3 Types of Stories You Can Use to Break Up Your Lecture, Build Rapport, and Increase Student Engagement

storytelling as a teaching and learning strategies to engage students

Here are 3 types of stories you can use to break up your lecture, build rapport, and increase student engagement.

“Once upon a time…”

Think about your favorite story. When did you first hear (or read) this story? Why has this story stayed with you? What makes this story so memorable for you?

Storytelling can be a powerful teaching and learning strategy. You don’t have to have any special skills or have access to expensive technology.

You are already a “natural” storyteller and you have all of the tools you need. We all have stories, experiences, and lessons we’ve learned along the way that can be shared to help our students make connections with the course material.

Why Integrate Stories Into Your Lecture?

How are stories different than lectures? “Stories are narratives with plots and beginnings and endings and even a character or two. Lectures, especially ineffective ones, are often litanies of facts and details” (Eyler, 2018, p. 99).  

Many (poorly designed) lectures often turn into content delivery without much consideration about how the content is delivered. When presented with new content over and over again without any context or examples, students get overwhelmed. They aren’t sure what matters or what they’re supposed to do with that content other than take notes and memorize it for the next test.

By integrating a relevant story into your lecture and connecting it course content and learning outcomes, you can help students recognize what information is important, why the information matters, and how it can be used.

Here are more reasons to integrate stories into your lectures:

1. Establishes your credibility.

Stories allow you to share your experience, authority, and knowledge. If you’re a new instructor or a teaching assistant, stories can help you build your credibility with your audience, especially if those stories relate to work experiences you’ve had, research you’ve conducted, or people you’ve helped.

2. Builds rapport.

Stories help your audience connect with you. If you are teaching a topic to a group of students for the first time, you will not have any insight into who they are, what they enjoy, or what their challenges are. You don’t have any type of relationship with them as you would if you were teaching to a group of students you see every week.

These students will not know you, and you will not know them. Other than “small talk” before your lecture, you might not be able to connect with any of them. By sharing a story, you’ll build rapport with the students and you’ll connect with them through the power of storytelling.

3. Creates curiosity.

When you tell a story, you take your students on a journey. They want to know what happened, who it happened to, when it happened, how it happened, and why it happened.

When you tell the story, you are creating curiosity in the minds of your students. They want to know all the juicy details, the context, and, of course, the ending.

4. Enhances engagement. 

Whenever I tell a story in one of my workshops, I always have the attention of everyone in the room. They raise their heads, look me in the eye, and stop whatever they are doing (cell phones!).

They are engaged, they are focused, and they are interested in the story. And when the story is finished? They ask more questions. They smile. They frown. They turn to their colleague and start talking about it. The point is they react, and that means they are engaged.

5. Creates meaning.

Stories stick. Stories are memorable. Stories often have a “hook” or a lesson that changes the way we think about things. When that lesson is provided in the context of a story, we remember its meaning.

6. Helps you address the “curse of knowledge."

The curse of knowledge is when you know something so well, you can’t remember what it’s like to NOT know it anymore. You are an expert. For you, the topic is easy. You’ve been doing this work for many years (decades?!). When it’s time to teach someone what you know, you will most likely suffer from the curse of knowledge which means you’ll find it difficult to think back to when you first learned about this topic. You will forget what it’s like to be a beginner.

Stories can help with this challenge. Stories make things concrete. “Novices crave concreteness” (Heath & Heath, 2008, p. 106). When you think about the topic and connect it to a story, you will start to see how to make it come to life for students who are novices.

7. Stories are familiar.

Students are surrounded by stories. They watch movies based on stories. They play videogames based on stories. They write stories. They tell stories to their friends. They read stories to their children. By using the familiarity of storytelling, you are using a format they know and can follow. It can help make abstract ideas come to life.

Now that you know why storytelling is such a powerful teaching strategy, let’s discuss 3 types of stories you can integrate into your lecture.

3 Types of Stories You Can Integrate Into Your Lecture

1. A journey. 

Take your students on a journey you’ve taken or read about. Set the stage for them. Who is on the journey? Where are they going? Where have they been? What happens along the way? Who can you introduce them to throughout the journey? What decisions changed the journey?

Give students the context and present a problem that needs to be solved. Help students navigate through the steps with you so they experience the journey just as you (or the character) did. It could be a journey through a physical place, a journey through an experiment, a path through a process, or a series of steps to master a skill.

2. A failure.

Is there a failure you or the scholar/author you are studying has worked through?

We learn from failure and from our mistakes. Our students need to know how to fail, learn from the lesson, and try again.  Speaker and author John Maxwell calls this process “failing forward.”

Tell your students about a time when you failed. What happened to lead to failure? What assumptions were made? What mistakes were made? What did you do to overcome it? What happened next? If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your own experience, share a story about failure that happened to one of the scholars, scientists, or authors in your field.

3. A mystery. 

“Mystery is created not from an unexpected moment but from an unexpected journey. We know where we’re headed – we want to solve the mystery – but we’re not sure how we’ll get there” (Heath & Heath, 2008, p. 82).

Is there a mystery in your profession? Could you share a mystery about the scholar you are studying or the author’s work you are reading? Is there a mystery you have experienced in your own travels, research, or studies that would spark students’ interest and encourage them to solve the problem?

Concluding Thoughts

Movies, books, video games, and other forms of media all have the common thread of storytelling. Stories are memorable. They give us characters we can relate to, situations we can experience, and a structure that helps us follow along and retain information. Try to break up your next lecture with a story.

Resources & Additional Readings:

Eyler, J. (2018). How Humans Learn. West Virginia University Press.

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2008). Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York, NY: Random House.

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (n.d.). Teaching that sticks. Website and resources available online: