December 9, 2021

Three Things Toasters Can Teach Us About Learning Design

By The Smarty Train

Imagine you’ve just bought a new toaster. You’ve been eyeing up this model for a while. It’s got four slots, seven heat settings, toastie making capabilities… the whole works.

You rush home full of anticipation to savour the taste of the warm butter as it melts on the bread. As you open the box you see the sleek silver sides and the hungry slots ready to take your sandwiches up to the next level. You’re carefully taking it out from the box when a little white booklet falls on your lap.

It reads, “Toaster Safety Manual”.

A flick through reveals technical jargon, unrecognisable languages, and way too many steps that you cannot be bothered to follow. You discard it, confident in the belief that you know how to use a toaster.

The sticky jam on toast that you enjoy a few minutes later confirms this.

But as you’re enjoying the sweet strawberry jam, something grabs your attention.

There’s a smell.



Burning plastic.

You rush to the kitchen…

… it’s on fire.

The source of the fire?

Your new toaster.


Learning through stories

Don’t worry, you’re totally forgiven for skipping over manuals, the fine print, or the terms of conditions.

We all do it, because information presented in this way is often indigestible, inaccessible, and not interesting to learn from. And 9 times out of 10 neglecting to read the manual probably won’t end in a fire.

But the problem isn’t that you didn’t read the manual. It’s that you were not engaged enough to read it. A study by Microsoft found that human attention spans are at a record low, averaging at about 8 seconds – which is shorter than a goldfish. The challenge, then, is to discover how to hack our brains to be engaged enough when learning that we can remember the right stuff at the right time.

Here’s where storytelling comes in: behavioural science research has shown that recall is 7x higher when remembering a specific story over text alone.

At TST, when designing human-centered experiences, we recognise that learning presented in the form of a manual isn’t always the most accessible format. Fresh from the minds behind our award-winning Design Team, here are 3 ways we harness the power of narrative storytelling to boost engagement in our learning experiences for everyone.


1) Your story should entice 

When individuals hear a statistic or a fact alone, they retain only 5% – 10% of what they hear. Combine that information with a picture and retention jumps to 25%, but when stories are used to deliver that same information, retention increases to 65% – 70%.

This is because stories engage both sides of our brain. If we had just told you at the start that most people throw their toaster manuals away, it may not have caught your attention. By putting you in the story of buying a toaster (an experience familiar to most people), we were able to paint a vivid picture of the predicament you found yourself in.

How are you intriguing your audiences to learn through storytelling?


2) Your story should evoke emotions 

Stories that make us weep, laugh, and have us on the edge of our seats do so because they trigger a chemical reaction in our brains. Dopamine is released when the story is suspenseful, and oxytocin is released when you feel empathetic with elements of the story. We don’t fall in love with toaster safety manuals. We fall in love with stories that we can relate to.

If you want your people to be actively invested in the topics that you’re trying to teach them, strive to create a narrative that will provoke emotions; whether that emotion be surprise, pride, or rumination.

How are you crafting evocative stories to make your audience care?


3) Your story should teach a lesson

Bruner, a cognitive psychologist and Professor at Harvard and Oxford, found that stories are an essential element of learning experiences because they are vehicles for conveying experiences – positive and negative. Often, this is called the “moral of the story”.

It’s no wonder that the best CEOs structure their presentations in a storytelling format. Were the title to the toaster manual “How to make toast without calling your insurance company”, you might be more inclined to read it – though the moral of the story in your learning experience doesn’t have to be as in-your-face as a burning kitchen.

How are you clearly creating a link between your content and the message you want your audience to take away?


To elevate your learning through story narratives, remember that a good story will always entice your audience from the get-go, evoke an emotional response, and will have a moral to tie it all together. The moral of this story? Next time you buy a toaster, read the manual first. Thank us later.

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