logo image

ATD Blog

3 Tips for Creating Realistic Scenarios


Wed Jul 12 2023

3 Tips for Creating Realistic Scenarios

With the last minutes remaining before a daylong workshop ended, one attendee offered feedback about the last activity. “That example you walked us through felt a little too relatable,” they laughed, a nod to a scenario featuring an overwhelmed instructional designer balancing deadlines and deliverables as partner requests piled up. “I will remember that example for the rest of my career!”

I’ll remember it for the rest of my career, too, I mused, as the rest of the attendees murmured their agreement. After all, it was based on a project I worked on several years earlier.


In that moment, I was glad for an ordeal I would otherwise have preferred to forget. Our best lessons often come from our worst moments—and sharing those lessons encourages team members to learn along with us. Some challenges become quick anecdotes to make a point or full stories to guide future decision making. For trainers, they may also be the secret to building and delivering truly memorable learning experiences.

Scenario-based learning allows learners to consider a real-world problem and use their knowledge and skills to resolve it. Our world of work is full of challenges, and incorporating scenarios into training provides space to brainstorm solutions, try something new or different, make mistakes, and gain insight into possible outcomes. With less severe consequences than learners will find in their real worlds, scenarios can make failure feel safer while encouraging reflection on what will lead to a desired outcome. For learners to take something beneficial away from the experience, any scenario they consider should be as realistic as possible.

Constructing and leveraging authentic scenarios can be daunting, but there are a few great ways you can make them meaningful and relatable.

Use your own experiences. There’s a reason storytelling is one of talent development’s favorite strategies; humans have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years, and that’s because our daily experiences can lead to moments of inspiration and words of warning. Consider your own stories and what others can learn from them when constructing scenarios. Your experiences are important, and the lessons you learned from them might provide a great foundation for scenarios your learners can explore during training.

Although our experiences tend to follow a traditional story arc with a beginning, middle, and end, your scenarios may not follow the same trajectory. Eliminate details or components as needed to focus the scenario on your learning outcomes or provide space for learners to consider alternative solutions.


Borrow experiences (with permission!). When you don’t have a real-world experience connected to your training, borrowing a story from a colleague can help you develop a scenario that maintains an authentic feel. If you have a colleague whose experience would lend itself to a great scenario, ask for permission before using it, especially if your learners are familiar with them or the scenario itself. When you have permission, take time to interview your colleague about their situation, how they felt, what strategies they considered, and what worked—or didn’t work. These details can help you formulate a believable and relatable scenario, and you’ll be more prepared to facilitate reflections or debriefs with a complete understanding of the example and its outcome.

Embrace the mess. Often, we want scenarios to wrap up neatly to model what a successful outcome looks like. The real world is too messy for every scenario to end well. Don’t be afraid to develop scenarios that reflect ambiguity, difficult conversations, and compromise. Save time to fully debrief them and explore any emotions they uncover. While your goal should not be to frustrate your learners, scenarios offer a unique opportunity to experience less optimal outcomes and help learners prepare to face them in the course of their work.

As my session wrapped up, I let my learners in on my secret: The scenario we discussed was based on a real experience. As they filed out of the room, one attendee paused in front of me. “I have no idea if I’ll face anything like what you had to handle,” she said, “but I certainly feel ready to try.”

A realistic scenario can make a real difference—and it’s time to let our stories shine as we build them.

Are you ready to create and integrate your own scenarios? Join me at Core4 in Washington, DC, July 24–26, 2023, to explore how you can build, leverage, and facilitate impactful scenario-based learning!


You've Reached ATD Member-only Content

Become an ATD member to continue

Already a member?Sign In


Copyright © 2024 ATD

ASTD changed its name to ATD to meet the growing needs of a dynamic, global profession.

Terms of UsePrivacy NoticeCookie Policy