Think about the last time you cheered on a protagonist or immersed yourself in a popular television series. That’s storytelling at work. Storytelling is an incredible way to captivate an audience, especially in eLearning.
In this article, we share tips on incorporating storytelling into your learning content, including how to set the right tone, how to build out your story arc, and a useful checklist for keeping yourself on track with both the story and your learning objectives.
“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.” – Plato
Setting the Right Tone
If I told you I was furious with you but was giggling like a schoolgirl at prom while I said it, would you believe me? Of course, you wouldn’t.
My tone says just as much—or more—as my words do. When creating a story for your learners, you need to choose the right tone to make it believable—and thus engaging. Choose the wrong tone and you’ll be lucky if your learners make it through your course without rolling their eyes or falling asleep.
Follow these steps to evaluate the factors behind your ideal story tone.
Determine Your Demographic
It's important to know who you're developing content for. You might find that a younger audience is more willing to entertain a story with a fantasy tone than a group of seasoned office workers would be.
Identify Learning Objectives
Trying to drive behavior change? Use an energetic, encouraging tone. Stories centered around a main hero character—or with the learner as the hero—work well here.
Teaching information or processes? Use straightforward, plain speech.
Emphasizing safety skills? Keep it serious. This isn’t the time for cracking jokes.
Remember Your Brand Image
Larger organizations will likely have a style guide for you to follow, but if you're developing content for a smaller business, it might be up to you to ask questions about their brand image and how they want their content to feel. Are you developing very formal training for a heavily-regularly industry or can you be a bit more playful with how you write the content and questions?
Brand images might be:
Choose Your Delivery Method
There are many ways to deliver training. Consider your learners' work environments and training needs, as well as content type, when choosing a delivery method.
- ILT versus vILT
- Blended Learning
- Mobile devices versus Desktop
“Storytelling is about two things; it’s about character and plot.” – George Lucas
The Story Arc: Tips on Using This Classic Model for eLearning
A strong story arc can contribute to a successful eLearning story. This creates a narrative where the learner is introduced to a character, an obstacle occurs, and a resolution must be found. The story arc is used across television, books, video games, and movies to create tension and the feeling that the audience knows and can relate to each character. This is also true for a learner taking a training course. The more your audience is able to relate to the character, the easier it will be to apply the information to a real-life scenario in the future.
The easiest way to introduce a character is to include an image. This image should represent what a person looks like based on the story you’re telling. For example, a medical course about a nurse wouldn’t have someone in a business suit as the main character. If an image can’t be added, then create a descriptive introduction that gives the learner an idea of who this person is and where this story takes place.
This brings up another good point! Include background or supportive images to introduce the location. Again, a nurse wouldn’t be having a conversation about phlebotomy in an elementary classroom, so make sure the images used support your story. Sometimes the background can be too distracting. If the image is needed for context but isn’t the main focus of the story, you can always add a blur, opacity, or make the image black and white to show it’s not a key element to the story.
The most important rule of using storytelling in eLearning is that the obstacle must be realistic. During the planning phase, you should ask stakeholders for specific examples of when a situation is done incorrectly. Take down witness statements, pull up past emails, or use telephone transcriptions to analyze what went wrong and why. Then mimic the situation so it resembles a plausible and realistic situation. A learner should never have to ask the question, “Could this really happen to me?” if the obstacle is realistic enough.
Just like the obstacle, the resolution should be realistic as well. You can use the same methods of investigation (ask stakeholders or subject matter experts) to find an example of work done right. Ensure the learner understands why the resolution was acceptable and how to replicate it on the job. Real-life applications of the scenario are key takeaways in the course—be sure to focus on these.
A great way to excel at storytelling is by determining a protagonist and antagonist when multiple characters are introduced. While some situations can be one-sided, like making internal decisions, other situations, like dialogue and customer exchange, should include more than one character.
The protagonist, or “good guy,” should always be your main focus. His or her backstory should be more detailed, and the audience should sympathize or relate to the obstacle and resolution. The antagonist, or “bad guy,” should be vague enough that your learner’s attention isn’t directly focused on him, but he should be detailed enough to add to the story. The way the antagonist’s interaction in the course is perceived should be done with direct intentions.
Play around with the words used or change expressions on the characters’ faces during pivotal moments in the exchange to sway the learner’s emotions. For example, if the course is about sexual harassment, your audience should feel your antagonist has done something wrong to your main character.
This example is just one way to use the story arc in an eLearning course. The story arc is a classic storytelling model, but because each training situation is unique, your course may use a differently shaped arc. By following these main plot markers—along with your subject matter expert’s expertise—you too can create a story that puts the learner in the main character’s shoes and prepared to tackle that obstacle successfully in a real-life scenario at work.
Want to try storytelling in your eLearning? Use this checklist to keep you on track.
- I have successfully determined my story type (vignettes, micro-learning, scenarios, short stories, epics, or gamification).
- I have kept my story simple enough to be focused on the training objectives.
- My story is kept in context and is relevant to the training.
- My story is NOT the goal, but helps to achieve the training goal.
- The story is designed to spark emotion with learners.
- My eLearning team has reviewed my story and provided feedback.