Idea Learning Group

"storytelling" Posts

The Role of Stories in Learning

Storytelling is a hot topic these days in business. Forbes says entrepreneurs who tell stories win more business. And that marketing professionals are embracing the power of stories in order to get their messages across.

What Is a Story?

There’s no agreed-upon structure for a story. A child might describe a story as having a beginning, middle, and end. A novelist might tell you that a story must have a protagonist, an antagonist, context, action, a rise and fall of conflict, and an ultimate transformation.

In this short video, Ken Burns describes “real, genuine stories” as being about “1 and 1 equaling 3.” An effective story offers perspective, which is a form of manipulation. He believes that there are multiple truths, and story is a framework to expose those truths. Is the storyteller a medium or a puppet master? It’s a fascinating thought.

Stories Help Us Learn

Aside from entertaining or persuading us, how can stories help us learn? Stories are actually the foundation of how we learn throughout our lives, and we share them quite naturally. Think of the cautionary tales you heard when you were young—the ones that stick with you to this day. The Three Little Pigs. The Ugly Duckling. The one about how you shouldn’t eat Pop Rocks and soda, lest you suffer the fate of Little Mikey (totally untrue, by the way). The stories we hear when we’re young have the power of shaping our beliefs, fears, and dreams.

Why are stories so universally compelling?

  • Stories activate neurons in our brains in a comprehensive way—as if we’re actually experiencing the story.
  • We’re hard-wired to tune into stories. In fact we think in narrative form all day long, from deciding what to eat for breakfast to completing household chores.
  • They help us form an emotional connection with our audience, which helps us communicate a message.
  • When we’re in story-audience mode, we’re listening and receptive. This is the ideal state for learning.
  • When we hear a good story, we’re inspired to share it with others.
  • Stories communicate insight, which is motivating—especially when we can draw connections to our own goals, dreams, or experiences.
  • They are easy to remember.

Building Stories for Instruction

One of the reasons story-based learning is so effective is that it offers learners a realistic context to relate with. For ideas on using a narrative structure when creating training, compare traditional and story-based approaches for an elearning course below.

Traditional eLearning

Story-based eLearning

Ask SMEs to give you existing resources, like PDFs and forms that relate to your topic. Use probing questions to ask SMEs for stories, such as “Tell me about a time when an employee suffered the consequences of bad communication.” Turn these insights into stories for the course if appropriate.
Use generic silhouettes as characters in the course. Create composite characters or personas inspired by your SME/audience interviews. Consider involving the learner as a character who can help play the “hero” role in resolving the conflict.
Work with SMEs only at the beginning of a project. Check in with SMEs and possibly representatives from the learning audience throughout the project to make sure your context is authentic.
Organize content by topic and subtopics. Organize content according to story-inspired structure, like setting, plot, action, climax, and resolution.
Present the learner with content. Actively involve the learner in unfolding the story.
Use the training topic itself as the theme, such as “Communication Skills for Leaders.” Frame the learning experience around a scenario or conflict that relates with the topic, such as “John Larson’s Communication Breakdown.”
Include multiple-choice quiz questions that align with learning objectives. Give learners a branching exercise with built-in consequences and constructive feedback.
Conclude the training with a summary of the learning objectives. Conclude the training with a resolution of the conflict.


If you’re an instructional designer, do you incorporate elements of story into your training? As a learner, how have you experienced story-based learning?

Register now for February Collaborative Learning Network

February’s Topic: Storytelling as a Structure for Training

Storytelling is all the rage in business communications these days. It’s not just a trend in learning, however. Stories help us learn throughout our lives. As training professionals, what strategies can we use to incorporate storytelling into our work? Join us to share techniques and to work on a case study together. Jennie Thede from IdeaLearning Group will facilitate the free session on February 6.

Registration is free but is required. Please bring your own examples, stories, and insights to share!

The Collaborative Learning Network

IdeaLearning Group invites you to our monthly series, The Collaborative Learning NetworkEvery month, we curate the latest insights, best practices, and techniques around a different topic related to learning and development. Innovative professionals from the learning and development community are invited to gather, share insights, and collaborate—social learning at its best.

Reflections From DevLearn: Designing eLearning that Gains and Keeps Learner Attention

I attended Dan Myers’ session on how to maintain learner attention. Dan is a Manager of Instructional Design at the Cheesecake Factory.

Getting learners’ attention should be a primary concern for instructional designers creating online courses. (Remember: “Build it and they will come” does not apply to eLearning!) Dan suggests considering the following framework when creating an attention-grabbing course:

  • Cognitive domain (thinking): Content, knowledge checks
  • Affective domain (feeling): Story, characters, music, art, values, conflict, humor
  • Psychomotor domain (doing): Interactivity, hands-on practice opportunities

(This happens to align with the second phase in IdeaLearning Group’s Complete Learning Experience approach: “Think, Feel, Move”!)

He discussed a couple of potential pitfalls to avoid, such as not breaking character. Once you start with a story theme, stick with it. Theme is part of what helps keep learner attention. Interactions should also be integrated into the theme as much as possible.  He also advised against building yet another course to float in what he calls “the sea of sameness.”

Think about the visual experience learners typically have—they see the company logo and the same colors on every screen. In our attempt to create uniformity, we may sometimes prompt learners to feel disengaged. Instead, Dan advises, find ways to give courses a unique look and feel. Throw out templates and incorporate elements of surprise into courses to help create a unique adventure for learners.

Other great ideas Dan suggests for personalizing the learning experience:

  • If you’re writing third-person content in training and it’s posted on LMS, include the learner’s name as a character to personalize the experience.
  • Include an “evidence log” learners can use to take notes within the course.
  • Try putting learners in a place where they’re taking a quiz but don’t realize they’re taking a quiz.
  • Take out the “objectives” slide. Write them, but you don’t need to reveal them. Putting in formal learning objectives and long course description page can kill the momentum.
  • Build in vocal variety into training courses. If you structure it right, it makes it easy to edit.
  • If you have any procedural videos technical in nature, include drag-and-drop items that need to be placed in the correct sequence. Dan shows us a clever interaction involving a Cheesecake Factory recipe. The learner drags and drops images of ingredients to the video area, which activates the relevant clip. He suggests building in remediation clips for incorrect options.

My favorite quote from Dan’s session: If you’re bored making it, your learners will be bored taking it.

Reflections From DevLearn: Storytelling, Gamification, & Problem-Based Learning

Ken Hubbell’s session on storytelling, gamification, and problem-based learning started with several questions: What’s problem-based learning? What’s in it for the learner? Why is storytelling important?

On Problem-Based Learning…

Problem-based learning is a great framework for helping people learn to work together in teams or work with integrated parts. It’s a concept that’s been around a long time, involving:

  • A need to know
  • A driving question
  • Learner voice/choice
  • Inquiry and innovation
  • Feedback and revisions
  • Publicly presented products

In problem-based learning, the only thing you might achieve is what not to do. Sometimes the answer to a problem-based challenge is simply “I have no idea.” Failure might inform your next set of decisions.

On Gamification and Scenario-Based Learning…

Gamification means integrating gaming dynamics into your site or business in order to drive participation. For those who aren’t very familiar with the dynamics of gaming, Ken drew some connections to learning and training:

  • Goals and incentives = levels and points
  • Projects and tasks = missions or quests
  • Managers, team leads, or SMEs = experience facilitators

On Gamification at Work…

Just like problem-based learning, gamification has been around a long time.  “Just ask the Girl Scouts,” he says. Where gamification is paving new ground is as an integral part of business and learning. It’s been historically underused by businesses. “Hire a gamer and he can teach other people. They like to share,” Ken suggests.

How many of us have thought about including points and levels to entice people to participate in work-related challenges? How many of us actually earn points for roleplaying with colleagues to accomplish something at work together? These are classic ways of driving team-based participation.

On Gamification and the Classroom…

Ken showed us a fantastic example of how gamification is used in an elementary school classroom by teacher John Hunter. The game is called World Peace, a four-foot square game board with four levels and hundreds of game pieces. Players work together through the “lens of the economic, social, and environmental crises and the imminent threat of war,” with the goal of eliminating dangerous situations for each country and achieving global prosperity using as little military intervention as possible. (Check out the film trailer here.)

On the Connection Between Story and Instruction…

According to BF Skinner, many instructional arrangements seem contrived. You can adapt story-based learning and replay it in various contexts. The story is a snapshot. A narrative continuously grows and can be dynamic.

What changes a story into drama? Plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle. People think of stories as having a beginning, middle, and an end. The end is a way to let people calm down. Many companies stay in the middle, Ken says, and people burn out as a result.

The main difference between books and problem-based learning simulations: The character can change her mind in a simulation. It begins when something happens, and it may not end at a specific time. Players don’t have to agree on the story as long as they agree on the journey or problem they’re solving. If you play with someone else, you can together solve difficult problems. Only when you fail enough can you figure out the mechanism to succeed.

On the Role of the Experience Facilitator…

In the experiential learning model, understanding the decision-making process of each individual is just as important as the decisions themselves. The role of the “Experience Facilitator” is to:

  • Lead/guide/referee.
  • Recount the entire adventure through storytelling.
  • Cultivate the best user experience by making sure the quietest person in the room participates just as much as the ones who are most vocal.
  • Make all equal participants in the story.

On Additional Reading and Inspiration…

Ken recommended a great site for free roleplaying resources. He also suggested further research by reading work by “the king of narrative-centered learning,” Dr. James Lester, a professor at NC State University.

NEW BUSINESS Contact us with business inquiries or to discuss your project needs and vision.
CAREERS We always enjoy connecting with talented professionals in the learning and development field.
CONNECT 503.208.3256
LOCATION 2701 NW Vaughn St #103
Portland, OR 97210

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: