Storytelling in Learning

By Niamh Walsh, Learnovate

Stories keep audiences engaged and leave them with an emotional impact that continues to resonate long after the story is over. Advertisers have known this fact for a long time – advertisements with a story consistently demonstrate better recall months after airing. Stories are more memorable and more persuasive than simply communicating facts.

On Wednesday, 21 November 2018, we invited our learning community to explore storytelling in learning. Braving lashing winds and biting rain, we gathered in Huckletree to hear about storytelling from Celine Mullins, an expert in psychology and neuroscience, and Mary Kate O’Flanagan, an award-winning writer and story consultant.

The psychology and neuroscience of storytelling

Celine began by telling us a story about a shy girl who had to overcome her paralysing self-consciousness to follow her dreams. She asked the audience how they felt listening to her story. The audience responded to say they felt anxiety, empathy and connection. They cared about the outcome for the little girl and desired to know the end of her story. Celine used the audience’s emotions in response to the child’s predicament to show how stories affect us.

How Story Works in the Brain

Many educators, writers and content creators instinctively understand the power of story to increase the engagement, attention and concentration of learners. Neuroscience can now tell us that story lights up many areas of the brain in the person listening, watching or reading. We now comprehend more clearly how humans respond emotionally to stories and the impact of this emotional arousal on memory. This effect can be harnessed positively by educators who can create meaningful stories with emotional cues that result in enhanced memory of the topic by the learner.

Celine explained how story works in the human brain, and how story can intensify human learning. She described how stories produce neurochemicals that persist after the story has ended. She helped us understand how stories can act as powerful agents of change in the habits and behaviour of learners.

Full-Body Response

We are often not aware of our bodies’ micro-responses to the world around us. A story that engages us sets in motion a subtle yet powerful full-body response. You feel the story in your body. When we are anxious for a character in a story, we release adrenaline, increasing our heart rate, and norepinephrine, raising our blood pressure. Our focus on the story is intent – we are hooked. Our capacity to concentrate is now supercharged. If the threat to the hero is sustained in the story, our bodies release cortisol. Now we are worried about the outcome and our body resonates with the imagined danger the hero faces. We feel empathy for the character in the story as our bodies release oxytocin, the neurochemical that signals trust and closeness in humans. Our bodies react to our imaginary hero as if he were a real person we cared about.

Creating Connection

The brain is a social organ – we are profoundly sensitive to what’s going on the social world around us. Belonging to a social group ensures our survival – social exclusion means death. We exist to connect. Stories help us resonate with the experiences of others and drive us to feel viscerally connected to their fate – increasing our empathy, not just towards the imaginary character, but towards people in real-life.

When the hero overcomes the obstacles blocking her path, our body responds with signals of pleasure and satisfaction activating the brain’s reward system with a release of dopamine. We are often not aware of these subtle inner sensations that stories arouse in us. We are certainly rarely aware of how these unconscious impulses impact our beliefs and behaviour. We are moved – not just by the story – but to action that persists after the story has ended.

Mary Kate O' Flanagan, Story Consultant


The Shape of Stories

Mary Kate O’Flanagan drew our attention to the importance of the shape of stories. She draws a dividing line between the content of a story and its structure. Focusing too much on the content, and forgetting about the structure, is a common mistake. Organising your story in advance is critical – like a poorly constructed tower, without a solid structure, your story will fall flat.

No Problem, No Drama

Almost all successful stories feature a problem that needs resolving. To ensure that audiences identify with the character, he must endure conflict and overcome obstacles in his quest. Mary Kate quotes screenwriter Frank Daniel: ‘Somebody wants something very badly and is having great difficulty getting it.’ The quest cannot be easy, and the hero must be desperate to succeed. Channelling Aristotle, Mary Kate describes a hero entangled by a dramatic predicament as ‘a creature of necessity in a landscape of scarcity.’

Hope and Fear

The key emotions, suggests Mary Kate, are hope and fear. We become involved in the character’s story and empathise with the character’s desire to change her destiny. When a story pulls us in, we alternate between hope that our hero will prevail, and fear that he will not. We empathise with our hero’s (or anti-hero’s) struggle – their desires and fears become our desires and fears. Storytelling lulls us into a powerful connection that hones our empathy and moves us in body, mind and behaviour.

Wired for Story

We are wired to process information as stories. Stories sustain our attention, increase our engagement and enhance our memory. We use more of our brain when we’re listening to stories. We exist to connect, and stories help us connect with others. Our storytelling in learning event showed how stories impact our brains and bodies, and how to structure a story for maximum impact. Stories are profoundly important to human beings, and to learning.

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About Celine Mullins

Dr Celine Mullins is the CEO and Founder of Adaptas, a Leadership Development Training organisation, developing managers and leaders and teams, in Ireland and internationally.

Celine’s book ‘Our Learning Brain: Engaging Your Brain for Learning & Habit Change’ was recently published by Oak Tree Press. This is part of a series of books entitled ‘Maximising Brain Potential’ which helps people understand how to make more use of their brain for learning and changing habits.

Celine’s next book ‘The Ignited Leader’ will be published in early 2019. See more on the book at the Adaptas website. Celine and her team have also created a cutting-edge Virtual Reality experience, called ‘Immersive Sales Star’, which is being used at FBD Insurance to train their new staff and low performers. This was shortlisted for the Excellence in Digital Learning award by the Irish Institute of Training and Development.

About Mary Kate O’Flanagan

Mary Kate O’Flanagan is an award-winning writer and story consultant working in the European film and television industry. She teaches story in The UK, The US, South Africa, and across Europe.

With her sister Rachel O’Flanagan, she delivers training in storytelling skills for professionals working in cinema and television. In recent years they designed and delivered training in the newer area of storytelling for business. They are particularly interested in the stories individuals and organisations tell about themselves and how those stories inevitably shape their futures. You can see more about their work on

Mary Kate is Ireland’s First Grand Slam Champion Storyteller at The Moth, a title she won at The Abbey Theatre in October 2015. She is also Grand Slam Champion Storyteller at The Moth in LA, a title she won in January 2017. You can hear one of her stories on The Moth Radio Hour at

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Niamh Walsh
Content Marketing Manager