Tell Me a Story

By: Catherine Davis

What makes content engaging? Courses need to sparkle, or your message goes in one ear and out the other. We add stories to help capture the imagination. That’s a great start. Then we add an avatar coach to guide us and provide narration. Nice idea. It feels like we need to connect the dots and have our avatars act as characters playing out those stories, however.

As a strong advocate of wheel enhancements and not reinvention, I did a bit of research on telling stories within e-learning courses. (This research was done on the Internet from my comfy recliner. See my earlier blog for details on my tumultuous affair with research.) I wanted to find some formulas for creating storylines and developing characters within courses, even if I had to draw from script-writing techniques used by the entertainment industry. Low and behold, I was able to find exactly what I needed — even streamlined for the e-learning audience! The following is a brief summary of a fantastic article by Karen Westmoreland Luce, called “Creating Great Stories to Enhance eLearning.”

There are four, basic, building blocks of any story in an e-learning course:

1) Triggering event. The triggering event is always the first and most-essential element in any story. It’s the problem — and it’s used to set up the context of the story. Sometimes it’s part of the story, and sometimes it’s the background of the story. Answering these questions will usually give you the basis for your triggering event:
  • What is the problem that this lesson is supposed to address?
  • What is the learning objective for this course?
  • Who is my audience for this course?
  • What details about this event will make it familiar to learners and their real-world situation?

2) Plot. Plot lines are often recycled. How many times have we seen such recycling in movies or on TV? Cop dramas since the 1970s come to mind for me! You can use the same basic scenario or plot over and over to illustrate a point. The time and place, characters, and details change. We just have to fill in the right details to our audience and our situation. Basic plots have five main components:
  • The situation or problem tells why you are telling the story in the first place; for our purposes, this is usually our triggering event.
  • The rising action is where most of the story occurs. This is where we introduce our characters, outline the problem and details, and build to decision point.
  • The decision point is where the character is forced to take one course of action or another. In e-learning, the decision point is directly tied to your learning objectives.
  • The desired course of action reinforces the objective and goal of the course — the behaviors that we want the learner to demonstrate on the job.
  • The outcome or resolution provides the closure for the story.
The original article offers a great brainstorming worksheet for these five components to help you walk through the process.

3) Characters. In creating characters for your avatars, you must give your learner a good sense of the character, but do so without sliding into stereotypes.

Using archetypes can be very effective in helping you work out your characters. In literature, we often see classic archetypes: the hero, the villain, the goddess, and the innocent. In e-learning courses, we see archetypes such as the novice, the expert, the mentor, and the skeptic.

Once you have a framework for your character’s purpose in the story, it’s easier to fill in the details of who that character really is. The original article provides another great worksheet; this one for developing characters.

4) Setting. The setting is the visual backdrop for the avatar characters in your course. You should work with your creative designers to generate the right visual environment. Again, look to your target audience and learning objectives to help figure out the setting. Make a rough sketch and include details you would see in the scene. (Annotated boxes in PowerPoint® are adequate for you non-artist types like me.) Challenge yourself to draw something representing all five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. Visit the setting and create a description. For example, if it is a retail setting, visit some local stores and write down notes. Listen to the conversations between customers and store associates.

The type of story you are using and the learning objectives for that story will determine how much of each building block you need. Keep in mind that all courses are a stage, and all avatars are merely players.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. SweetRush | Tell Me a Story | Video: Enterprise... - January 8, 2014

    […] What makes content engaging? Courses need to sparkle, or your message goes in one ear and out the other.  […]

  2. SweetRush | Tell Me a Story | multimodal media - January 8, 2014

    […] See on […]

Leave a Reply



Other posts by this author

Tips for writing audio narration - rock your next audio script
“Are you ready? Let’s get started!” Audio has always been a core element of e-learning, and today — with the rise of avatars, games, simulations, podcasts, and m-learning — it plays an even more integral role. Tasked with writing both the text on screen and audio scripts, it can be easy for instructional designers to...
Read More >
Storytelling Story Instructional Design
What makes content engaging? Courses need to sparkle, or your message goes in one ear and out the other. We add stories to help capture the imagination. That’s a great start. Then we add an avatar coach to guide us and provide narration. Nice idea. It feels like we need to connect the dots and...
Read More >
Reaping the Benefits of Virtual Training, Part Two
Working with Remote Instructional Designers
Many of us dream of working at home: sucking down coffee all day, sporting a baggy t-shirt and ponytail (or even Einstein hair). We can research, brainstorm detailed designs, and have our storyboard writing spurts without interruption. However, for some instructional designers (IDs) who have worked for many years at an office, large or small,...
Read More >
Using Social Media in Classroom Learning
Instructional designers: Do you have a “friend” in Facebook? Integrating social media into performance improvement is a hot topic, but how do you make sure your techniques get plenty of “likes” from learners? ASTD’s T+D magazine featured an article by Dan Steer, Improve Formal Learning with Social Media (note: you must be a member to...
Read More >
On Being an ID: Part Two
Reaping the Benefits of Virtual Training, Part One
Mobile Learning Strategy Tablets Smartphones
This post was written with the support of our Director of Engineering, Misha Milshtein. Misha helps support our clients with innovative ideas that bring their visions to life! Here we are, right in the middle of mobile learning (or m-learning) revolution, taking our learning on the go. But even if learning can be done on...
Read More >
training meaning meaningful work
The article is the result of a collaborative inquiry begun by our Good Things Initiative team leaders Andrei Hedstrom and Brooking Gatewood. Together we have worked to integrate a meaning of work aspect into our training designs where-ever possible. Read on to find out why we are so excited about this win-win training solution! Today...
Read More >
On Being an ID: Part One