Better Learning Through Storytelling

By George D'Amato

I’m in the business of creating compelling stories. As a filmmaker for The Discovery Channel, The History Channel and National Geographic, I need to understand how stories touch audiences — why one story instantly resonates with an audience while another doesn’t. 

“A story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own ideas and experience,” says Gerry Beamish who researches storytelling.  A memorable yarn can also help us retain important information, both in casual and formal learning settings.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the world’s most talented storytellers, gifted directors, novelists, screenwriters, actors and producers. From them, I’ve gleaned insights into the alchemy of great stories. Sir Philip Pullman, CBE, FRSL, an English novelist and author of several best-selling books says, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” 

A lot of folks are averse to telling stories because they believe that “the facts” are the most persuasive pieces of content they can deliver.

Do stories really hold that much influence?  According to research by psychologists Green & Brock, they do: “In fact, it’s likely that you greatly underestimate how much stories affect you. The reason they work so well is that we’re susceptible to getting ‘swept up’ in both their message and in the manner of their telling.”

Below are some key points I gathered from a presentation titled, The Art of Storytelling,” by Jon Thomas: 

1. Stories are the emotional glue that connects the audience to the message.

Much of what people remember from a learning experience are the feelings of the underlying message. Stories are an important way to tap into the heart of the audience, providing a channel for conveying a deeper message based on emotion.

2. Information presented should be constructed around a story.

Any kind of presentation whether online training or live — will benefit from a story construction. Organizing information into a format with a beginning (setting the stage), middle (the challenge) and end (new reality) can work for many topics.

3. Stories reshape knowledge into something meaningful.

For centuries, people have used stories to pass on knowledge. When information is embedded in the context of a story, it is transferred to a listener or reader in a unique way.  New research shows that 70% of what we learn is consumed through storytelling.

4. Stories make people care.

When you know your audience — their pains, frustrations and joys — your stories can reflect their emotions and experiences. As learners begin to see themselves in the story and begin to identify with it, they start to care. Nancy Duarte, the author of Resonate, states that a story serves as a moment of emotional appeal.

5. People take time for stories.

Have you ever noticed that even the busiest of people will stop to listen to someone’s story or to tell one of their own? Stories are why people are drawn to novels and movies and gossip magazines. If you want to maintain an audience’s attention, you’re more likely to do it through storytelling.

6. Stories give meaning to data.

Many people perceive data as meaningless numbers. This happens when the data is disconnected to anything important in their experience. Fortunately, when the data is placed in the context of a story, it comes alive.

In a recent project, I was able to bridge the storytelling magic of Hollywood with medical education to create a new and engaging form of CME I call “medical documentaries.”  Similar to the way we create productions for The Discovery Channel, we recorded these projects on location featuring two doctors and one patient per story. I was able to coach and encourage these doctors to be genuine and concise on camera and was able to bring out lasting impressions from our patient interviews. 

During the editing process, we cross-cut between the two doctors and the patient weaving a compelling story of the patient’s journey, and ultimately, each doctor’s path toward helping them live a better life. Two-dimensional animation and multi-colored graphics were used effectively to bring home all the important statistical information. Recorded on location and surrounded by beautiful architectural backdrops, both stories reach a new milestone in CE and CME learning. 

Before going to camera, I designed a multi-level approach to understanding the needs of the project better. First, conference calls with the doctors and patients build trust and are very important to the final outcome of the video. A brief conversation allows me to give everyone an idea of what to expect during the recording and to ease concerns about being on camera. I also ask them to start thinking about their wardrobe and to select multiple ties, shirts and jackets to bring so I can tweak to create harmony with the interview location. 

Setting, wardrobe, lighting, makeup and sound are just as important in your CME as they are on Netflix. Don't consider anything less.

Now, it’s onto the hospital administrators to understand and coordinate a first look at hospitals for interview locations. Many discussions are held with the hospitals, for example, William Allstetter at National Jewish and Dessiree Paoli at Children's Hospital, both in Denver, Colorado. Their cooperation in this production was extraordinary. Thank you!

Beautiful architecture is a cornerstone of my directing style. Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness. This kind of backdrop is a perfect fit for doctors, as it speaks to their stature in our lives. They are important and knowledgeable, and should be portrayed in a way that mirrors that significance.

Through my work with National Geographic, I’ve had the good fortune to interview many doctors, nurses, EMS, generals (Colin Powell) and presidents (Bill Clinton). A commonality among people who deal with the public is that they know how to engage and use their personalities with great effect. Some just need a bit of coaching to be more effective at communicating their thoughts more simply or more energetically.

Many interviews you’ve seen are conducted in standard hotel rooms with bland walls and a house plant as decor. Other bad settings? After a PowerPoint presentation in a hallway or in an office. It’s a better choice to style well and bring dignity to the interviewees, so we take what they say seriously.

I invite you to enjoy this trailer on our website at and feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

About the Author

George D’Amato is a renowned filmmaker specializing in emotional storytelling. His work for The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, Discovery ID and National Geographic have been recognized by every major film festival in the industry. A graduate of three iconic New York institutions: New York University - Tisch School of the Arts, The Actors Studio and the International Center of Photography, George also teaches storytelling and film/video directing at the University of Toronto, Humber College and the Raindance Institute for Film Studies.

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