The Power of Using Stories When Instructing

Issue 2 and Volume 15.

Students are much more likely to remember a certain idea if they can relate to it by understanding how it played out in a story. (Steve Crothers photo)

The fire service is a treasure trove of stories for fireground instructors, offering them an enormous amount material to communicate their message. Stories have the ability to make a powerful impact on our minds and inspire us to action. They give us another path to understand and relate to information. Stories capture our attention and motivate us to explore the concepts being presented. They activate the whole brain by imprinting an image or tapping into feelings, emotions, or a sentimental bond. PowerPoint® bullets on slides can only engage part of our brain, but a story engages your imagination, which allows the information to become more personal. A story gives the instructor an opportunity to take lesson plans, curriculum, theory, and standards related to the topic and craft them into a way to provide an individual connection. As an instructor, using stories throughout your teaching can break up a normal lecture and can make lifeless classes come alive.

A story creates an emotional connection. This leads to students remembering or retaining the information associated with the story. The connection is created because the student can relate to the elements of the story and how it parallels the information being taught. Students develop a sense of ownership in the story as they feel the emotions the story evokes. This translate into the student trusting the information and you as the instructor. When trust is present, a safe learning environment is created, and the students are more likely to challenge themselves to try new things. Peter Guber makes a great point when he said, “You are trying to create an emotional component that when bonded with the information makes it memorable and actionable.” As an instructor, getting your students to put the information you taught into action is gold! The idea that a story you tell could have that kind of impact becomes a very significant tool.

There are many different stories I use when I am instructing, but there is one story that has special meaning to me. I use it when teaching a specific skill, the acronym for which has great significance to both me and my department. I proceed by telling them the story from which the acronym originates.

It’s a story about one of my instructors who worked for me when I was an officer in the Training Division. He was also assigned at one of our historic fire stations downtown and was a tillerman for the truck company. He loved the fire department and had a family history in our large department, as his dad had rose to the rank of assistant chief before he retired. He grew up wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps and joined the department at the age of 19. His younger brother eventually became a firefighter with our department as well. Anyone who had the privilege of working with him knew that he was one of the firefighters you wanted watching your back. He took pride in both being and doing the best that he could, which included always looking for ways to improve his skills as a firefighter. He was passionate about passing on fire department traditions to younger firefighters, and on his off time he worked to become an instructor for one of the disciplines we taught at the Training Division.

At age 36, he started to have pain in his chest and eventually went to his doctor to get it checked out. He quickly found out that he had a heart condition that would require open heart surgery. This news shattered his life, and he worried about his career as a firefighter and his role as a husband and father to three young children. While the doctors were preparing him for surgery, it was necessary to run more tests; unfortunately, the tests revealed devastating news. They discovered that he had cancer, and 81 days after receiving the diagnosis, he died.

This was a huge shock to all and an enormous loss to our fire department family. At his funeral, the church was packed with firefighters in their formal Class A uniforms and the Pipes & Drums, and it had all the majesty of a firefighter’s funeral service. We sat silently as the service begin.

I will never forget when his wife of nine years took their five-year-old daughter and three-year-old twin sons up to his casket in front of the altar. They laid four roses on the top of his casket, one for each of them. As they turned to go to their seats, his wife ushered her two boys back down the stairs while at the same time holding her daughter back. She stopped at the top of the stairs facing all of us, knelt next to her daughter, and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. She reached out with her other hand and pointed from one side of the church to the other. While looking up at all of us, she said to her daughter, “All of these firefighters are here for your daddy.” There was not a dry eye in the church.

As I close the story, I share with my students that the acronym for the skill I am teaching them comes from the first letter of his first, middle, and last name. I remind them that when using this phrase in the future as they perform this skill, they will be honoring his memory and preserving his legacy. I share with the students that his wife and parents are aware that this story is told, and they feel incredible grateful that he is still having an impact on firefighters. I close by telling them that our wish is that someday this term will be routinely used within the national fire service.

To this day, it is hard for me to tell this story to a room full of firefighters without fighting back my own emotions. I have never shared this story without looking out at the classroom and seeing an emotional response from the students. I have personally seen this story have immediate actionable results with my students. The influence and response of this story on the classroom as well as out on the drill court are remarkable. Immediately, the students’ body language expresses that they are engaged, and they now own the story.

Students can’t wait to use the phrase when performing the drills. The story is personal to them now, and they desire to put it into action. They are emotionally invested and take pride in it. It is a magical thing to see such a powerful tool spur student involvement.

What, how, and when stories are told during teaching are equally important.

The What

The what is the content of the story; it is the foundation and power of the emotional connection. It’s important to make sure that the story helps explain your point and that it adds value to the curriculum. It must be clear what the story is trying to communicate. Your students should clearly understand the meaning and not be confused as to why you told the story.

The content can come from anywhere and is literally all around us. Material for stories can come from history, stories about work, friends, family, or our imagination, but generally the best stories come from our own personal experiences. These experiences allow us to provide specific insight, which in return gives context and interest to the story.

The How

When you think about how a story is told, so much of what makes the story good is based on how effective the person telling the story is. A good storyteller is a master at building narratives that hold our attention and have us asking for more. They have the skills to engage an audience and are effective at creating an environment where the students are sitting on the edge of their seats in anticipation. They use the basic skills of raising and lowering their voice during key moments, using body language to emphasize important points, using wordplay for amusement, and deploying dramatic pauses to underscore specific ideas.

As the storyteller, I am sending out information but at the same time am receiving data back from my students as I tell the story. I am seeing positive responses such as head nods, good eye contact, and smiles or I am observing negative reactions such as frowns, glares, and confused looks. When I recognize that this feedback is occurring, I can read the room and hone in on the important cues and indications that tell me that I am reaching my students. At the same time, this information can let me know that I have more work to do and I fell short of the mark.

Your personal understanding of the story provides the opportunity to show your students your passion, excitement, enthusiasm, happiness, frustration, or anger. Your emotions reveal your authenticity as a storyteller. Authenticity is how your students connect to the concept in your story. If they see you as authentic, then you continue to build trust, and as I said before, this trust leads to a safe learning environment. Your genuineness in the subject validates your interest in the subject, and the students start to see the benefit for themselves.

The essential skills that allow a person to be capable of telling effective stories require practice and experience. The great thing about these skills is that they are all easy to learn. As you craft your story, you will need to practice by listening to yourself to hear how the story sounds. Does it make sense, what areas are clunking, is it descriptive, is it concise, or is it too long? It’s important to tell the story to other people such as your friends, significant other, or peers. This provides immediate feedback and verifies that the story is meeting your intent. After you have refined your story, it’s time to practice and rehearse, which requires countless repetitions to truly master effectiveness. This is best done by standing in front of a mirror or recording yourself. This type of self-awareness provides opportunity to build experience, and you can gauge your progress. Devoting time to rehearsing is the most significant thing you can do to develop confidence and elevate your ability to master telling a powerful story.

The When

When to tell a story during your teaching can influence your students’ learning in both a positive and negative way. It’s important that stories are well placed throughout your class time and are appropriate for the setting. Some instructors add multiple stories to their lecture while getting caught up reliving the good old days. Or the stories are a way to fill time because instructors are not comfortable with the material. Sometimes a story has good intentions but falls flat or is not pertinent. Stories have the capacity to derail the classroom atmosphere by getting off on a tangent or getting off topic. Occasionally stories can be told to boost the instructors’ ego or try to show that they are relevant to the students. These reasons should be avoided; they damage your rapport with the students, waste your students’ time, and do not add value to your class. However, with a powerful, well-timed story, you can take your students on a journey. If done well, the students will not want the journey to end. They will be hungry for the next leg of the journey, looking forward to what’s around the bend.

When you are instructing, the timing and placement of a story can pique your students’ interest, influencing their involvement. One of my instructors, who teaches tiller training to fire departments around the country with me, always starts the class off by telling a specific story. He shares with them how long he has been driving and his experience when he first learned to tiller a tractor-drawn aerial 30 years ago. His crew took him out and gave him a couple of laps around a parking lot and once he looked like he had figured it out they took out onto the street. The only advice they gave him was, “Don’t hit anything, Kid.” He was extremely nervous as they drove around his district; he had no confidence and did not feel like he knew what he was doing. Of course, he was the new guy and he did not want to disappoint his peers, so he never let on that he was freaked out or worried. He just hoped over time he would figure it out and, God forbid, if a crashed were to occur, no one would get hurt. Eventually, he started to get the hang of it, although he still did not have a strong grasp of if he was doing it correctly. One shift, as they were responding to a call, he came around a corner and steered too much, whipping the back end of the trailer into a parked car. The embarrassment and humiliation he felt was awful. Although it was almost as if the accident was a rite of passage with his crew, it shook what little confidence he had. It took him some time after the accident before he finally started to feel comfortable and become proficient at tillering.

At this point in his story, my instructor would walk down the aisle of the classroom between the students to draw their attention to the main point of his story. His voice would become a little stronger, and his body language would become more animated. He would tell them that we are going to teach them how to be good, proficient, and confident tiller operators. We are going to explain the why’s and how’s of what it takes to navigate this type of large apparatus through your city streets. We are going to give you a vocabulary that everyone will understand. We are going to tell and show you all the mistakes that we have made over the years, so you know what not to do. This class will provide you with a universal standard that creates a foundation for a safe culture to be built on. He closes his story by saying, “I would have given anything to be sitting where you are now 30 years ago before I learned how to tiller! We are giving you a toolbox of skills that I never received. We don’t want you to go through the anxiety and frustration I experience all those years ago.”

The timing of his story in the beginning of the class completely sets the tone for the rest of the class and grabs the students’ attention. Through his story, the students get an idea of the instructor’s experience, passion, humility, and openness. It also lets them know what our goals and exceptions are for the remainder of the class. What better way to begin your class than using a story to effectively share your plan?

Stories are intended to educate, entertain, engage, and inspire your students into action. The power of a story is profound and can dramatically change your ability to share your message. Students are much more likely to remember a certain idea if they can relate to it by understanding how it played out in a story. American poet Maya Angelou best summed it up by saying, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


Steve Crothers, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, has been a member of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 20 years, where he is officer of Ladder Company 9 and has served as a training officer and founded the tiller program. He has been involved in training for many years, has designed and developed training curriculum, and has instructed in fire departments in the United States and Canada.