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Spin a Tale, Pull ‘Em In: 6 Storytelling Techniques in eLearning

We all loved a trip to grandpa’s house because he had so many stories to tell. Now we flock to Facebook and browse the blogosphere in search of stories. Our fascination with stories started from the time when our hunter-gatherer ancestors sat around roaring fires and shared the day’s happenings. 

Just because your learners are grown-ups and spend their days immersed in numbers, charts, facts, and graphs, you shouldn’t assume that they have outgrown their liking for stories.  By the contrary...They starve for stories! 

Your learners cry out for “experiences” that will touch their hearts and resonate with their souls. They want their training to feel more alive than a table crammed with numbers. 

The Need for Stories: The eLearning Designer’s Perspective 

Stories deliver more than just fun. They have immense instructional value as well. They have the power to change the way people think. Stories: 

  • Compel you to shift your focus from the content to the PEOPLE who will use the content. This is the change of mindset you need to create eLearning courses that feel personal and talk to the learners.
  • Call for you to broaden your perspective, so you can look beyond specs and numbers to figure out how a particular feature will influence the learning experience.
  • Drive you to think about the learners’ physical environment, their emotional state of being, and their attitudes and pain points, so you can create eLearning courses that become relatable and memorable for them.
  • Force you to transcend a compartmentalized outlook, so you think regarding creating a harmonious experience instead of separate screens and individual interactions. 

Read more: How Storytelling Can Improve Your eLearning Courses

Below are six storytelling techniques that you can incorporate into your eLearning course design:

Technique #1: The Learner is the Protagonist

We cry when we watch movies. A happily-ever-after ending makes us smile. We want the bad guys in the book or the movie to be punished, so we cheer the hero. We are not the characters in the books we read or the movies or TV shows we watch. Yet we relate to them at some deep level and get emotionally involved with the plot. Gripping stories elicit such engagement. 

Create such learner engagement by making the learner the protagonists in the story you present to them, advises the Visual Storyteller’s Guide to Web Design. Here are some other tips:

  • Don’t create protagonists who are “ordinary.” Protagonists do not have to be “ordinary” for the audience to relate to them. Your learners aspire to rise above normal circumstances, so they relate better to a character who fits the mold of the person they dream of becoming (smart, strong, or skilled at something). If you do create an ordinary character, ensure that he or she develops to become extraordinary and is an inspiration to the learners.
  • Describe the protagonist thoroughly. Go beyond the character’s physical description; mention actions, tasks, or details such as challenges and interests so learners can relate to the character on an emotional level.
  • Spark their curiosity. At the beginning of the story, let the protagonist be unaware of the journey that lies ahead. Let him or her gradually figure out what to do as the story unfolds. 
  • Create moments of crisis for the protagonist. Your audience can't remain indifferent to the problems of the character they relate to. Crisis situations also pique curiosity; learners want to know how the protagonist resolves the problem (it will help them know how they will do it too).
  • Make the protagonist address learners directly. He or she poses or answer questions that the learners might have about the topic. This improves engagement. 
  •  Personalize the information. When the events and situations in the plot resonate with their reality, learners can relate far better.

Technique #2: Crafting Good-versus-Evil Scenarios

Good vs. evil. This is the premise on which almost all fairy tales, movies, and comic strips rest. This is the classic struggle of opposites that keeps us flipping through the pages of a book till we reach the end or hooked to the screen till the credits roll in. We all want to know who wins the battle. 

Tension is palpable. Tension keeps us on edge and on high alert. Incorporating  good-versus-evil situations in your eLearning course creates this tension that, in turn, stirs interest and creates engagement among the learners. For instance, turn a "boring" compliance topic like Business Ethics into a story about the power of doing the right things in the workplace. Or instead of creating a course named the "Food Safety Guidelines", name it the "Deadly Sins and Heavenly Virtues of Food Safety." Just by making this quick change in the title of the course you are grabbing learners attention and making them want to keep reading. 

Here are some other tips on how you can create a gripping good-versus-evil dilemma:

  • Have a hero (the protagonist) in your story and put him or her against an enemy (the antagonist).
  • Create an enemy out of a real-life problem that your learners are likely to grapple with at the workplace.
  • Put the hero in jeopardy. In other words, choose a problem or a crisis, which will prove to be a game-changer for the character. 

Technique #3: Presenting a Choice Between Winning and Losing

When the choice is between winning and losing, we sit up, take notice, and act. Are we right? 

Like life, every conflict or crisis in a story demands that the players involved get the facts straight and take action. When the protagonist is faced with such dire consequences, your learners immediately feel drawn to the situation. They believe that the consequences of their decisions and actions will weigh heavily on them and determine the course of the story. They identify with the protagonist’s predicament and root for him or her. This creates intense engagement with the learning content.

Fuel this commitment by following these tips:

  • Create situational crises that your audience can identify with. For instance: Put the main character in danger of losing something of vital importance to them (ej: a huge deal).
  • State clearly what the stakes are. In other words, the learners must be able to understand what the protagonist stands to win or lose from their decisions. If they fail to achieve their quotas X happens, if they do achieve their quota Y happens. 
  • Make the protagonist experience defeat or face a loss at some point in the story. This keeps the story real and also hammers in the importance of making the right decision. For instance, create a scenario: How Would You Respond to a Lost Deal?  Sales representatives spend plenty of time and resources nurturing a potential deal and then the deal falls through. Let them experience the loss and reflect. They will be more prepared when it actually happens in real life.

Technique #4: Goal-Setting 

Adult corporate learners are goal-oriented people. They put in effort and expend time and energy only to pursue and achieve their personal and professional goals. To create an eLearning course that appeals to these people and keep them interested, you have to align content to their goals and desires. The key is to repeat the goal throughout the entire course, not making them lose sight of it.

Here are some tips:

  • Make the goal as clear as possible. Try to increase the tension by adding more impactful consequences if the character can't reach the goal.
  • Remind them that their decisions and actions will determine the outcome. Without a strong result to look out for, it's easy for learners to forget why are they there. 
  • Round off a decision point or interactivity with a congratulatory message or a warning note that informs the learner if he or she has taken a step toward the goal or away from it. People want to make choices and know that they have consequences. If a particular decision leads them to a great outcome, they will feel motivated. If the choice they make leads them to a not so optimal outcome, they will feel challenged and even more motivated to rise above. 
  • If the protagonist is struggling with something situation like dealing with an agry customer, a gamification strategy mixed with storytelling can help you. Instead of just awarding points when they complete a task, course or module, you can break down the main goal (Customer Satisfaction) into a journey —with all the trials, challenges, and setbacks that come with trying to make an angry client happy.

Technique #5:  Transporting the Learner to Somewhere Else

It is hard to ignore what hits our senses. When you tug at emotions and hit the senses, you pull your audience deeper into the experience. Their minds fire, their imagination races, and they feel like being a part of the experience.

So the trick to keep your audience engaged is to create screens that hit the senses like a ton of bricks. Incorporate rich, sensorial, and evocative details in your course to transport learners to a different world. Here’s how:

  • Keep the VAKS rule in mind. Create stimuli that hit the Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Smell senses.
  • Create an immersive learning environment by incorporating incentives that hit at least three of the four senses.
  • Use rich, descriptive language to heighten the sensorial experience.

Example: Engage multiple senses with video. Don’t worry; you don’t have to go through the rigmarole of shooting a video. You can use music or a movie video shot by another person, provided you have the rights of usage or if it is in the public domain. Keep in mind the following: 

  • Begin your course with the video as an introduction to the story you will narrate.
  • Ensure that the video connects to your story.
  • Ensure that you point out the link between the video and the different themes of your story.
  • Choose every critical message from the video and convert the information into a module where you flesh out the material.

Read: How Do I Produce Video for My eLearning Courses? A DIY Guide

Technique #6:  The Cliffhanger

The most memorable stories leave you wanting to have more. They leave you breathless with anticipation; you can’t wait to find out what happens next. They also leave you pondering the outcome.  You can create eLearning courses that engage similarly by introducing a cliffhanger.

A cliffhanger is a situation where the action of the story terminates without any resolution or a logical or satisfactory conclusion. Here’s how you can create more learner engagement with cliffhangers: 

  • Forget a happily-ever-after ending that answers all questions and leaves no room for contemplation.
  • Consider concluding your course with an open-ended question that encourages learners to think.
  • Conclude with a cliffhanger that motivates learners to act. For instance, in a course on water conservation, show images of a world without water—dry, parched, hungry, and heading towards annihilation—and ask learners what would they do to change the scenario. 

Not ready to craft a story yet? Here're 6 Tips to Bring Out Your Inner Storyteller

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Karla Gutierrez

Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT. ES:Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

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