Storytelling – How can we engage all the senses?

Once upon a time there was a post on storytelling and how it is a useful way of engaging learners. It explored how we are all familiar with the idea of stories; we have experienced them in one way or another all our lives. The post listed five tips for all facilitators and trainers to remember when it comes to crafting a story for learning. You can revisit those tips here. In this post, I’ll explore the fifth tip: stimulate the senses.

The content of this post is applicable to all learning – whether you’re crafting a story for a classroom based learning event, digital/online learning or even a written story or case study in learning materials. The stories can be written, digital or auditory; how we incorporate the senses is similar.

Interest in this topic was generated through trying to shift a culture of “war stories” to stories for purpose and learner engagement. I was tired of an approach of I’m going to tell a story to prove my credibility rather than I’m going to tell a story to give learners an appreciation of the situation or I’m going to tell a story based on a real scenario to help learning stick. They were also forgetting that using stories, based on real scenarios and experiences, can in some ways act as a substitute for demonstration or application during learning. Learners are given an opportunity with stories to learn about and understand problems they have little or no experience of.

Engaging our learners’ senses

There has to be a shift in how stories are crafted and what better way than to remind ourselves why it is we want to use a story as a learning tool. Often it’s to illustrate a point, situation or relay experiences (whether they be our

five senses

own, or of others). If we are wanting to demonstrate situations a learner may find encounter in the future, or convey real life experiences, we must connect the learner’s heart, body and mind and a way to do this is by engaging their senses as we tell the story.

Connecting learners with a story by stimulating their senses, enables them to use their imagination to feel, smell, touch and listen, and to visualise vivid images/pictures. When we talk about stimulating the senses, we’re not suggesting that we jam pack our stories with sensory related words to the point of annoying our learners. What we want to get trainers and facilitators to think about is the purpose of their story and how they’re wanting learners to really connect with it, to be in it.

Let’s work through a short example…’s a rudimentary example using the familiar story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It will give you an idea of the difference that can be made by using words that evoke the senses. As you listen to each audio file, close your eyes, listen to the words and use your imagination.

This audio contains very little use of words to describe the senses.

This audio contains words to describe the senses

How did each of these stories connect with your senses? [Comment below and let us know your thoughts]

Describing touch

We’ve all used words to describe how something feels in a tactile way. Words used to describe texture relate to the sense of touch. In the Goldilocks example, you heard about the twigs making a crunching sound with every step. This describes the texture underfoot of walking on piles of leaves and twigs on the forest floor.

Don’t confuse the use of the word feel, as it can be used to describe the emotional reaction or connection. For example, I feel overwhelmed; I feel embarrassed; I feel hurt; it felt confusing. In trying to describe the sensation of touch, using the word touch can help learners connect to the tactile sensation. There are fantastic words we can use to really give learners a relatable sensation.

Using taste

This is possibly a forgotten sense for us when storytelling, or we use some very simple words to describe (like salty, sweet, sour). When I first starting working with a group of trainers to get them to think about how they describe taste, I was met with a quizzical look. Why would we want to describe taste? My response was why aren’t you describing the tastes from your workplace experiences?

In telling stories of experiences of emergency responders, using words to describe taste really gives learners a sense of what the environment is like and if they themselves have experiences on which to recall, can appreciate the tastes detailed (in the storytelling). When it comes to telling these types of workplace stories or experiences, including taste can be a powerful tool to help paint a picture of a situation for learners and give those learners with minimal exposure to the workplace an appreciation of what it might be like. Using words that they can relate to will help with connecting their own taste experiences to those included in your story.

Something smelly

There’s a close relationship between taste and smell. Think about when we eat food – it really is a sensation for the senses, however there’s a strong connection of smell and taste as they both use the same types of receptors. Have you ever experienced an inability to smell something and therefore taste it? You may have when you’ve had a blocked nose – you can’t seem to smell something or taste it. Or have you ever walked past a bakery with the familiar smell of freshly baked bread and immediately started to salivate?

In storytelling, linking the description of smell and taste together can help learners to identify with the surroundings you’re describing, or the events occurring. Right now there’s likely to be a thought of fresh bread, its smell and taste. If we look again at the Goldilocks example, the descriptions of sweet, cinnamon and apple smelling porridge were given. Cinnamon has both a distinct smell and flavour (or taste) that most of us would recall, and the description of apple suggests crunch, sweetness and flavour. The smell of an open fire was also described, suggesting to you there was likely smoke in the air; something you’d smell and taste.

Sounds like

This is no different to taste, touch and smell. We have an established familiarity with the sounds described in stories. For example if we described the clanging of bells, most of us would immediately recall what that sounds like and may even reflect on the last moment we heard the sound, where we were, what the day was like and what we heard.

For learners, describing sounds can help give a strong appreciation of what they may encounter. If we take the example of emergency response and describe in our stories what the sounds are like when responding to a large-scale bushfire, it will immediately give learners an understanding of the scenario they may not have had exposure to before. Where there are activities or experiences that are too dangerous for learners to be exposed to, or can’t be recreated effectively, describing sound can be a powerful sensory tool.

If telling a story in a face-to-face situation, using words to describe sound is effective; however choose your words carefully. We want learners to have an immediate sensory response, so using words that are accessible and identifiable are important. If for example we’re describing how a car has come to a sudden stop, we might describe it as

the driver put their foot on the brake and pressed it firmly, trying to slow the car quickly and bring it to a stop. The driver had pressed the brake pedal too hard, causing the tyres to lock; the car sliding and screeching to a halt. 

It’s a generalisation, but most people would understand the use of the word screeching and in response, hear that sound in their mind as you continue telling the story.

In digital storytelling, sound is a wonderful sensory option for developers. Just like movies and videos, using actual sounds rather than just describing using words, can be a powerful way to connect learners. Using the car example, in a digital story the sound of screeching gives a realism to the story like nothing else can.

Relating sights

Words we use in our stories that relate to sight, suggest to learners the colours, shape or appearance of things or the environment itself. In the Goldilocks example, you heard about the tall trees blocking the sunlight in the dark forest. Immediately many people will relate to this having had their own experience walking through a similar real environment.

In crafting a story, think about what words you can use to enable learners to immediately relate to the story and in particular the environment where the story is set. Using words that suggest colour, shape and appearance can help learners put themselves in the story.

Where you’re using a story to convey an experience of an actual situation or experience, it’s important to connect your learners. Asking them to close their eyes, describing the sights to them and having them visualise it can create a strong connection. You may have participated in a relaxation exercise where you’re similarly asked to close your eyes and imagine a beach, with waves gently crashing on the shore (or something similar).

In digital storytelling, incorporating pictures or images is a useful way of relating sight. Or why not use pictures or images to complement your verbal storytelling. They can set the scene, start learners thinking about what the situation really looks like. I caution this though. In my experiences, some learners can tend to delve too deeply into the visual you’re giving and “correct” what they see is wrong or start relaying their own stories or experiences. I have seen this,  in particular, where images of actual scenarios or events are used as the story starter. Learners have switched off from the story (and therefore learning) to comment on what they would have done or what should be done.

Words storytellers can use to engage the senses

Here’s a few words some trainers came up with in a workshop I ran on storytelling. These words related to the types of stories they’d be telling learners – emergency response stories. I’ve included a few other words I’ve come across through my research for this post. Remember they’re examples only, not an exhaustive list.

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Time to review your stories

As trainers and facilitators, it’s always important to refine and improve our stories. Often we modify our trusty stories each time we tell them. But are we modifying them to engage the senses of every one of our learners? Here’s a few steps you can use to reflect on your storytelling.

  1. Think about a story that you tell in your own training delivery or facilitation.
  2. Write it down.
  3. Tell your story to someone; perhaps a fellow trainer or facilitator.
  4. Ask them to describe to you the visual images they’ve imagined and how their senses were engaged.
  5. Review your story and work out how you can incorporate words to describe what the situation looks like, how it feels and the textures around, what it smells like, the sounds that can be heard and how things taste (even the air).
  6. Make the amendments to your story and tell this version of your story.
  7. Ask them to describe to you the visual images they’ve imagined and how their senses were engaged. What differences did they find between each story?

As always, we’re interested in your thoughts on this post. Please feel free to comment below, like or share our post.

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