A New Way To Learn the Critical Skill of Storytelling

A critical skill for leaders and aspiring leaders is storytelling. Throughout history, stories have been an essential form of communication. Brain science even gives us reasons why.

I love to listen to and tell stories. Most people do. We tell stories to friends at social gatherings, share stories about work successes and failures, tell stories so others will learn from us, and we tell stories for fun. Good leaders and good presenters are good storytellers.


When I teach Learning Tree courses, I tell stories about my experiences in whatever I’m teaching. I do it to help course participants learn from my experiences, good or bad. “Experience is the best teacher,” the old adage says, but it is less painful to learn from others’ experiences.

Two articles I read in the last week helped reinforce the need for learning the skill of telling stories well. Learning that skill takes far more time than reading a single blog post. So one article will be a potentially new reason to learn storytelling skills, and the other will be how to learn those skills for free.

Storytelling and Brain Science

Brain science tells us that there are two types of memory: semantic and episodic. Semantic memory is the memory for facts and details. Examples from the article include the names of colors and how to use the phone. Episodic memory is the memory of experiences and events. Over time our memories of events and experiences lead us to form semantic memories.

Episodic memory is the memory we use to recall our personal past. We recall a good time we spent with friends or a walk on the beach. Think of a fun time you spent with a friend, spouse, or child. You can probably remember what you did, what you saw, what you may have eaten, and even what you smelled. You could probably relate that as a vivid story.

In Using Mentoring and Storytelling to Transfer Knowledge in the Workplace, the authors tell us:

Stories are clearly episodic in nature. To the extent that the storyteller is able to provide a sufficiently vivid account for the listener to vicariously experience the story, many features of the story will be encoded in memory and will be readily available for retrieval.

The evidence from cognitive psychology, then, is quite consistent. To the extent that stories promote elaborations such as connections to the listener’s personal experience, or evoke clear visual images, they will be more memorable and, hence, more effective carriers of knowledge than less vivid, purely listed information…”If you want people to remember information and believe it, your best strategy in almost every case is to give that information in the form of a story”[46]

A good story fills our episodic memory with information. That information may get transferred to semantic memory with reinforcement over time.

How to Be a Better Storyteller

Storytelling is a skill. Fiction authors are some of the best storytellers. You probably have a favorite or two as do I. I read their stories, often, again and again, not just to hear the stories but to look at how they tell them. Many good non-fiction writers are excellent storytellers too – they seem to understand that telling good stories helps us remember what they are trying to tell us.

Khan Academy and Pixar are now offering a free course in storytelling. As I write this, it isn’t complete, yet. I’ve decided to take the class because I want to sharpen my storytelling skills, and the price is surely right.

There are myriad resources on storytelling on the web. This may not be the best for everyone, but it’s new, it’s interesting, and I like Khan Academy. Nancy Duarte also has some great resources.

Of course, any resources or courses are not useful if you don’t practice. We all tell stories, as you learn new techniques, use them in the stories you share at work and with friends and family.

If you’ve worked to develop your storytelling skills, please tweet to me and share your experiences @jjmcdermott

John McDermott

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