you throw at your audience, facts, figures, data, etc., are forgotten almost immediately after. But a well-told story? It goes way beyond the walls of a classroom or your laptop screens.
Did you know; you are 20 times more likely to remember a learning detail if it was delivered as part of a story? Yep, psychologist and educator Jerome Bruner concluded it in his progressive research in cognitive learning.
It substantiates the brilliant Indian proverb that goes, “Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.”
b) Creates a more personal, impactful connection with your audience
Stories help tap into your audience’s emotions and overcome their predisposed notions and paradigms.
As coaches who hope to be recognized as authority figures, it is your responsibility to challenge deeply held beliefs, to tickle your audience’s curiosity, and in the process, expand their thinking.
Take it from Mark Manson, the author of the bestseller book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”:
For example, if you talk about how your experience with starvation as a child links to your activism against food wastage, you are bound to make listeners pay attention. They are out there wondering, “by god! how reckless and irresponsible of us to be wasting food when people are out there dying of hunger.”
North Korean activist Yeonmi Park’s life story rouses that precise emotion!
In her many appearances on the world stage, podcasts, personal YouTube channel, Park has revealed horrific details of her life in North Korea, which she escaped at the age of 13.
From watching children eating rats to rats eating carcasses, being brainwashed, smuggled, and trafficked, her harrowing experiences can move the toughest of listeners and human rights heavyweights to tears.
You see, stories stimulate the conscious; they make people THINK and recalibrate their perspectives.
You know when you go, “oh, how come I didn’t think of it like that”? More often than not, it’s a story that does it.
Of the two little mice that fell in a bucket of cream, the one that persevered eventually churned it into butter and escaped. The other? Drowned.
Which mouse are you?
See? This way, the underlying message of the facts or life lesson resonates with your audience more strongly and thus, becomes impactful.
c) Helps make your audience experience concepts, not just understand them
Stories come closest to giving theories a concrete form.
How? Because you can convey your message through an emotion (or a series of emotions)—pain, frustration, resolve, relief, joy—whatever it takes to strike that chord with your audience.
For example, talking about how you hated math in middle school, but a teacher with an ingenious approach made you change your perspective. Or how getting ridiculed for speaking broken English made you resolve to master the language and restore your confidence.
What you’re essentially doing is making your audience live your experiences through you. Or, another role-modelesque character, possibly a previous client who overcame their pain points with your help.
An excellent example of this is the epic introduction to Chemistry by Walter White in the classic show Breaking Bad. Instead of theoretically talking about what Chemistry is about, he goes on to relate it to life itself – how it changes, and how matter exists and decays.
His demonstration using a burner and chemicals simply wows the students, and also alters their perspective of the subject – all at the same time.
Now, we are not saying you have to be insanely dramatic to convey your message. The idea is to use apt experiences through which your listeners can connect with you.
This way, they don’t just understand your concepts but also have a relatable outlook on which to base their learning.
d) Enables the application of concepts in real life, rather than a theoretical walkthrough
So, how do you breathe life into abstract theories? Especially when a psychological concept can only be understood or worse, a mathematics theorem that can only be memorized?
Take a guess, go on.
Who had stories? Stories is the right answer!
No, seriously, remember what a shitstorm Calculus was? The nightmarish differential equations, trigonometry, algebra? Ughh, the sense of dread it brings just thinking about it!
Yeah, yeah, we know Maths is under the spotlight today. But isn’t it also the most rigid and challenging of all? We can’t help but wonder what it would be like if there were a teacher who actually illustrated how those concepts applied to real life, rather than lifelessly droning about complex algorithms, theorems, and what not! Maybe, so many of us wouldn’t have quit math for life, huh?
Lisa does this incredibly well in a video on her YouTube channel – Maths with Lisa. She not only explains the meaning of calculus through doodles, but also shows how its knowledge applies to real life situations like – oh, we don’t know – a frickin’ rocket launch!
What do you have to say to that?
Maths coaches, we are looking at you. Introduce storytelling in your teaching to make concepts stick. It could be the life story of the mathematician who invented the theorem or principle you are teaching.
For example, the story of the eccentric Pythagoras. Did you know the Pythagoreans (think Pythagoras’ tribe) customarily took five-year vows of silence? Did they seal their lips (figuratively, of course) because apparently, Pythagoras strongly believed in the importance of self-control? Yep, ‘silence is golden’ he said. In fact, the genius enigma delivered his doctrines from behind a veil so his pupils couldn’t peek a glance at him.
Another storytelling trick for math coaches is word problems: asking questions by basing them on real-life scenarios. (We’ll be getting to that soon enough.)
But you get the point, right?
e) Opens your audience up and reveals their true motivations
What do people most care about? Themselves. Their weaknesses, vulnerabilities, anxieties, and so on.
There’s no better way to appear relatable to your audience and mirror those insecurities than sharing something personal. Preferably an embarrassing or clumsy story about you that makes them think, “heh, this person is just as silly as I am/used to be” or “he/she shares the same weaknesses as I do.”
Check out this post by Humans of New York that shares riveting yet relatable stories of humans just like you and us.
Stories like these build an instant connect with the audience because they start seeing themselves in the narrator.
The end result? They become more open, and longer feel hesitant to share their embarrassing problems, issues, past mistakes, and secrets. And with that information in hand, you are truly equipped to address their pain points and provide effective solutions.
f) Helps you position yourself as a mentor, and thus, authority
The leaders and visionaries we know and quote today, do you think they owe their larger-than-life personalities to original ideas and a perfectly engineered vision? Not entirely.
It has to do with their ability to persuade people to follow them on their journey. They have the power to influence their audience and command their trust and loyalty.
Speaking of persuasion and influence, storytelling nails them both.
It’s a well-known fact that great leaders are great storytellers. They use stories to influence, mentor, and inspire listeners and forge a deep connection with them.
Take, for example, Elon Musk, who has been an exceptional storyteller from the beginning of his career. The Technoking of Tesla has convinced jillions of investors to stake large fortunes in his propositions by teasing their imagination.
Check out this Powerwall pitch from 2015 where Musk introduces a rampant problem, explores its history, offers explanations on why people have failed in the past, and finally presents his solution.
From real-life experiences, case studies to parables, metaphors, and inquisitive scenarios—be it during one-on-one consultations or group sessions—the best coaches keep their listeners on their toes and make learning meaningful.
Storytelling is the single most powerful, not-so-secret ingredient that differentiates regular coaches from influential, authoritative mentors. It’s what differentiates a customer from a loyal fan.
We’ve spoken at length about authority and why it matters to you as an online coach, should you want to check it out.
So, how to introduce storytelling in the way you coach?
Every story follows a simple framework; it charts the journey of a customer/client from the problem to the solution. It shouldn’t be too difficult to craft a story around you when you have this structure in place.
Your stories can revolve around your personal experiences or be fictional representations of problems you claim to provide solutions for.
You can also incorporate historical instances, current affairs/news in your lessons to convey your message.
Now, you may be thinking, “I’m no writer, I’m no artist. How do I possibly introduce storytelling in my coaching?”
As a coach, however, you’re already a storyteller. Well, in a way. You engage your listeners, inspire purposeful talking, and get them excited about learning, don’t you?
All you need is to take it a notch above, and refine your overall delivery by making storytelling the epicenter of your coaching methods.
Here are four amazing, awe-inspiring ways you can do that.
1. Make the explanation personal so that you appear relatable
The relatable angle — works like a charm!
After all, people want to be sure that you understand them. That you can help them.
All you’ve got to do is show them that you are like them, and voila! They’ll be convinced!
Yep, it IS that simple.
While explaining a topic that you have had a personal experience with, share a story about how many times you failed, succeeded, and learned lessons.
Say, you are a swimming instructor speaking to a group of students having Hydrophobia. You could build an instant rapport by talking about your legit irrational fear of water:
“This was when I was 9 years old living in Abu Dhabi. We had a huge swimming pool in our complex and I occasionally took a dip on the shallow side when my parents were watching.
On this particular occasion, there was no one around and I entered the deeper side of the pool. I couldn’t have anticipated how deep it really was and started to lose my grip. It was almost a minute before somebody spotted me and saved me from drowning. The experience was so terrifying and painful that I couldn’t step in the pool until I was 15. So, yeah I totally get how you feel.“
If that doesn’t shoo the initial fear away for your students, what does?
The goal is to win their trust. If you can show your students that you share their shortcomings, anxieties, and insecurities, they’ll have an easier time connecting to you.
And that leads to trust.
So, wear your emotions on your sleeve.
Don’t hesitate to expose your vulnerability.
Don’t hesitate to make jokes at your expense.
Don’t hesitate to admit your failures.
Pssst… tell them a good “failure story!”
You know how Bill Gates’ foray into entrepreneurship ended disastrously, Steve Jobs was shown the door by his own company — those are the ones we are talking about.
It proves to listeners that their struggles are real and sends across a positive message, one that they want to hear — “hey, you can overcome your failures/anxieties too.”
Every influential personality has at least one failure story. And instead of sweeping it under the rug, they repeat it every chance they get.
Digital marketing wizard Neil Patel has recounted his failures in a blog on his website.
Did you know Walt Disney faced enormous criticism at the beginning of his career and actually got fired once for “lacking creativity”? That one’s inspired millions, to say the least!
There’s a wonderful quote by him too: “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”
The idea is to make your learners see themselves in your stories, identify with you or your characters, and learn from them.
If you make your stories personal and relatable, your audience will follow your characters wherever you want them to go.
2. Use clever characters with names in your infographics/diagrams
Cartoon strips and illustrations explain some concepts better than a realistic, factual explanation of the same.
For example, those ingeniously portrayed, witty life lessons from “Garfield hates Mondays,” which only Garfield could teach you.
The same goes with Bill Watterson’s “Calvin & Hobbes”, the comic strip that occupied most people’s ‘back-from-school’ afternoons. They got people thinking, “Damn! How did that never occur to me?”
Talk about getting some perspective from a child with a fictional tiger, huh?
Another exceptional example is the animated Netflix series “Bojack Horseman” which masterfully tackles depression and nihilism through a realistic lens.
Fictional characters, cartoons, etc., can make viewers laugh and yet critically reflect on an issue.
Instead of the same old, linear way of teaching, bring to life relatable characters to help students retain information.
For example, if you have an upskilling course for a software developer, the character you create can mimic a software developer’s workplace attire, possibly carry a messenger bag, have a cool designated name like Developer Dylan — pretty much have any and every aspect you visualize in your target audience as.. go nuts!
Next, you’ve got to create content around your character. There is a whole world of creativity to be unleashed here! For instance, highlight the questions your target audience asks, their pain points, solutions, etc.
Include your characters in your infographics and diagrams to mirror your target audience’s presumed behavior.
Characterizing is also a particularly innovative approach to tackling sensitive subjects in a non-threatening manner.
For example, If you discuss racism, sexism, trauma, and other such heavy issues, you can incorporate some light-hearted comic strips into your teaching to better understand the motivations and moral implications of different behaviors.
It will allow your students to visualize the bigger picture better, and send the message across effectively.
3. Deftly introduce stories in the questions you ask
Circling back to the math word problems we talked about earlier: instead of blatantly asking theoretical questions to your students, use a plot to communicate the problem at hand.
Remember the kind we encountered during school days: “John goes to school with 10 chocolates in his bag. He gives away 2 to a beggar on the street on his way. How many does he reach the school with?”
Or, “Shyla leaves home to go to the supermarket. She walks 12 blocks South and then 6 blocks West. How far is Shyla from her home?”
Now, you aren’t directly asking your students what 10 subtracted by 2 is or telling them to calculate the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle. You are structuring your question as a story to speed up their thought process.
Take a peek at any competitive examination, and you’ll find numerous questions like these.
The point being, only through effective storytelling can you transport your listeners from their cramped classrooms to a world of imagination far away from their desks. In this alternate reality, your mind is open to new perspectives, and learning is most effective.
4. Concoct situations for better interaction
Here, you set a story around the topic you’re explaining, introduce a character, and ask the audience what they would do in that situation?
The idea is to have your listeners process what you said and develop their own endings/draw their own conclusions for the story you started telling.
Situational storytelling pretty much allows your students to answer pressing questions on their own.
This way, they take away a lot more from your lessons than they would if you had dumped the facts on them.
See, stories make way for new perspectives. However, when you explain your stories rationally and end them with a moral, you tell your students what they should “understand” or “take away” from the situation. There you limit their perspective. After all, why should they delve deeper when they already “know” the outcome.
But if you want to challenge their preconceived notions and expand their thinking, leave your stories open-ended.
For example, “The Tortoise and the Hare” has spawned numerous interpretations since it came out. While some are of the opinion, “perseverance winneth,” others believe “the more haste, the worse speed.”
If you ask us, there is no right or wrong answer. And in that lies the beauty of situational storytelling.
Speaking of ambiguous endings, no one does it quite like the legendary filmmaker Christopher Nolan. His storytelling is risky, exploitative, and pokes at the audience’s perspectives to no end. Think Inception, Memento, even Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman — people are, to date, divided and debating on what really happened towards the end of these movies.
The mind-boggling, creative views that have been spawned over time are but a testament to what the human psyche becomes capable of when it is challenged.
For the last frickin’ time, did or did not the totem stop spinning?
<takes a moment to calm down>
Anyway, that’s one way to go about sowing the seeds of interaction and jabbing perspectives with situational storytelling.
The goal is to ditch the “do this, do that” instruction manual and allow your audience to unlock their imagination and learn on their own terms.
Now, that’s the powerful, authority-signaling mentorship that leaves an ever-lasting impression!
BONUS: Use humor to introduce storytelling. If you watch comedy shows, you know what we are talking about. Whether it is a story of their day or life, workplace tattle, or a current affairs probe, comedians can pretty much spin tales out of thin air. If you’ve been told you have a comic streak, use it in your coaching to improvise some slapstick stories to engage your listeners.
Good coaches teach, great coaches create experiences. Introducing storytelling into your way of teaching is a surefire way to up the quality of your content. So, the next lecture you record, think long and hard about how you can transform it from a mundane, linear piece of content, to a thought-provoking, experiential output. Good luck!