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e-learning and the power of storytelling

Through the power of storytelling, a simple paragraph can transform a standard compliance course introduction into the opening of an intriguing narrative. One that grabs that learner’s attention from the start.

“He peered out from underneath the brim of his trilby and scanned the bustling office. As he drew closer to the cluster of desks, it was clear to see how the crime had so easily occurred. Passwords scrawled on post-it notes, sensitive client information left lying around… this was another classic case of data protection neglect; the kind that Detective Kane was used to dealing with.”

Through sharing anecdotes with our friends and using metaphors to convey information, we start to relate to experiences and make sense of the world around us. Storytelling is, therefore, a familiar and effective way for us to learn.

storytelling in e-learning

As a learning designer, I like to incorporate narratives into some of the courses I script for our clients at Learning Pool. However, not everyone’s convinced by the merits of the story led approach, and for some pieces of content, it may be totally unsuitable.

For example, in teaching learners to use a new internal IT system, a story would act as more of a distraction than an aid. But, for communicating standard content, I nearly always find that narrative benefits the learners.

adding context

The key advantage of storytelling is that it provides context. Helping learners to connect prior experiences to new information and making learning more meaningful.

In a course that teaches employees about the company’s updated policy document, each point of the policy could be communicated through examples involving a character that’s set in the work environment.

This is supported by situated learning theory which states that individuals are more likely to learn by actively participating in a replica of the work setting.

making it believable

With this theory in mind, it’s not always appropriate for your course’s story to have a far fetched plot or crazy setting. Often, the more true to life your story, the more your learners will be able to relate to it. They see how they can apply the key points to their own work setting.

However, whether the setting is realistic or not, learners will relate to the story if they can identify with the characters, and the dialogue is convincing.

There’s nothing worse than having to read or listen to a conversation that is so unnatural, that it makes the characters unbelievable.

To draw the learners into the story, characters need to feel realistic.

the leading role

A good way to make the learner really feel like part of the story is to place them as the leading character.

This puts the onus on them for making decisions along the way, through completing activities or answering questions, where their performance is framed as affecting how the story unfolds.

Here’s an example of making the learner the lead character in our data protection story…

“You decide to conduct some confidential interviews with the employees to get to the bottom of things. On quizzing one particular individual on the strength of his computer password, he admits that he has always used “Password123” to ensure he doesn’t forget it.

You squeeze the bridge of your nose between your thumb and fore finger and close your eyes. Which of the following passwords would have been a more secure option for this employee?”

It’s a powerful technique that will give learners the motivation to perform well. After all, who doesn’t secretly want to star as the hero of their own story?

emotional reaction

Another factor that makes stories such a powerful learning tool is that a good story triggers an emotional reaction. A stimulus that creates emotion is more likely to be remembered.

This is supported by theorists such as Postle and Critcos who found that emotional events yield the most significant learning. Boud, Keogh and Walker even went as far to say “denial of feelings is the denial of learning”.

A further way to evoke emotion is through humour. If you want learners to remember the content of a module – for longer than the hour after completing it – a story that features appropriately used humour is well worth considering.

overcoming obstacles

Even in circumstances where a formal story led approach isn’t going to work for a piece of content, elements of storytelling can still add value.

Through simply introducing a character to guide the learner through the content, and making the text more conversational, we can add a personal feel to otherwise abstract or intimidating content.

An additional tactic is to incorporate an interesting visual theme, not directly related to the content, that depicts a story. I recently used this technique in a module that trained employees to follow a sales process.

As the content was quite abstract in parts, I used a mountaineering visual theme, to represent the different stages of the customer journey. This succeeded in tying together the content, and gave the impression of a narrative, without having to directly relate each bit of content to a storyline.

Some learning professionals dismiss the idea of the story led approach due to concerns over increasing the scope of their content. It’s a valid concern, as adding context to content inevitably leads to a higher word count.

However, this issue could be overcome by linking out to a stylised pdf containing the drier content that only needs to be used as a reference. This provides more scope for focusing on the narrative within the e-learning itself. 

to round up

“Detective Kane looked back over his shoulder when he reached the door. As he took in the sight of the clear desks and locked filing cabinets, he gave a little nod and smiled to himself. The staff at Fulham’s accountancy firm had seen the error of their ways and were now effectively protecting themselves, the company and their clients from the perils of data misuse. His work here was done.”

Learning through stories is a basic human instinct and something that we all enjoy.

Studies show that it’s an effective way for us to take on board information and retain it over a significant period of time, through providing context and triggering an emotional reaction.

Although some types of content present obstacles to the story led approach, nearly all e-learning solutions can benefit from the inclusion of certain elements.

Where will storytelling take your e-learning? Speak with us today and find out what mysteries you can solve.

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