May 28th, 2019
    Digital Learning, Learning Management, Managed Learning Services

Storytelling I The Secret to Great Learning Design

The Learning Factor 5 min read

“The great storytellers have an unfair competitive advantage.” — Bill Gurley

I recently took a rare weekend away with my girlfriends. We lounged around, ate too much, had lovely spa treatments – and spent the whole time telling stories. Often, we laughed; sometimes we were horrified; sometimes we were shocked! But the whole time, we were hearing about each other’s experiences and not only did we learn more about each other – we learned more about ourselves. Stories are powerful. They open us up in a way no other way of communicating does. And we want to hear them – even as babies they soothe and entertain us. We seek them out.

So, how can we use stories to communicate and learn from each other in our working lives? Can we, as learning designers, incorporate storytelling into interactive and engaging online training experiences? With the right mindset, and the technology to help, storytelling can give any learning program an emotional edge you can’t achieve any other way.

Why telling stories is a valuable use of development time

Stories have a powerful impact on a learner’s adoption of skills and motivation to participate. There are four key aspects of learning theory that are benefited by storytelling:

1. They assist with learner retention.
Stories do something powerful when it comes to knowledge retention. Because they connect the learner with prior experiences, they trigger long term memory which is shown to help the brain embed new information.

2. They create an emotional connection.
Stories also have an important impact on emotions. This emotional connection is another key element in creating a memorable experience. Stories can be used to create a personal connection with which the learner can identify.

3. They provide context.
Context is so important in learner motivation. Without it, learners struggle to understand the value of a piece of learning. You can’t tell a story without setting the scene, or it would make no sense. Scene setting = automatic context.

4. They help make difficult concepts easier to understand.
Stories are instinctive: they are easier to interpret than information given in another format, such as a graphical representation. Stories are also much easier to remember than facts. Complex concepts can be more easily explained using stories which can incorporate visuals and audios – breaking up the topic and making it more digestible.

Here a couple of ideas with a few helpful examples of how to use storytelling in learning design:

Idea 1: Place the learner in the leading role

Run through a story, then let the user try out their new skills by making decisions or answering questions. Put the learner in the driving seat and imagine they are responsible for what happens. Just make sure the character and setting are relatable and true to life.

* Harassment and Discrimination Example: You see a colleague sitting very closely to another employee during a team celebration. The employee looks uncomfortable and it makes you feel like you should step in. You know that this person has been pulled up before after speaking to another female colleague. You are worried that you’ll be seen negatively because this colleague is more senior than you are. What do you do first?

Idea 2: Trigger an emotional reaction

Grab the learner’s attention with a story that shocks or saddens them. If you can trigger an emotional response in the learner, they are truly connecting with the subject and will retain what’s being taught.

* WHS Example: Start by describing a real accident at work. I heard a great example from the nuclear safety industry. Work was being done on a high platform in a power station. Part of the flooring was being replaced but the workers left the area briefly to collect the right warning signs. Meanwhile, another worker walked through the area and fell through the floor, resulting in their death. It was a horrendous and shocking story that really resonated with everyone working in a high-risk environment about being properly prepared for hazardous activity.

Idea 3: Use visual aids

Stories don’t only use words. Comic books are popular for a good reason: they appeal to all ages and abilities. They are also visually stimulating and immerse the reader into that world.

* Example: create a comic superhero that guides a learner via a comic strip through a new production process, or through a set of scenarios that demonstrate a required behaviour such as troubleshooting or whistleblowing.

Idea 4: Use cliff-hangers

Good stories spark our curiosity and make us keen to know more. We should want to follow a story to its conclusion and enjoy the twists and turns along the way. Use natural breaks in your eLearning story that make learners wonder what will happen next by ending on a question or a decision.

* Example: Jerry has a meeting with a supplier. He is offered a weekend in the supplier’s hotel for his family, in return for preferential treatment in an upcoming conferencing tender, but with no obligation. His daughter has been ill for some time, and they haven’t been able to get away. It would make a huge difference if he could make her feel happy and he can’t afford such a nice hotel. Use a question: what would you do here? It doesn’t affect the outcome of the story (it’s not a branching scenario), but it gives the learner some feedback.
* Come back to the story later with the consequences of Jerry’s actions, and a replay of the situation. E.g. Jerry decides to go for it – it’s too big an opportunity to miss and the client was the preferred supplier anyway.

Idea 5: Tell stories using micro-learning modules

Why not use your mobile learning technology to push microlearning resources to your learners? Have them read a quick story. Make the learning message obvious, but keep it interesting and engaging. That story will get the learner thinking – and it will stay with them. They might even go and talk to a colleague about what they’ve just read: even better.

* Example: Post a story about a colleague in another country, who has faced a predicament the learner can relate to. Describe their approach and success – focusing on what went wrong along the way. Leave the learner to make up their mind about how they would approach the same predicament, and what that tells them about their decision-making skills.

OK, so it’s worth saying that there are circumstances where storytelling would confuse and distract the learner. Maybe it’s not the best tool in IT software training. But be imaginative – where could you illuminate an example by telling a story. They don’t have to be expensive to create – you don’t even need to use simulation or branching scenario tools. Use images, sound clips or scrolling pages to illustrate a story and help bring it to life. Capture the imagination – and the wonder of the brain will do its magic at committing new skills to memory.

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