New research: warning about story-telling

Richard MayerThe guru of multimedia learning Richard Mayer has just published a new paper that all presenters should take note of. The paper is called “Increased interestingness of extraneous details in a multimedia science presentation leads to decreased learning”.

The research

Students received one of two PowerPoint presentations about how a cold virus infects the human body.

Both PowerPoint presentations included interesting but irrelevant details about viruses. In the first presentation the details were of high-interest eg: the role of viruses in sex and death. In the second presentation the details were of low-interest eg: health tips about viruses.

Note that these details are topically relevant (eg: related to the topic of viruses) but not conceptually relevant (eg: related to the explanation of how viruses infect the human body).

The research studied how well students did on both retention (how much they remember) and understanding (how well they can apply what they have learnt).

The results

The students who received the second presentation (low-interest details) did much better on tests that measured understanding. However retention was not significantly different between the two groups. So as the interestingness of details increased, understanding decreased. Mayer concludes:

Results are consistent with a cognitive theory of multimedia learning, in which highly interesting details sap processing capacity away from deeper cognitive processing of the core material during learning.

Two competing theories

This research further supports the cognitive theory of multimedia learning.

But most presentation books and blogs are enthrall to arousal theory: the idea that people learn better when they are emotionally aroused by information (for references see Multimedia Learning). Therefore they emphasise telling stories as a way of emotionally engaging the audience. But Mayer says in Multimedia Learning:

In spite of its commonsense approach, arousal theory is based on an outmoded view of learning as information acquisition – the idea that learning involves taking information from the teacher and putting it into the learner. In contrast, the cognitive theory of multimedia learning is based on the view of learning as knowledge construction – the idea that learners actively build mental representations based on what is presented and what they already know. It follows that seductive details may interfere with the process of knowledge construction.

What does this mean for you and your presentation?

Don’t include a story that is interesting and emotionally engaging but not 100% conceptually relevant. Though in the short-term you’ll keep the attention of your audience, it will sacrifice focus and understanding of your core message.

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  1. Good article as always, Olivia.

    Re: Don’t include a story that is interesting and emotionally engaging but not 100% conceptually relevant.

    I would generalize your conclusion even further… Don’t include __anything__ that is not conceptually relevant to your message. (e.g. stories, humor, statistics, anecdotes, etc. should all be relevant)

    • Good point Andrew. I’d forgotten about those presenters who think they need to add utterly irrelevant cartoons and other light humour into their presentations.

      • Joel Osteen has made a pretty good living telling jokes at the beginning of his message that do not add to the bottom line. :)

        • Hi Jeff – and I’m sure than many others do too. There’s no doubt that it’s engaging. Olivia

  2. Long time lurker first time poster. Thx for this great blog BTW.

    I think emotional arousal is not the primary function of story telling. Its rather some collateral effect.

    Story telling is based on basic narrative structure which is simply one of crucial cognitive schemes or conceptual frames used by humans to understand social reality around them. Thats why not only fairy tales, myths and movies but also news, advertisements and political speeches are build on more or less complicated narrative structure.

    • Hi Toomasz, thanks for your posting for the first time and for your comments on the blog.

      I do agree that stories are one of the ways that we make sense of the world. That’s what makes them so powerful.


  3. Interesting study and Mayer does prove a point. However, I feel that it would have been more meaningful if the research compared a presentation with conceptually RELEVANT stories to one without stories.

    After all, it only makes sense that the conceptually non-relevant material would get in the way of learning, but what if the stories were meaningful to the direct topic? Then we’d know if including stories that had conceptually relevant (arousal theory) material would benefit learning as opposed to a presentation without stories.

    • Hi Art

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, it is frustrating when researchers don’t quite pose the research question the way we would have done! I would have liked “no details” as well.


  4. The other question, and perhaps the key one, is when was understanding and retention measured? Was it immediately after the presentation or quite a while after?

    The goal of both presenting and educating is not that the learners remember the material immediately after learning it, or even for the test weeks later, but being able to retain it until they need it “someday.”

    If Aesop wanted to save time, he could have skipped the fable and just delivered the moral, and the audience would likely be able to regurgitate it shortly after. However, it was the fable which gave the morals their “stickiness” and allowed people to remember them years later.

    • Hi Perry

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that the time frame is important. I don’t know what the time frame was – I was working off the abstract of the paper – not the paper itself (website wouldn’t let me buy because I don’t have a US postcode!). I don’t interpret the research as being against stories per se – only against stories which aren’t conceptually relevant to the message. So with Aesop, the message and story are tightly intertwined. If you remember the story – you’ll work out the message. The problem is when we only remember the story – and not the message.


  5. This is an important finding!

    Because stories are so memorable, there’s a real danger that your audience will remember your unrelated stories rather than your key message.

    I’ve been fooled into thinking, “This story is only somewhat related to my message, but it’s a juicy story, so I’m going to include it.” Oops.


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