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Stanford Storytelling: Why retention is higher through stories

Stanford Storytelling

There were once two Stanford professors. One was called Gordon Bower and the other, Michal Clark. They were both fascinated by the relationship between story and memory. So they decided to try an experiment. The year was 1969.

They created two groups. The first group was asked to memorize a list of words, all unrelated and all random. The second group was asked to do the same. But this group was asked to create a story that included all the words. The story was their own to imagine using their unique and creative minds. But it had to include every word on the list.

Both groups were given as much time as they needed to memorize the words. Immediately after studying the lists, everyone was able to recall the words perfectly – list and story alike. It was an even playing field.

So then Bower and Clark repeated the experiment 12 more times. In the end, there were 12 lists and 12 stories. This is when things changed.

Long-term recall had exceptionally different results. Both groups were asked to remember every word on one of the 12 lists. For those who memorized the words in list form, average recall was 13%. For those who memorized the words in story form, average recall was 93%.

The conclusion? Stories beat lists. Retention is 6-7 times higher through stories.

Why is retention higher through stories?

Stories are interesting

So let’s try the Bower and Clark experiment for ourselves. Try memorizing this list of words:












Now use this sentence to memorize the words:

A lumberjack darted out of a forest, skated around a hedge past a colony of ducks. He tripped on some furniture, tearing his stocking while hastening toward the pillow where his mistress lay (Bower. and Clark, 1969)

Which method is easier? Which method is better for retaining information? Which method is better for recalling information? As Bower and Clark have proven, the second version, a story, is 6-7 times more effective. One key reason is very simple. Stories inspire images in our mind. They connect numerous different things into one common theme. They provide action for us to follow and scenes in which we can engage.

Stories are simply more interesting than lists.

Stories are effective

People are starting to understand the potential of stories on memory in all industries. Imagine the benefits of recalling business pitches, presentations, and plans 6-7 times faster. Storytelling is not only memorable. It is efficient.

“Information is remembered better and longer, and recalled more readily and accurately when it is remembered within the context of a story.” (Haven, 67)

One experiment fifty years ago isn’t the sole evidence for this theory. Although it is important. But psychologists, mathematicians, even magicians, and hustlers, have been using the tactic of storytelling to retain information for years.

In 1980 at the University of California, three researchers found similar results to Bower and Clark. They experimented with memory by comparing the effectiveness of narrative texts with expository texts. For example, a narrative text might be the story of Adam and Eve. Whereas an expository text might be an encyclopedia entry. They found that the narrative texts were not only read twice as fast, but they were also retained and recalled twice as well (Graesser, 1980).

Joshua Foer talks about the real-life application of using stories to retain information. He describes the Memory Palace technique, which transforms information into a memorable story. It is a process of taking your mind on a journey. Just like a story. And it is being used by some of the world’s best memory champions and mental athletes.

Stories are proven through research and experience to be effective.

Stories are unique

One story can be told a hundred different ways. Stories are creatively boundless and every storyteller puts themselves within the story. That’s what makes them special. And one of the reasons stories are unique is emotions.

Although there is an infinite number of different stories, they all have one thing in common. They trigger emotions. Emotions are both unique and universal. They are personal to each individual yet relatable to everyone. Consider your memories. The most memorable events in your life are probably some of the most emotional. We remember emotions. And we remember stories that trigger emotions (Callahan, 2015).

Memory experts like Joshua Foer are also endorsing the power of unusual stories. We remember things that are exceptional. Stuff that stands out stays in our heads. All good stories are powerful. But the ones that really stick with us are those that are wonderfully weird and extraordinary. We remember strange and shocking images. And some stories inspire more of those images than others. That’s why many memory pros encourage you to include as many wacky details as possible. Those are the stories you’ll remember.

Stories are memorable

“The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it.” (Foer, 2011)

The sad reality is that we lose information from our memory over time. We cannot stop the passing of time. We cannot solve this central flaw of memory capacity. But we can control what we remember. And the way we can do that is through stories.

What do you remember from your childhood?

Do you remember bedtime stories? Disney movies? Family anecdotes?

Or do you remember homework spelling lists? Classroom registers? Bus stop timetables?

You remember the stories from your childhood. They stick with you. More, they shape you into the person you are now. This is the true potential of storytelling. And now you realize it, you have the power to choose what you want to remember.

Through stories, you’ll find your memory capacity is far larger than you ever imagined.


Bower, G. and Clark, M. (1969). Narrative stories at mediators for serial learning [online] Stanford EU. Available at: [Accessed 16 August 2019].

Callahan, S. (2015). The link between memory and stories [online] Anecdote. Available at: [Accessed 16 August 2019].

Foer, F., 2011. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. PENGUIN PR.

Foer, J. (2015). To Remember Better, Build a Mansion in Your Mind. [video] Available at: [Accessed 16 August 2019].

Graesser, A., Hoffman, N. and Clark, L. (1980). Structural components of reading time [online] Science Direct. Available at: [Accessed 16 August 2019].

Haven, K., 2007. Story Proof: The Science Behind The Startling Power Of Story. Libraries Unlimited.

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