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Teaching Tales

Disciplines > Storytelling > Teaching tales > Teaching Tales

Structure | How they work | See also


Teaching tales are simple stories that pack a powerful persuasive punch. They are typically very short, often less than a hundred words, and are designed as a metaphor that will make listeners sit up and take notice.

Teaching tales are not new and have been used for thousands of years, carrying tribal wisdom across generations and propagating religions thought stories of heroes, deities, prophets, protagonists and antagonists.



Teaching tales are often delivered orally and perhaps without preparation. They often thus leads them be relatively short.

Short stories are easier to remember for the storyteller. They also can be fitted into odd moments and selected to fit a particular teaching point.

Not all teaching tales have to be short, and some can be very long. The key goal is that the listener learns.

Fiction or real

Teaching tales can be made up or may be a story of something that actually happened.

Stories about something that happened can be about someone else or a personal tale (the latter are particularly powerful).

Fiction gives you more scope to invent and customize what you say, making them more exciting and interesting.

In practice, a combination of reality and fiction can be effective, taking a real base and elaborating a little (or a lot). Such stories can be told as 'as if' true, perhaps not telling the audience which is which.


Like a joke, teaching tales may not make their point until the very last moment. This method keeps listeners in suspense and hence attentive. It also uses the Recency Effect by which they are more likely to remember this key point.

In longer stories there may be more than one punchline with learning points throughout the tale. The penny may also not drop straight away; the key is that the listener has an 'aha' experience as the point of learning occurs.

How they work

Teaching tales work like any other stories, and also use a few additional techniques to get the point home.


A teaching tale should encourage the people you are teaching to associate with a particular person in the story, usually the main character. When they do this, they sink into the character, experiencing and thinking what the character experiences and thinks.


Teaching tales are often designed to snare their listeners into the associated position, often without them realizing what is happening. In this way they are psychologically connected with the learning points without even realizing it.

One reason for this is that the target people may be resistant to persuasion, but once voluntarily associated are more likely accept the lesson.


The tale may be exactly as happened or may use metaphor to bring in ideas from a different realm. Metaphor is different from fiction as it is clear that the metaphor used is not real.

Metaphor also is an ideal medium for entrapment as the real target may well not be clear until after the listener is engaged.

Metaphor is particularly useful in stories where telling the truth would be embarrassing or otherwise unwise. It is also useful when the metaphor chosen brings in a new domain of ideas that expands current thinking. For example, a story about new ways of learning might use the metaphor of a lion cub struggling to survive in the savannah.

See also

Association principle

Thinking stories


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