When consulting, I try to explain that simply exporting a PowerPoint presentation and calling it “e-learning” doesn't necessarily qualify it as e-learning. It’s not instructionally sound; it’s simply words, some large, some small, and often irrelevant photos or bad clip art, all minus the context. Without an instructor to flesh out the material or to add their own teachable stories to the content, learners may find nothing relevant, so they largely tune it out. Education presented in this manner produces little to no ROI.

Man PaintBut there is a better way. Storytelling has been powerfully educating humans for millennia. Stories give adult learners that crucial window into how the content is relevant to them, making them invested in the material. Here are five tips for turning that boring PowerPoint into a brilliant e-learning module through storytelling.

1. Wrap the Content in a Story: Using a typical example of how the learning plays out in the workplace, wrap a story around the content. Make sure you have a setting, characters, an event (a problem), development (actions and consequences), and a climax (lesson learned). Make sure the story is one that most employees can relate to and ensure your character reaches the desired state at the end. Learners will be able to relate to the situation, root for the character to succeed, and see that they may be able to reach the desired state as well.

2. Use Conversational Dialogue: I’m not sure anyone actually uses “business-speak.” If and when they do, it sounds trite, pretentious and confusing. Why is it so hard to write e-learning how we speak? Using a conversational tone in narration can ensure comprehension and it feels more real—like a story. Moreover, in a study discussed in eLearning and the Science of Instruction (Ruth Colvin Clark, Richard E. Mayer) conversational narration produced 20% to 46% more correct answers than formal narration.

3. Use a Conversational Narrator: All the great, conversationally written dialogue in the world won’t overcome a monotonous or robotic-sounding narrator. If you are using audio (and it should be used whenever possible) use a professional narrator, not just the guy in the office with the nice voice, or worse yet, a screen reader. Many, many narrators work at home for very reasonable prices today: Try the Voice Realm. Anyone who has listened to an audio book knows the value of the right narrator to tell the story.

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4. Create Story-Based Scenarios: Once you’ve rolled out your characters and the story, what better way to assess the learning than by creating authentic scenarios that force the learner to think critically about what they’ve learned? Immersing them into a new story or a continuation of the story in a real-life setting and giving them a way to make mistakes and correct them is almost more powerful than a role play in a classroom scenario.

5. Integrate Relevant Multi-Media: Today more than ever, it’s easy to create your own photographs, video and other multimedia to insert into an e-learning module. The world according to photo stock sites is a bit skewed (we don’t all look like models, wear black suits and sit perched on modular white office furniture in front of a view from the 67th floor of a high rise), and clip art, frankly, should never be used again. Get creative!

These few tips will have you well on your way to telling a story that will make a difference … and get results.

Note: Diane Senffner will present session W100, “Telling Stories, Getting Results: The Power of Storytelling in E-Learning,” at the ASTD 2013 International Conference & Exposition in Dallas, Texas.