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Storytelling in eLearning: The why and how

By Shelley A. Gable / September 2011

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Every year, I have to complete training related to confidentiality policies (as a learner, not an as the instructional designer). Most years, I think of the training as time wasted—I already know that I'm not supposed to blab confidential information to my friends and family. But last year, the training instructor opened with a story about a confidentiality breach caused by an employee checking his email in a cafe. As someone who often works on the go, that got my attention.

Whether you design classroom training, eLearning, m-learning, or work with another medium entirely, storytelling is a learning tool that possesses the power to motivate, persuade, educate, and even entertain.

If you're in the midst of developing an eLearning course with consecutive slides relaying concepts and guidelines, take up the challenge of redesigning those slides into an informational story. It will make the training more interesting for your learners and tap into your creativity. Not sure if you can do it? Read on to find out how.

Why Tell Stories?

Malcolm Knowles, John Keller, and other learning theorists remind us adult learners must see the relevance of something in order to feel persuaded to learn about it. Explaining concepts in the context of a story that learners can relate to is crucial to the learning process. By helping learners integrate knowledge into their mental models in meaningful ways, the realistic context of a story makes information easier to remember. Although theorists like David Ausubel and Donald Norman have done the research in support of this, most of us intuitively know it is easier to remember the gist of a story and its lessons compared to a list of miscellaneous facts.

Cleverly crafted stories stimulate an emotional response to training content, such as a desire to help, curiosity about how something works, or a drive to achieve. Thus, the story helps persuade learners to engage in the training and ultimately perform the desired behaviors. When written in a conversational tone (and with a pinch of humor, if you have a knack for that), stories can even entertain.

How Do I Write a Story?

Now that we have established stories possess the power to motivate, persuade, educate, and even entertain, the next step is writing a story. It is helpful to gather possible stories from subject matter experts (SMEs). When engaging a SME, use prompts like, "tell me about a time someone broke this policy" or "tell me about the salesperson who went from struggling to successful using this methodology."

However you might not even need to prompt your SMEs; storytelling is so inherent in human nature that they may volunteer stories throughout the course of the project. In which case, your task is to recognize potentially relevant stories and ask probing questions to capture the details needed to support the training.

When asking probing questions, keep the basic elements of a story in mind.

Setting. Where the story takes place. In the confidentiality training example from earlier, the setting was a cafe.

Characters. The actors in the story. In the earlier example, an employee (i.e., someone like me) was the main character. Other characters, such as the employee's manager, entered the story later.

Event (problem). In the workplace, every task has a purpose. The event or problem in a story usually illustrates that purpose. In the earlier example, the event was the confidentiality breach, which illustrated the purpose of the organization's confidentiality practices.

Development (actions and consequences). This element should explain to learners what happens if they perform a task correctly or incorrectly—connect the dots between a series of choices and their consequences. In the earlier example, the storyteller went on to explain the consequences of the breach for the organization and the employee.

Climax (lesson learned or problem solved). The climax typically explains the result of a sequence of events, or it might present a twist that shows how the character turned the situation around. In the earlier example, the lesson learned consisted of ways to prevent a security breach (such as not facing a laptop toward a window).

Ending. Stories often close with a concluding statement that reflects on key points and offers closure. In the earlier example, the story ended with the main character summarizing what he will do to be more careful next time.

Incorporating surprise and/or humor makes stories especially memorable. If a story becomes lengthy, consider breaking it up throughout a course. This presents opportunities for foreshadowing and cliffhangers. In the example I provided earlier, the first part of the story opened the training, and then subsequent details were revealed as the training progressed. The story's ending served as the summary at the end.

How Do I Work a Story into an eLearning Lesson?

We've established that stories benefit learning; however, if that story becomes a large blob of text on an eLearning slide, its benefits could be diminished. Find engaging ways to tell a story, perhaps by playing with the approaches below.

Comic strip. Comics visually engage: The images help put learners in the setting and they clearly convey characters' emotions. The short spurts of dialogue can help make the story move quickly. Also, the novelty of the approach helps gain attention.

Interactive timeline. When telling a story from a single perspective (i.e., not including dialogue), a timeline format can communicate a sequence of events and consequences. An interactive timeline can capture attention with appealing visuals and by offering learners a hands-on way to move the story forward.

Social media. A short story can work well as a text-based narrative to inspire a discussion thread. Depending on the story's purpose, an eLearning course might encourage learners to share their own similar stories to personalize the lesson learned or analyze the story provided to draw out key points.

Audio narrative. Often, the best storyteller is someone who had the experience firsthand or is especially passionate about its message. An audio recording can convey the associated expression and emphasis.

When using audio carefully consider what visual stimulus to include on the screen. While it's appropriate to offer an optional transcript, experts tend to agree that narration that reads verbatim text from a slide is actually detrimental for learning. Instead, consider including an image of the storyteller or diagrams that supplement the story. Audio could also supplement any of the other suggestions above.

Video. Video can take the benefits of audio up a notch. A video of the storyteller allows learners to benefit from nonverbal expressions - a human touch they might especially appreciate if completing large amounts of eLearning.

Careful consideration of visual stimulus applies to video, too. Videos don't have to focus exclusively on the storyteller. They can also use the storyteller as a voice over narrator while showing related action, such as scenes from the workplace.

Let's go back to the challenge. Armed with the knowledge of how to construct a story and how to integrate it into eLearning, revisit those slides of concepts and motivate us with a story.

About the Author

Shelley A. Gable is an instructional designer and freelance writer. She has designed training for functions such as financial services, call centers, and engineering education. Gable contributes to the Integrated Learnings: eLearning blog, hosted by Integrated Learning Services (ILS). ILS provides eLearning consulting and custom instructional design and development. To contact Gable, visit her website.


  • Fri, 09 Mar 2012
    Post by Luisa Formisano

    I have read your post and I think it's very clear and practical in presenting the storytelling plan. I've experimented the possibilities of projects on stories and they are motivating and flexible in a learning environment, I also agree with your techniques since they involve personal learning construction and then follow learner's natural attitude to tell us live stories and put on stage a fact, an event in a sort of integrated activity just like a real film direction or vision. Theatre spots may be used too.All web tools are good for me at this step. Thank you Luisa