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Training and Stories Are All About Action


Wed Jul 15 2020

Training and Stories Are All About Action

Stories are all about observable action. Though many instructional design certification programs have a deep focus on writing learning objectives, a highly academic approach does not always adequately prepare professionals and students to enter the warp-speed world of business. The theory is solid and mastering it is helpful, but when it comes down to communication with stakeholders, SMEs, and learners, it’s best to talk straight: “What actions need to be done to achieve the business outcome?”

Set the Stage

Conflict is always necessary in storytelling and story design. As an instructional designer, you’re defining what new knowledge and skills are needed to reach the business outcome the training is designed for. Those skills need to be observable actions. I’ve included several tools in the book to help trainers guide stakeholders and subject matter experts and construct what I call an action list. These are the actions you’re asking learners to take. Put your relatable characters into conflict with those actions and you’ve got a story that is concretely connected to learning objectives. This is necessary because our brains need friction to remember things. Otherwise the content passes right through. If a narrative has only characters and no conflict, I’d argue that it’s not really a story.


The reason training exists is because there is a problem. There is a lack of skill. There is a goal that has remained unreachable. There is interpersonal conflict or perhaps change in the workplace, which can be loaded with conflict. Stories for training have a purpose—self-discovery. If you present the problem in a story, it leaves room for the learner to discover the problem for themselves, without you having to finger-point and “tell” them. Let the story do the hard work of addressing the conflict and encourage your learners to offer solutions. Then the door for receiving training is wide open.

Create Observable Actions

Now, let’s work on identifying observable actions. Look at the following example of a training goal and its matching actions. Which ones rise to the top as something the learner would be able to do?

Goal of training: Increase sales numbers by 4 percent by end of Q3 by increasing the business acumen of sales associates to accurately and confidently explain product application to clients’ needs.

Understand why clients need to know how products work

Show how the product may meet the client’s future need by comparing industry trends to the client’s situation


Avoid putting off client questions about how products work

Use the product sheet to show clients product features that will meet their needs

Explain how the client’s needs will be met by the product

Be aware of product applications

Share testimonials of how the product has worked for other clients in similar situations


If you are struggling with this, think of the above list as actions you should be able to observe someone doing. Now, it should be clearer. You can’t watch someone understand or be aware.

Both of these verbs must manifest themselves through an observable action. It doesn’t mean that learners don’t need to understand why clients need to know how products work, but this new knowledge must be acted upon. Those are the actions that need to be included on the action list. Be aware of is a commonly used objective. Awareness is a good thing for marketing and communications and can be coupled with training for a powerful experience, but instructional designers need to press beyond this and get to the actions learners will have to perform. Instead, ask the subject matter expert, “If the sales associate understands and is aware of why clients need to know how a product works, what will they do to demonstrate that?”

This holds true even if you may be tasked with designing core values training. It is only logical, if respect is a core value, that the main action may be “Respect your co-workers.” But it can’t stop there. The same principle of observable action applies. If employees respect their co-workers, what will they do to demonstrate it? They may “Communicate with co-workers in a way that values their contributions” or even more specifically, “Stop typing, put away your phone, and give your undivided attention during conversations with co-workers.”

There’s another item on this list that should also be struck. It’s a nonaction. If an action list contains words like avoid or do not or refrain from, there is either a positive action hidden somewhere in the negative, or it belongs in the content as part of the purpose, importance or benefits of the course.

In this case, the nonaction, “Avoid putting off client questions about how products work” could have a positive hidden in it, such as “Explain how the client’s needs will be met by the product,” but that’s already on this list. More likely, it would be more powerful to use this information not as a nonaction on the action list, but as part of the content describing the course’s importance, such as, “An important step in making the sale is answering clients’ questions regarding the application of the product to their needs. Avoiding this step is a mistake that will most likely end in losing the client.” Or, even better, imagine a story about a sales person who puts off questions from the client about how products work. Show the fallout of that action and you won’t even need to say anything about the importance. They will experience the importance for themselves through the story.

Now, when you scan the initial action list, you quickly see that a few line items can be eliminated:

• Understand why clients need to know how products work

• Avoid putting off client questions about how products work

• Be aware of product applications

Bottom line: Always ask whether you can observe someone doing the items on your action list.

Want to Learn More?

Story Design is a methodology for creating stories that move an audience to take action. It aligns with the instructional design process from analysis to design to delivery and equips them with practical steps to use the power of storytelling in their training. My book Instructional Story Design is written specifically for those responsible for designing training.

And be sure to join me October 26-30, 2020, for the ATD Virtual Conference: Unleash Potential for my session, Story Design: A Foundationally Human Approach to Instruction.

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