A comprehensive story told through multiple reinforcing channels creates greater engagement.

Storytelling is experiencing a revival. A new generation of hyper-connected, tablet-toting workers is watching more than 22 hours of online video per month on mobile devices. Forward-thinking learning leaders are reinventing storytelling by weaving compelling “transmedia” stories across different platforms and formats that inspire the audience to action. Transmedia storytelling tells an integrated story across a multitude of devices and screens to reach learners more widely and engage with them more deeply.

Take the example of Kimberly-Clark. It launched a diversity and inclusion leadership initiative with a scripted video drama series called the iTent. The top 5,000 leaders of the consumer goods giant watched the show every other week.

“The television-style comedy dramatizes the main learning points about how to optimize the performance of diverse teams by managing people more inclusively,” says Dave Eaton, partner at Global Novations, a Korn/Ferry Company, who led the project and partnered with the Gronstedt Group for the video production. Stories like these don’t just entertain, they move people to action.

Video formats

The iTent franchise tells the story of a manager who has been charged with developing the “iTent,” a new high-tech tent that will revolutionize camping. After a rocky start to the project, he takes his team on a rafting trip to clear their minds. He falls into the river in dramatic fashion and is saved by his team members. The incident takes him on a journey of transformation to a more inclusive leadership style that leads to a breakthrough new product idea.

The “mockumentary” video format of the iTent series builds around the conceit of a video team shooting a documentary. Featuring hand-held cameras and cut-in interviews, it draws on a well-established motif (popularized by everything from Spinal Tap to The Office and Modern Family). The series dramatizes the main learning points through a relevant story arc, with a clearly defined challenge and conflict, engaging protagonists, entertaining antagonists, and a solution-focused resolution.

Other creative video formats in the Kimberly-Clark campaign are “scribes” in which the story unfolds through a series of sequential artist sketches drawn on a whiteboard accompanied by audio narration and “machinimas” with avatars shot in a three-dimensional virtual world. “The video-series launches a series of podcasts, self-assessments, learning videos, and over 45 different tools and resources to help leaders spur their own development and that of their teams to achieve breakthrough results,” explains Eaton.

Transmedia stories can be told in the classroom as well. For a managing inclusion program at Microsoft, for example, the classrooms were plastered with posters of characters in a story line. The posters featured TAGs, which are colorful QR Codes that participants scanned with their phones or tablets to launch a video introducing each character. Later, the story line of an IT team was set up with a series of videos on the big screen. The story line framed the entire day of learning activities.

Binge-watch or weekly series

McCain Foods used transmedia storytelling to launch a new “Leadership Distinction” message. A television drama series was developed that featured Bob, a plant manager who was visited by a consultant. The characters went to a basketball game where Bob learned about “being on the court versus in the stands” and took a canoe trip where Bob learned a valuable lesson about being in “circumstantial drift.”

The videos, which featured engaging dialogue and meetings with a colorful and dynamic cast, were launched along with a series of podcast radio shows that showcased McCain senior leaders as guests. The videos and podcasts were supported by optional tool kits designed for small groups where a peer-nominated team member facilitated discussion around the topic area to help ensure understanding of key messages.

All the materials are available on a dedicated web portal designed to match the look and feel of the videos. Just like today’s Netflix TV watcher, learners can choose if they want to binge-watch an entire video series or just watch a single seven-minute episode.

“We’ve had positive feedback about the engaging format and compelling story lines of the videos, along with the professional way that the Leadership Distinction messages have been presented,” says Jennifer Huth, who oversaw the implementation of the program for McCain Foods.

Stories are memorable and persuasive

Stories are more than just entertainment and art; they help organize our experiences. As Professor Roger Schank reminds us, the human memory is story based. It’s difficult to remember a new leadership philosophy, but it’s easy to remember a good story. Why? Because thinking and memorizing involves indexing.

A story comes with many indexes—such as locations, people, event, and quandaries—that we can relate to our existing experiences. The more indexes there are and the more comparisons to prior experiences that exist, the better the learning experience will be.

Stories are not just memorable, but persuasive too. Illustrating a point with a story is much more convincing than just stating a point. Stories project us into new and often unfamiliar experiences, induce us to emotionally invest ourselves in the characters, and lead us to ask ourselves “What would I do in that situation?” as we step into the narratives and perspectives of others.

The narrative structure

How do you tell a story across multiple forms of media that brings home the message in an interesting, compelling, and funny way? There’s a formula for that.

“How we build a good screenplay or story is not that different from how we create great classes, it’s all about the story, conflict, and characters,” explains Marc Ramos, global learning design lead at Google. “Typically the highest level of learning and consciousness comes from conflict. And for us learning professionals, creatively designing challenges that touch both heart and mind are key.”

All good stories follow a similar pattern. Mythologist Joseph Campbell describes it as a “hero’s journey” in 12 steps, which was popularized by Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler (see table below).

Throughout the story line, the hero goes through an arc of transformation. Telling such a story through multiple channels creates a stronger emotional connection to the character and the message.

Cringe-worthy video stories

Storytelling doesn’t come naturally to most instructional designers. For every great storytelling video produced by learning organizations, there seems to be five cringe-worthy ones that are the laughingstocks of lunchroom conversations. Here are some of the most common mistakes.

Characters are not real. When the storytelling project devolves into standard talking-head videos of the protagonist spouting corporate jargon to the antagonist, who gets an epiphany from the message right away, you’ve lost all credibility. The characters of a story have to be flawed and quirky, just like in real life.

The hero transforms too soon. The protagonist displays the desired behavior too early in the story, which makes for a boring plot line. If Harry and Sally fall in love with each other five minutes into the movie, the tension is gone.

The message is hammered home too hard. If a story needs crutches such as a video instructor to jump in and explain the message, or text on screen with take-home points, or characters who act like instructors, it’s not a story—it’s a lecture.

The plot is too serious. The audience loves humor. Script reviewers fear this because they can always find something vaguely offensive in every joke.

The story is a one-time offering. Instead of weaving a transmedia story across multiple platforms and over time, the stories tend to be told once in a training session.

The problem with many instructional storytelling videos, in a nutshell, is that they are written for the senior executives who may approve the project and the subject-matter experts who provide the input, instead of being crafted for the end user.

Every training project has a story

At the core of every training challenge is a good story waiting to be told. These stories can be produced in a variety of creative formats. Live-action video with professional actors can be expensive, but have a great impact, making them efficient when measuring cost against actual change.

A new genre of do-it-yourself videos is taking shape on YouTube, proving that a good story can be developed for any video production budget. Regardless of the production format, effective storytelling requires a powerful plot line with realistic and relatable characters faced with adversity that go through a journey of transformation.

The 12 "hero’s journey" stages of the story Purpose Examples in the iTent video series 
1. Ordinary world Introduce a familiar world A team is charged with developing the "iTent"
2. Call to adventure Make clear the hero's goals A clueless team leader, Alan, doesn't trust his diverse team members
3. Refuse the call The hero expresses reluctance The team leader will solve the problem on his own
4. Encouraged by mentor The mentor appears as a wise old wizard Alan's trusted sidekick, Peter, encourages Alan to take a more inclusive leadership approach
5. Crossing the first threshold The story takes off The leader calls together a diverse team of people he doesn’t trust
6. Tests, allies, and enemies We watch the hero and his companion under stress The team leader disproves ideas from the team
7. Approach the inmost cave The hero comes to the edge of a dangerous place The leader takes the team on a rafting trip
8. Endure the ordeal ("Crisis") The hero hits the bottom in a confrontation with his greatest fears The leader falls out of the raft and almost drowns
9. Reward Hero survives the ordeal The leader is saved by his team members and transforms to an inclusive leader; the newly empowered team decides to refocus the project on disaster relief tents
10. The road back The hero leaves the special world The team is back at the office
11. Resurrection ("Climax"”) The hero fights one last ordeal An earthquake hits Italy and the emergency response tent has to be produced in short time
12. Return with the elixir The hero learns a lesson The leader empowers his team members to take charge of production of the new tent