Train the Trainer: Storytelling as Teaching

Storytelling as Teaching

It is a proven fact that the use of storytelling – called “the narrative approach” in teaching lingo – is one of the most effective ways to add interest and engagement to a presentation.  Storytelling works in just about any educational platform from lecture to discussion to on-line, and can help you reach your audience on both an intellectual and emotional level.  A well-placed story can make theories or abstract ideas concrete and accessible, can spark interest in new material, and can help students memorize facts.

To put it simply, properly used, storytelling is a great teaching method.   I’ve used storytelling as a teaching method for decades, and would love to share with you all some of the specific ways I use stories.  Hopefully, some of them will make sense to you and you’ll be able to use them in your teaching as well.

 Use stories to spark interest when introducing a new concept.

Familiar stories, especially those from literature, movies, or popular culture, can be useful to ease the transition into a totally new subject matter. I use the familiar Edgar Allen Poe story “The Cask of Amontillado” as an introduction to the subject of Sherry. Despite its status as one of the world’s leading wines, Sherry is a very foreign subject to most of my culinary school students, and Amontillado is the only real Sherry they have ever heard of, even if they do not yet know what that means or why it matters! 

 Use stories to “sum up” the subject matter at the end of a presentation.

After a long, information-packed class, I like to tell a story to tie all the  information together and re-energize the students about the subject matter  before I conclude the class.  Some of my favorite stories and topics to use include Chianti and the Story of “The Hungry Black Rooster,” Charles Heidsieck and “Champagne Charlie,” and The History of Hungarian Wine and “Bull’s Blood.”  All of these wine stories can be found on this blog…just look  under the category “Tales of the Vine.”

Use stories as a “repetition” of important facts or concepts.

After I tell a  lecture or assign a reading that involves certain basic facts that are very important for students to remember (in other words, just about every class), I try to “weave” those facts into a historical or fictional story.  I find this to be one of my most effective methods for “pouring facts” into  my students. 

I often use the story of Emperor Charlemagne and the Vineyard of Corton-Charlemagne to prompt memory of the basic facts of Burgundy Wine, such as the type of grapes permitted, the many different vineyard names and the vineyard classifications.  Another cool trick is to tell the story at the beginnng of class – including all the pertinent facts, and re-tell the story at the end of class, but this time have the student “fill in” the facts for you. It’s a kind of “story-based quiz.”  

Use stories to tie new concepts to something students already know.

It’s a proven educational fact that all new knowledge if built off of information already in long-term memory. (Check back for a post on Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning – if you dare!) Thus, tying new information to something students already know will increase their interest, engagement, and memory potential immensly.  If you can find  something in popular culture that your audience enjoys (such as a song, television show, or movie) that involves your subject matter, you have hit the jackpot, educationally speaking!

You can use the familiarity (dare I say popularity?) of Dom Perignon, Veuve Cliquot, or Cristal to interest your audience in the story of Champagne. Use the stories to spark interest in grapes, production method, and aging underground. It wil make terms like “sur lie aging” and “assemblage” much more interesting.  I have even used scenes from “James Bond” movies that feature Champagne to peak my audience’s interest in the science of the wine.  There are some awesome James Bond movie posters featuring Champagne out there you can use as visuals as well.

Use stories to engage or “wake up” your audience at any time.

Before you begin a course, seminar, or sales pitch, be armed with at least a few stories that relate to your subject.  Then, if you ever sense your audience losing interest, hit them with a story.  It’s bound to re-invigorate your talk! 

 Remember, storytelling is one of the oldest forms of teaching. 

With all our brain-based science, educational psychology, and cognitive philosophies, one thing we have learned is Aristotle was right – stories are a great way to engage, inspire, and teach our students and our selves!

For more great ideas about stories to use in teaching wine, check under the “Tales of the Vine” category on this blog.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…




Train the Trainer: Are you a visual or a verbal learner?


Are you a visual or a verbal learner? Do you tout the fact that there are four learning styles – and your classes engage each one of them? Do you make power point slides and handouts in an attempt to “engage visual learners”? Do you think your lecture and discussion is ideal for “engaging auditory learners”? If so, you are not alone…but many people will argue that you are wrong! Ouch!

Let’s give this side of the story a chance and consider that it might be high time to get over this antiquated idea of education.

For more than 30 years, the notion that teaching methods should match a student’s particular learning style has exerted a powerful influence on education. The wide appeal of the idea that some students will learn better when material is presented visually and others will learn better when the material is presented verbally (or kinesthetically, or logically) is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and  teaching guides available, not to mention the reams of literature on the subject.  Just google “learning styles” and see what happens.  I got over 14 million results touting no less than 71 different “learning styles” – all in 1.3 seconds!


This is not to say that people do not differ in learning abilities.  A person with a high level of visual learning ability will be able to easily recall if an image was red or blue, and will have a high level of recall of people’s faces.  A person with a high level of auditory learning ability will have an uncanny ability to differentiate between different pitches, levels of volume, and the unique sound of a voice.  However, this does not imply higher levels of the construction of new knowledge, new meaning, new vocabulary, new concepts or new context based on the path of input.

Modern scientific research simply does NOT support the existence of different learning styles, nor the hypothesis that people learn better when taught in a way that matches their own unique style.  As a matter of fact, reams of literature have also been written on the subject that there are NOT four distinct learning styles. I got nearly as many google hits by using the terms “learning styles don’t exist” and “learning styles debunked” as I did on “learning styles” alone! If you don’t want to believe me (or google), perhaps you will believe a team of eminent researchers in learning psychology and their report published in December 2009 in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The report reviews the existing literature on learning styles and finds that although numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners such as “auditory learners” and “visual learners,” those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible.


Or perhaps you will believe a Harvard  Ph.D.  Dr. Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist and author of Why Don’t Students Like School, recently posted a short video on youtube entitled “Learning Styles Don’t Exist.” I highly recommend it, and his book for that matter. Dang. So, if it is just not as simple as “learning styles”, what’s an educator to do?  At the risk of oversimplification, I believe we should concentrate on what cognitive processes learners have in common rather than focusing on how they might be different. The latest research on learning, and something that has certainly changed the way I teach, is well reflected in something called “whole brain teaching.”

Whole brain teaching recognizes that maximum learning occurs when a learning activity involves visual, verbal, and emotional elements combined with activities requiring critical thinking, movement and speech.  Teaching in this way triggers action in the “whole brain”, in other words, six distinct regions of brain activity working in conjunction. And while we are at it, please forget the cliché that “we only use 10% of our brain capacity.”  The truth is actually closer to “we only engage 10% of the brain at a time when using outdated teaching techniques.”

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