December 21, 2021

What Can Sandwiches Teach Us About Storytelling?

By The Smarty Train

Cast your mind back to Britain in 1748. John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, is playing a game of cards and his stomach begins to growl. He’s starving, but he can’t possibly put his cards down and nip off to the kitchen. If only there was something he could eat in one hand without getting covered in food…

So, he orders a slice of beef and two slices of bread. With one hand, he easily places the meat inside the bread and – hey presto! He can eat while holding his cards and not have to leave the gaming table. Success.

The craze quickly caught on, and from the Earl’s gambling addiction the “sandwich” was introduced to the Western world.

But why are we telling you this story? Because skilful learning designers know that storytelling enhances learning, and is one of the best ways to improve memory recall.

First, our brains are wired for stories. We look for story patterns when they aren’t there. When we’re given statistics and information within a story we’re up to 70% more likely to remember them. Second, there’s an art and a science to ensuring you’re telling stories that help make your learning sticky.

Taking inspiration from the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who found just the right solution for his needs, here are five steps from TST’s test kitchen for finding the right story for the learning and development experiences you design.


Step 1 – Outline your learning goals

Start by having a clear idea of your learning goals. You can have the most engaging, well-crafted, and beautifully told story. However, if it doesn’t connect with what you want your learning experience to achieve, then the story might be memorable, but your learning content risks being forgettable.

What is the one thing you want your audience to take away from the experience?

Think of the learning goal as the Without it, you’re just left with sandwich fillers.

Once you’ve identified that one thing, you’ve identified the one message your story must tell. This will be the singular focus for your story, allowing you to link your story’s message to your learning content. A singular focus will also help you be short and sharp in your storytelling, and trim away any excess details.


Step 2 – Identify the context

When will you be telling your story? Do you want to hook your audience’s attention at the start of a learning experience? Do you want to inspire them at the end?

Different stories suit different contexts. Further, the same story can be told differently to suit different contexts.

Once you identify the context in which you’ll be telling your story, you can determine what emotions you want to engender, and what tone you need to strike to engender them. Stories can help set a mood as much as they can tie content and land learning objectives. A reflective tone. A collaborative one. A challenging one. Check out this piece for more tips on evoking emotions.


Step 3 – Calibrate for your audience

Understand your audience. Everyone has a favourite sandwich filling. In the same way, not all stories will resonate with everyone. Is your audience one of graduates new to the world of work? Midlevel professionals looking to move to the next step? Seasoned executives who are uninterested in the ‘same old’?

Style. Use of humour. Popular references. Length. Pace. Medium. These are all levers you can pull on to calibrate your story for your audience.

Regardless of your audience, ensure your learning and stories are inclusive. Are you accounting for the 20% when designing your learning experiences?


Step 4 – Build an ecosystem for inspiration

Now that you know why you want to tell your story, when you’ll share it, and whom you’re telling it to you can find that perfect story that fits your objectives, brand and audience.


Be curious. Be open. Pay attention to the world around you. Most importantly, build an ecosystem that allows you to do these three things. Books. Newspapers. Magazines. Movies. Podcasts. Your neighbour who is proficient in the history of sandwiches. Groups of friends or colleagues who inspire you.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Have your go-to sources, and your wildcards you check in on occasionally.

Feeling uninspired? Our Monthly Trends To Watch might be a place to start.


Step 5 – Craft away

Once you have your story in hand, it’s time to craft it to your needs. You might lean into some details and remove others. You might focus on certain elements and de-emphasise others. You might cut out bits that overcomplicate you message, and keep in ones that help you make your point simply. Stories are like raw clay, they can be moulded as required.

As you’re building out your story, test it over and over. No detail is too small to pay attention to, even in—especially in—a 90 second story.

You might feel a bit like a mad scientist through it. Or you might feel like the 4th Earl of Sandwich, and crafting your story could be as simple as sliding a slice of beef between two pieces of bread with one hand while holding winning cards in your other.

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