Why Only Smart Companies Will Win

Why a learning culture is critical to your

corporation’s survival in the Idea Economy

This post was written by Susan Fry, VP Creative Strategy, KnowledgeStar.

Your organization needs to be a learning culture in order to continue to succeed. That means a change from your current training culture. As the pace of change increases, the need for faster innovation and greater collaboration becomes critical. Which means performance is everything. Performance is not the same as training and learning what to do. Performance means being able to quickly find out what you need to do when and where you need to get it done. And the only way to make that happen is to develop a learning culture which supports that level of rapid and responsive performance.

Learning culture directly accounted for 46% of overall improved business performance as measured by business outcomes. Josh Bersin

Throughout the past year, during our meetings with various organizations, we kept hearing the same conversation. The discussions too often focused on the event, the program, some better learning technology, or the “cool” new tools.. The focus always seemed to be on the parts of the new learning environment in which we work, rather than seeing that environment as a whole interconnected system.

It became obvious that the conversation needed to change. There was a fundamental shift needed in the way organizations think about the way they provide learning. A change from the perception of the workplace as a training culture to one which is a learning culture. A place where employees take charge of their learning and have with immediate access to the knowledge they need any time and any place. Follow the lead of the most innovative and successful companies. Replace the emphasis on training and training technology with a focus on doing and the technology which enables people to perform.

As recently as eight years ago, transforming your organization’s culture from a teacher-led training culture to a learner-led learning culture, driven by digital technology, was a managerial preference.  Today, it is no longer an option.

The use of digital technology in the workplace is so profound, so dramatic, that it can be compared to the invention of the printing press in 1450 or Edison’s success in making electric lighting commercially viable in the 1880s. Digital technology is changing everything we know about learning. In a recent report on global human capital trends, Bersin by Deloitte advised organizations to look at the ways people learn in their organization and “Prepare for a revolution.”

With all due respect to Bersin by Deloitte, we think their timing is a bit off. Our own experience has convinced us that the revolution isn’t coming, it is here. Performance support systems, virtual classes, video conferences and more have all made inroads in individual departments and divisions of many companies to change the way employees are learning.

Yet all this digital technology has not yet significantly changed the basic way we think about learning in the vast majority of organizations. For the most part we are still pushing out training to solve problems the same way we did for the last 100 years since training was developed by the Prussian army. We were hard pressed to think of any other business that still approaches what they do today the same way it was done a century ago.

Relatively few leaders have fully grasped the enormous benefits to be gained by transitioning their training culture to a learning culture and changing the way their employees learn. This is true despite evidence showing that significant benefits immediately start accruing to organizations that successfully make the transformation.


The Dangers of “Push” Training: A True Story


This post was written by Susan Fry, Vice President, Creative Strategy, KnowledgeStar.

A recent experience proved how dangerous adhering to the old “push” model can be. In consulting with one of the world’s best-known NGOs, I conducted an exhaustive series of interviews with Managers and Directors at different levels, located in countries around the globe.

This NGO is funded to do work throughout the world improving health — which also means working to eradicate deadly diseases or control outbreaks. The interviews quickly revealed that members of the NGO in one country were not sharing information that could be extremely beneficial to coworkers in other countries, even though doing so surely could have eliminated suffering and saved lives.

Deeper investigation revealed that the NGO had a long-established culture of “hoarding” learning and training and doling it out to those that the top management had decided they wanted to bring into “the fold.” When a favored few rose to the top in their own country, they were invited to the world headquarters located in a vibrant, wealthy city, where they were wined, dined and welcomed into the elite “inner circle.”

They then moved to the headquarters city to take their new positions, where they communicated information to the other “elites,” occasionally returning to their home countries. The pattern had been in place for years and there was little desire to change it — even though changing to a learning culture could clearly make them much more agile, effective and successful in meeting the stated goals of their organization.

This exposes one of the dangers of a “pull” learning culture as well, where inputting knowledge is power. If I go to my PC, it is KIKO (Knowledge In, Knowledge Out). The technology systems that enable the learners are only as good as the information they contain. If the underlying culture is still embedded in the old command-and-control hierarchy in which knowledge is power, then selectively sharing knowledge will become power.

The culture is the bedrock upon which leaders, learners and the enabling technology is built. In a true learning culture people instinctively believe that sharing knowledge is empowering and automatically act on that belief.

This is yet one more reason to build a real learning culture and not just erect a facade that might be able to pass for one.

The Learning Culture: A Report from the Hub


It’s been awhile …. I’m back from what became a long journey, working with a number of leading research and consulting firms on what they defined as “corporate education”. Our little secret … it was all about the money.

I spent hours every day focusing on developing paid for webinars that were thinly disguised marketing messages for the sponsor’s products. Writing white papers that were paid for by companies looking to justify their approach or methodology to corporate education. Developing charts, diagrams, infographics and more that proved the current prescribed vendor approaches to learning were absolutely correct.

So the assumption that I’ve heard many times – corporate education analysts are too often paid lobbyists for vendors – turned out to be true. I was living on the wheel, climbing up and sliding down the spokes, avoiding the hub of things. This is a report from that hub.

The key message is simple. Change or die. Corporations that do not “get it” will go out of business and be replaced by those that understand the following:

  • The research tells us that high performing organizations, the type many aspire to become, are driven by a learning culture.
  • Enabling and empowering everyone so they can find what they need to know, whenever and wherever they need it, is critical to the success of a company
  • Becoming a learning culture is the only way a corporation can succeed every day and win in a highly competitive almost Darwinian global marketplace.
  • Finally, if you’re not scared, you’re not listening, and if you are not building a learning culture, you’re falling further behind every day in terms of sales, profits, customer satisfaction levels, innovations, service, and everything else that comprises your business.


So from this point forward this blog will be about  building a learning culture. We’ll define what it is, help you assess where you are (pdf), and recommend changes you might need to make. We will explore the relationship between leaders, learners and technology. And provide examples of learning cultures in action, from exciting new companies like Tesla and established organizations like the WD-40 Company, to not-for-profit organizations like Doctors Without Borders.

In addition, since we don’t have all the answers, we will be sure to add any links to books (Creating a learning Culture), other posts, whitepapers (At the Water Cooler of Learning),workshops, webinars and other resources that might help. As a starter. here’s one from my friend and colleague Stephen Gills 16 Signs of a Learning Culture and another great resource from Marcia Conner Introduction to a Learning Culture.

I will be working with many of the most experienced and brightest minds in our field, and the areas of learning psychology, neurosciences, sociology, learning theory and more. People who have come to the same conclusion. We need to stop looking at the pieces – the spokes – and start to focus on the real problem at the hub. We can no longer spend ridiculous amounts of money and time on point solutions, and not try and solve the real problem – how to create learning cultures.

Looking forward to learning together.

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At the Heart of Learning


The Endless Immensity of the Sea

 Once we get past the outmoded ideas of school – there’s only one answer, in the back of the book, take the test, and don’t look that’s cheating – we begin to see that learning and collaboration is an art and a science. We know more today about the science than ever before. We still tend to overlook the art.

A few weeks ago, my nephew asked me what the words “Subject Matter Expert” means. I told him it was all about learning. The expert was a team of people who each learned a lot about something, and learned more every day, until people agreed that team was The Subject Matter Expert. He listened carefully, then nodded and asked, “So, are Tommy and I the Subject Matter Experts about superheroes yet?” It made me pause and think about how that question would translate in the companies I consult with and what it meant for building successful collaborative teams who learn as they go.

Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, writes about “neoteny,” the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. This ability to learn is like the compounding interest on an investment; after two or three years, a relentless learner stands head and shoulders above his peers. It stands to reason that a team of relentless learners is optimized for successful collaboration.

So, why then are so many teams of smart people so stupid?

The answer has nothing to do with their collective IQ. I think the answer can be found in an obscure quote I pinned years ago on my actual pre-Pinterest cork board. It was written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, best known for his work The Little Prince. Here is the quote:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

The quote focuses on the art of collaboration. And it has a direct bearing on learning, lighting a fire instead of filling a bucket.

Amazing how some people knew so much about learning and collaboration before it became the business word du jour. The key to a great collaborative team is their ability to look outward in the same direction, to share a deeply felt goal or, as Saint-Exupéry wrote, “[…] to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Seems almost too simple to repeat. Yet I cannot tell you the number of times I listened to team members who had no idea what it felt like to long for the “endless immensity of the sea.” When we build teams to collaborate, we need to make sure that the first item on the punch list is to build a deeply felt desire, a “longing” if you will.

The next time you bring a team together, ask yourself a question: What is the longing — the deeply felt longing — which will drive the team to learn and perform, even if they do not have all the tools and knowledge to “build a ship”? What will wake them up every day and make them want to go wherever they dream of going? When you can articulate that longing, then you are on your way to a great collaboration and learning that will just happen.

Here are some examples that punctuate this idea:

We want to be the ones to really feel what it is like to step onto the surface of the moon.

The team will take the very first pictures of life on the bottom of the ocean.

We will actually see the proof of the ‘god particle’ that started all creation.

In the beginning, it is not all about the wood and the work. It’s about the art of collaboration, describing that longing that drives learning and collaboration forward. I spend a lot of time researching and studying, thinking and writing about the science of collaboration as a crucial part of learning. I just want to make sure I never lose sight of the art, of that longing for “the endless immensity of the sea.”

Using Your LCMS to Save Kirkpatrick


Forget About Level 4? Never!

Not too many years ago I remember the words of an L&D VP to whom I reported. We were talking about measuring the effectiveness of a very expensive training program we just delivered.

“Just focus on the first three. Forget about this Kirkpatrick level four,” he said. “It’s too hard and too expensive to figure out.”

As a refresher, here are the four levels of Kirkpatrick’s evaluation model (I’m avoiding the argument about Level 5 on purpose):

  1. Reaction – what the learners thought about the course
  2. Learning – what the learners remember as well as any new skills and attitudes.
  3. Behavior – How much the learners transfer knowledge, skills, and attitudes from the schoolplace to the workplace
  4. Results – the final outcome, months down the road from the event, which was initiated by the course.

The first 3 levels are relatively easy to measure. They include the smile sheets (Level 1), demonstrations of what was learned (Level 2) and improvements in performance back at work (Level 3). The first two can happen during the training event; the third can be reviewed and assessed by a learner’s manager.

It’s Level 4 that’s more difficult, even though it’s the level that measures real learning. Let me back up a bit. Rote learning is what ‘skill and drill’ teaching gets you. It’s perfect for a Level 1 and 2 evaluations. You can even get by if the Level 3 evaluation is done soon enough after the course is finished.

If no one checks in after that you will probably not get a “Pass” on Level 4, unless you have adopted what you do every day and adapt it under a constantly changing set of circumstances. Level 4 is gated by the idea that “Practice Makes Perfect”. So it’s the down the road assessment that really tells you if the learning has become a new part of the learner’s way of doing their job.

Level 4 is a longitudinal study or assessment. It can be done at intervals that range up to one year from the learning event. It’s usually not done at all because it is the most costly and time consuming of the four. What’s changed is that new technology can make it easy.

LCMS Learning Objects to the Rescue.

The LCMS is usually thought of in terms of their ability to author learning objects. These objects can be stored in a repository and used to deliver a custom learning program. The learning objects are assembled by an individual learner who can tailor them into a personal learning path. On the other hand, a course that is SCORMed and developed as one-size-fits-many can be seen as one big learning object fixed in space.

When people are done with either a course or their personal learning path, it looks like the pellets flying out of a shotgun. All the learners go off in their own direction, and have separate and individual experiences. In short, they learn to adapt the knowledge and know-how they acquire in a multitude of different ways.

The course object can only measure the mean or average since it was designed for many people. Most Level 4 measures I’ve seen look at corporate data as if it was functionally related to what the learner knows or has learned to do. For example, an increase in employee retention can be the result of wage increases or an improved management style. Reduced waste is an old manufacturing metric that has little validity in today’s manufacturing processes. Increased customer satisfaction results from a constellation of factors. Fewer staff complaints in a tough economy are to be expected (add in increased retention as well). So the standard measures used at Level 4 are virtually useless in today’s workplace and economic environment.

Learning objects on the other hand can be turned around as a one-to-one assessment down the road because they were assembled by each learner who proscribed their own learning path. Learning objects that state “What I need to learn” can be flipped to ask “Did you learn what you needed?” Turn a learning object around, add a question mark, and you have a Level 4 assessment. If the learner six months later has really learned a new skill or behavior, you can easily find out by assessing them on what they decided to learn. If the learner is struggling with what they tried to learn, you can determine that as well and provide whatever support is required.

Learning technology changes the equation. In the same way that elearning removed the barriers of time, space and the four walls of the traditional classroom, LCMS can provide an assessment of a learning event ‘down the road’, and really start get to that formerly unobtainable Level 4. It can measure the degree to which the learning has been adopted and is being adapted.



Reflections on the “Why”


They get lost too easily as the New Year rapidly progresses. The forests we each inhabit. We quickly find ourselves racing through the trees like Luke Skywalker on a speeder bike. This is a good time of the year to step back and reflect.

So before I plunge headfirst back into my forest, I want to remember to remember “Why” I do what I do, and what the Big Problem is that needs to be solved.

I started thinking about the “Why” a few weeks ago after watching a great TED presentation by Simon Sinek on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”.

Then I happened to read a blog post by Kaihan Krippendorff about how “Great Companies Solve Problems That Matter” by focusing on the Big Problems. The two put my brain into overdrive. As I stepped further back from the trees, the forest I inhabit became even more distinct, and the “Why” of things and the Big Problem came into greater focus.

No one disagrees that we are all in an increasingly competitive global race. It’s an odd race in the sense that the finish lines keeps moving off into the future. I try and discover ways my clients can use learning and development to help their companies catch up, keep up and then lead the way. Find the best practices in learning from around the world, and then teach what I discover. Learning and Development in corporations is an ongoing and continuously changing process. Not the learning part, which happens in the brain and is unchanged for millions of years. But the most current methods of learning, new techniques, updated technology and continually improving best practices. Part of solving the Big Problem these days is keeping up with all that is changing and get out in front of the curve.

I used to hear Learning and Development referred to as the “800 pound Gorilla in the room.” These days it’s more like 1,000 nattering and chattering monkeys.

So “Why” and the Big Problem are connected: To make companies smarter and improve their performance. That’s the “Why” and the Big Problem all rolled up into one.

I just hope someone reminds me to read this next June while I’m thrashing about in the forest again.


Learning at the Speed of Now

I originally posted this as a Brandon Hall Group blog and kept thinking about it. If you have ever had an idea that seems to take seed in your synapses, and then germinate and sprouts, you’ll know what I mean. I came to a conclusion that startled me.  Here it is …

The Speed Limit of Now


I used this graphic recently in a Brandon Hall Group webinar. The idea was to show the underlying drivers of learning in organizations. It pointed out that in the 20th century there was time to learn. We measured the shelf life of knowledge in years. We had time to go to a course to learn something that you might need someday.

In Digital Economy of the 21st century, we quickly realized that everything was changing more rapidly, even the pace of change. The idea of learning something someday no longer worked. We based the new model on the idea of now, as in “I need to learn it now”, “Tell me how to do it now” and “I want that information now”. Now was also part of the learning DNA of the Millennials, raised with digital technology from the time they could walk, Googling replacing dictionaries, Facebook and Twitter replacing … well there was nothing to replace, it was all new.

The question that came up during the webinar was what is next, what does “???” mean for L&D professionals? How do we increase the speed of now? I thought about it and here is the answer to my answer.

Learning faster and faster has a top speed limit of now. Even ‘jacking in’ to their headjack for Neo and the others in The Matrix was all about now, only as direct and fast as you could imagine. So if now is the redline on the learning speedometer, what’s next?

The Slow Now and the Fast Now

The only thing gating the speed is connecting the person who needs to know with the person who has the answer. Taking the time to find the person who knows slows down the transfer. We already have the ability to jack in, only we rarely use it.

It’s called a Community of Practice (CoP). First, let me start with a new idea called the Community of Learners  (CoL). You can connect every class, or any learning event, where there are more than two people, into a  Community of Learners. That community enables the learners to network, start working together, get used to  the idea of a technology-mediated community in which learning something is the focus. They learn to learn as  a community.

When that Community of Learners graduates, they become part of a growing, active, worldwide, and always-  on Community of Practice. Learning continues. Continuously. Get enough people connected in that CoP, and  you will find that the community has encountered almost every problem, resolved almost any imaginable  issue, asked all the questions and most likely answered them. It not exactly the headjack but it’s as close as today’s technology enables.

I can connect to the CoP with any device, anytime and anywhere. I can read the answer in an email, listen to the answer on the smartphone, watch a video of the answer someone recently shot, or share a schematic as I get my answer. I can follow an answer step-by-step if I have a process or procedure question. I can even snap a pic and show the work I did to the person who is telling me what to do, so they can look at my work in real time and make sure that the red wire goes where the red wire needs to go. Learning, getting the answer now, is an extension of the experience of learning taken away from the Community of Learners. You want to learn about something. You learn how to ask the right question, you learn where to find the right person, and you learn to use the right community.

Some companies are getting it right. It was apparent in the winners of the Brandon Hall Group “The Award Winning Collection:  Best Use of Blended Learning”. These companies are finding out how to extend learning past an event, make it continuous and move the needle past the top speed of ‘now’, into the even faster speed of ‘community’. As I was thinking more about this answer, I wondered why an EPS (electronic performance system) is not faster than a CoP. The answer was, it may be faster, but it’s canned, formal. It cannot answer my now questions in the moment unless they are pre-programmed into the support system. You really need people to make now go faster. That was the startling revelation, especially since I tend to focus on educational technology. There is nothing faster than quickly being able to formulate the right question and find the right person who has the right answer. It no longer needs to be face-to-face, just brain-to-brain.

The blended programs I reviewed shortened the distance and increased the speed between the person with the right question and the person or persons with the right answer. Not all of the programs use the Community of Learners that graduate into the all-knowing, all-powerful Community of Practice. They will, because the faster now will always try to push past the speed limit of a slower now. Connecting the right question to the right person equals the fastest way to learn. And in a hyper-competitive world marketplace, to the fastest go the sales, services, innovations, collaborations and everything else.

Towards a Smarter Nation – Update

UPDATE: As bandwidth articles appear and the question start to gain traction, I will add the articles here for those of you who are interested in seeing if America catches up to the rest of the world or continues to fall behind. The article details the importance to the growth of our economy and the strength of our security. Bandwidth is as much a national issue as any other that has been raised, and is even overlooked more than climate change. Increased free or low cost high bandwidth will be the Great Divide between the nations that are pulling ahead and succeeding in the 21st century and those who are not. Today, compared to other countries that are providing the digital pipes for their citizens, we are falling further and further behind.  

This newest piece of the puzzle is from Huffington Post by Robert Pepper, Vice President, Global Technology Policy, Cisco. It supports and takes the premise many steps further.

Two Asian nations — Korea and Singapore — have managed to leapfrog multiple stages of economic development and have transformed into economic miracles. This comes as no accident, in part, because both have taken a planned approach to technological development, starting with national broadband plans, which has led to increased broadband adoption, and successive waves of economic growth.

A new report by the UN Broadband Commission and Cisco shows that Korea and Singapore are the most notable examples of a statistically significant trend; Countries that embrace national broadband plans have increased broadband adoption. The data show that the introduction of a broadband plan accounts for 2.5 percent higher fixed broadband penetration and 7.4 percent higher mobile broadband penetration. This is based on a thorough examination of broadband adoption data from 2001 through 2011.

For developing countries, 2.5 percent is nearly half of current fixed broadband penetration (6 percent). This is a significant impact and at the global level translates into over 175 million more broadband connections. In most cases, a single fixed connection serves multiple people, meaning more than half a billion more people onto broadband.
The report also demonstrates that a competitive market results in higher broadband penetration, with a particularly strong impact for mobile broadband. Competitive mobile broadband markets have 26.5 percent higher penetration on average.

Now why is this important?

Because, as we know, higher broadband penetration drives economic growth and helps nation achieve social goals, such as improved education and health care outcomes.

In the Republic of Korea, for example, the Government instituted a series of IT master plans since the mid-1990s, and the nation has since become a world leader in the utilization and production of IT. Over the last two decades, its nominal GDP per capita has more than doubled from under $12,000 in 1995 to over $25,000 in 2013 and the country consistently ranks in the top 10 countries in terms of average broadband speeds and adoption.

Similarly, in Singapore, the country has had national IT related plans in place since 1985 (starting with the National Computerisation Plan and most recently the iN2015). Over this period, the country has significantly advanced its IT environment. In 1980 Singapore was still at an early stage in IT development as it had only 22.2 fixed lines per 100 people, substantially below other countries such as Australia (32.3 fixed lines per 100 people) and New Zealand (36.1 fixed line per 100 people). But today, Singapore stands atop several measures of IT and broadband adoption, such as the 2013 Networked Readiness Index, where Singapore ranks second worldwide out of 144 countries.

And Korea and Singapore are just two examples; the same trend holds true for Chile, Spain, Latvia, Lithuania, and several other countries, including many on the African continent.
In Nyangwete, a remote Kenyan village of 20,000 people, Community Knowledge Centers are giving citizens Internet access and, with it, connections to language and technology training, health care information, and other resources. Local farmers connect with Kenya Seed Company to buy sorghum seeds then sell back the crops. In 2010, the village’s income from agriculture increased by 34 million Kenyan shillings (almost $400,000). Roughly 10 to 15 percent of the village population has branched out into new business after the influx of money in 2010. The number of women with personal businesses grew 20 to 30 percent since 2010, and the number of women receiving a secondary education has increased by roughly 20 percent since 2010.

Broadband deployment leads to more than economic opportunity; it can help create social progress and lead to healthier communities. In Kenya, Inveneo helped a nongovernmental organization called Organic Health Response (OHR) set up a 512kbps connection on Mfangano — an island in Lake Victoria with 26,000 inhabitants, dirt roads, and one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. In exchange for having HIV tests every month, residents can access the Internet for free at an OHR training center. Once the broadband link was established, word spread quickly across the island, and within a few hours all 10 computers at the center were in use. As a result, more citizens are connected to the world outside Mfangano and 2,000 of them have enrolled in HIV/AIDS-related social services offered by OHR.

For policymakers thinking about how to jumpstart their economies, there are 5 basic takeaways.

  • Develop a national broadband plan to set a strategic vision for how information technology will drive your country’s knowledge economy;
  • Get buy in from both public and private constituencies;
  • Ensure the plan is balanced between the supply of high-speed Internet and demand driving adoption;
  • Implement rules and regulations that ensure a competitive broadband market;
  • Finally, regularly monitor progress toward broadband targets and ensure implementation and follow through.

To develop a national broadband plan and drive broadband adoption, the report identifies various forms of plans, critical elements of success and builds on the framework of broadband policies we identified in April in the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report.

The message to policymakers is clear: If you want to increase economic growth, focus on broadband. And to drive broadband, have an effective national broadband plan.

To read the report in full, click here.

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Learning Tip Number 3: Why Storytelling Works


I love it when someone comes up with the science to prove what I’ve learned through trial&error. Leo Widrich makes the most convincing case for storytelling that I yet read. If you are not incorporating storytelling into your training or education programs, then this article should push you over the top. Stories are not only the most powerful way to activate out brains they are the best way to make the spaghetti of learning bits stick to the synapses. Plus I learned why my significant other usual tells a related story from her life whenever we are talking about anything. Used to drive me crazy until I read this article …

I remember the first time I used storytelling in a leadership training program.

“It was a dark and stormy night …”

The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains

Leo Widrich

A good story can make or break a presentation, article, or conversation. But why is that? When Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich started to market his product through stories instead of benefits and bullet points, sign-ups went through the roof. Here he shares the science of why storytelling is so uniquely powerful.

In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, spent a lot of his free time playing cards. He greatly enjoyed eating a snack while still keeping one hand free for the cards. So he came up with the idea to eat beef between slices of toast, which would allow him to finally eat and play cards at the same time. Eating his newly invented “sandwich,” the name for two slices of bread with meat in between, became one of the most popular meal inventions in the western world.

What’s interesting about this is that you are very likely to never forget the story of who invented the sandwich ever again. Or at least, much less likely to do so, if it would have been presented to us in bullet points or other purely information-based form.

For over 27,000 years, since the first cave paintings were discovered, telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods. Recently a good friend of mine gave me an introduction to the power of storytelling, and I wanted to learn more.

Here is the science around storytelling and how we can use it to make better decisions every day:

Our brain on stories: How our brains become more active when we tell stories

We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie, or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events?

It’s in fact quite simple. If we listen to a PowerPoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.

If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it’s about motion, our motor cortex gets active:

“Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex. […] Then, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.”

A story can put your whole brain to work. And yet, it gets better:

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton:

“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

Anything you’ve experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Or at least, get their brain areas that you’ve activated that way, active too:

The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains


Evolution has wired our brains for storytelling—how to make use of it

Now all this is interesting. We know that we can activate our brains better if we listen to stories. The still unanswered question is: Why is that? Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other, have such a profound impact on our learning?

The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think. We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. In fact, Jeremy Hsu found [that] “personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That’s why metaphors work so well with us. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust.

The following graphic probably describes it best:

The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains


In a great experiment, John Bargh at Yale found the following:

“Volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly. In reality, the experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asks the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee. As the key experimental manipulation, the coffee was either hot or iced. Subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.”

We link up metaphors and literal happenings automatically. Everything in our brain is looking for the cause and effect relationship of something we’ve previously experienced.

Let’s dig into some hands on tips to make use of it:

Exchange giving suggestions for telling stories

Do you know the feeling when a good friend tells you a story and then two weeks later, you mention the same story to him, as if it was your idea? This is totally normal and at the same time, one of the most powerful ways to get people on board with your ideas and thoughts. According to Uri Hasson from Princeton, a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.

The next time you struggle with getting people on board with your projects and ideas, simply tell them a story, where the outcome is that doing what you had in mind is the best thing to do. According to Princeton researcher Hasson, storytelling is the only way to plant ideas into other people’s minds.

Write more persuasively—bring in stories from yourself or an expert

This is something that took me a long time to understand. If you start out writing, it’s only natural to think “I don’t have a lot of experience with this, how can I make my post believable if I use personal stories?” The best way to get around this is by simply exchanging stories with those of experts. When this blog used to be a social media blog, I would ask for quotes from the top folks in the industry or simply find great passages they had written online. It’s a great way to add credibility and at the same time, tell a story.

The simple story is more successful than the complicated one

When we think of stories, it is often easy to convince ourselves that they have to be complex and detailed to be interesting. The truth is however, that the simpler a story, the more likely it will stick. Using simple language as well as low complexity is the best way to activate the brain regions that make us truly relate to the happenings of a story. This is a similar reason why multitasking is so hard for us. Try for example to reduce the number of adjectives or complicated nouns in a presentation or article and exchange them with more simple, yet heartfelt language.

Quick last fact: Our brain learns to ignore certain overused words and phrases that used to make stories awesome. Scientists, in the midst of researching the topic of storytelling have also discovered, that certain words and phrases have lost all storytelling power:

“Some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more.”

This means, that the frontal cortex—the area of your brain responsible to experience emotions—can’t be activated with these phrases. It’s something that might be worth remembering when crafting your next story.