I want to tell you a story…

This may seem obvious when pointed out but I’ve found that few people realise it otherwise – we all like stories.  As children we start off learning by experiencing the world but, once we start to understand language, our ability to learn accelerates and we soak up stories.

Continuing into adulthood, we continue to learn from two sources – our own experiences and those of others, the latter coming to us as stories.  Stories don’t have to be fictional – in fact most aren’t (in the main).  Relying on our own experience would limit us to a single lifetime of learning – but listening to (and reading) stories allows us to learn from thousands of lifetimes.  Each generation builds on the previous ones and so we progress as a species.  Without language and stories we’d still be living in caves.

Some of us may pride ourselves on the ability to absorb and recall facts but we manage much better when we use stories.  Not just for, say, learning history; stories put almost any set of facts into a context that helps us recall them later when needed.  Some stories are solely internalised whilst others are shared; some are quite simple whilst others complex and convoluted.  A simple example: when we first learn the colours of the rainbow many of us learn the mnemonic “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain”; there’s no real reason to associate an event in a 15th century English war with the spectrum of visible light but the association works.  Another I recall is for the colour code used on electrical resistors ” Better Be Right Or Your Great Big Venture Goes West”.  And stories of great scientific discoveries stick in our mind (e.g. Sir Isaac Newton and the apple).

I was recently reminded of this approach when a student was seeking advice regarding part of a research report he was writing.  My advice was to think of any good report as telling a story.  It has a beginning (the introduction), an end (the recommendations) and middle (a story that leads the reader between the two).  If the story doesn’t flow, the reader will either give up reading or not appreciate the recommendations – both situations probably meaning most of the effort needed to issue the report will have been wasted.  Of course, this is (or should be) a story without any fictional element) but there are many other situations where the reader/listener is asked to engage their imagination to bring things to life and into their own particular context.

One reason I include academic study as an essential complement to experience for anyone to be a true professional in any field is that such study engages the student in the stories of many who have gone before – and gains numerous lifetime experience upon which to build another.

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