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instructional storytelling
ATD Blog

Tell Them a Story and Watch Them Change

Wednesday, November 10, 2021
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“Humans are wired to remember stories,” points out Hadiya Nuriddin in “Power E-Learning With Stories.” Further, adult learning theory such as the need to know, the role of learner’s experience, and learners’ self-concept as described by Malcolm Knowles can help L&D professionals make the case for using stories in e-learning.

An Array of Avenues to Use Stories

L&D professionals can use many vehicles to convey stories to learners. Among them are scenarios, case studies, and testimonials.

Scenarios. “In a learning context,” writes Nuriddin, “a scenario is a short, problem-centered narrative based on a real-life performance challenge. It encourages learners to address a problem with existing or new knowledge.”
Instructional designers can use scenario-based exercises in which learners serve as observers who reflect on the problem that is relayed in the narrative then shares their understanding of what they see or what to do about the situation. Alternatively, L&D can use scenario-based e-learning in which learners become the actors.

Case studies. These situations are usually longer than scenarios and provide more detail. The instructional designer wants to provide the right amount of detail so that the learner will relate to what’s happening but still make the situation generic enough that it can apply to multiple environments.
Learners need to work through questions to address the situation that the case study is based upon.

Testimonials. In a testimonial, an individual with firsthand experience and perspective tells the story. In e-learning, an example of this may be a customer service rep and either a challenge they faced or a situation in which the rep made the customer feel comfortable and pleased with the service.

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Weave Stories Into E-Learning

Nuriddin outlines a four-stop process to integrate stories into an e-learning course.

Step 1: Define. “What needs to happen to influence performance or change learners’ behavior?” poses Nuriddin. Based on the answer to that question, how can a story be used to influence those behaviors?

Echoing back to Joseph Campbell’s mythical hero’s journey, how is the hero changed through the process of facing an obstacle and working through the problem, often with the help of an ally?

As part of the define stage, the L&D professional gathers stories and determines the related competencies are exhibited in the work setting.

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Step 2: Design. With story and data in hand, the instructional designer employs the skills they use for other e-learning courses. However, the e-learning course focuses on people’s feelings that will motivate learners—the frustrations, fears, and vulnerability demonstrated in the stories.

When incorporating stories into an e-learning course, the designer can use one story and go into great depth or use multiple, unrelated stories. One story leads the learner to become better acquainted with the characters and thus more invested. The challenge is to make the story realistic and be consistent throughout. Using multiple stories allows for different situations and characters, but there’s less time for the learner to get to know the characters. The multiple stories may lead learners to have cognitive overload.

Step 3: Develop. The develop stage is the time to bring the story to life. Use the right emotion for the inspiration of the story. For example, in a customer service scenario, you don’t want learners to feel animosity toward the organization. Rather, you want them to feel a connection to and compassion with the clerk or rep who hasn’t been given the tools or information to be able to solve the customer’s concern or problem.

Err on the side of simplicity when developing the scenario, advises Nuriddin. This saves time for the instructional designer and the learner who is free from understanding complex interactions.

Step 4: Deliver. The “deliver” of e-learning courses equates to launching them. What is the learner’s reaction? Are they engaged? Do they change behavior because of what they have watched, listened to, and learned?

Conduct a focus group or survey participants to find out whether your story-based e-learning was a success—that is, whether it sparked emotion and built empathy and led to behavior change.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

2 Comments
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Great article with wonderful tips to engage the learner
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Great article. I find myself asking my SMEs for their story so I can deliver a more meaningful lesson. This helps the student relate their job to the current training. I find it also intriguing as I work for the FBI and their stories are great.
Thanks Raymond. Yes, SMEs can be a wealth of information. Establishing a solid working relationship with them can be a win-win-win.
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