As educators, whether we’re teaching students, corporate staff, volunteers, or other professionals, we all face common problems in the design of eLearning: inspiring trust in the content, eliciting acceptance to change, and getting learner engagement. It’s amazing how something as simple as a story can make a breakthrough difference in the credibility and relevance of learning content.

A success story

I’d like to start by telling a story; a story of how a well-crafted telenovela—a kind of serial dramatic program much beloved and followed in Latin America—helped to inspire and educate an important group of learners.

A few years back, while I was working as a consultant for Arizona’s Medicaid, my group was responsible for creating health education to assist our state’s Hispanic residents with better self-management of chronic disease. This was not an easy audience to reach or to educate. For many of these residents, diet, mistaken health beliefs, and mistrust of medical professionals were culturally ingrained.

The state Medicaid (AHCCCS) director asked us to research an eLearning program that members affected by or at risk for chronic disease could use to increase their health literacy. He also asked us to determine the efficacy of this program. AHCCCS staff proposed several ideas, but it struck me that none of the ideas made the important connections necessary to reach this group and to overcome some of the mistrust and misperceptions of chronic disease.

A family connection

We brainstormed ideas and decided to create our own telenovela. The telenovela format, we felt, would encourage the target population to relate to characters going through similar health issues.

We hoped that, by telling a story in which the characters better managed their chronic disease, patients would begin to understand their own issues. The story would portray characters that the patients would care about, in circumstances that would be familiar to them. The Perez Family was born.

Our eight-part telenovela addressed the many health issues that exist in a family—there is rarely just one isolated issue. Each episode showed how each family member addressed the issues both within the family and through their relationship with their longtime family physician, Dr. Alvarez, and other professionals they trusted. Topics included type 2 diabetes and its complications, preventing heart disease, managing asthma, prenatal care, child wellness, and teen depression. The storylines wrapped these issues in a way that allowed the patient to get to know the characters and their daily lives and drama.

The rollout and the results

We rolled out the program in both English and Spanish and saw a 15 to 20 percent across-the-board increase in health literacy among viewers. But more gratifying in our research were the reactions of the patients to the stories.

Patients complained that Juanita Perez needed to take better care of herself, especially with a granddaughter on the way. They loved Miguel Perez and didn’t think his mother-in-law appreciated him enough. They were desperately worried when teen Eliazar ran away from home, and they hoped for a healthy baby for Alicia. Their level of engagement was evident and their trust in The Perez Family was clear.

Cultural relevance made the connection to the learning. One woman in our Spanish-speaking focus group said, “The Perez family does not look exactly like my family, but I know each one of them from somewhere in my life. They face the dilemmas we face each day.” That was my proudest single day as an educator.

What designers learned from The Perez Family

What’s the lesson here? Well, it turns out that one of the best learning solutions for adults in the modern era actually comes from the ancient ritual of storytelling. From mythic tales told around a tribal campfire to biblical parables, it remains one of the oldest forms for disseminating knowledge.

On storytelling

Researchers now believe the storytelling process may be the best and longest-lasting form of preserving knowledge. To prove this point, look to the Navajo, who have yet to record their history using the written word. They have preserved their entire past solely through the art of storytelling.

According to Katalina Groh, co-author of Storytelling in Organizations: Why Storytelling Is Transforming 21st Century Organizations and Management, storytelling provides adult learners with a powerful method to help them retain facts and figures. While developing educational videos, Groh found that adults were able to recite a story, containing all the relevant facts and figures within it, verbatim, even weeks after they had originally heard it. In contrast, adults who attended a lecture retained less than 50 percent of these facts and figures.

What is it about storytelling that makes it so effective for adult learning? Researchers have offered up a number of theories. According to Sandra Morgan of the University of Hartford, learners become immersed in the content on a deeper level because it makes emotional and personal appeals. Storytelling paints visual imagery for the student to process more memorably. Morgan explains that learning experiences associated with emotions are more easily stored and recalled. In essence, this means that a good story connects with the listener on a personal and far more relevant level. And that beats the impersonal lecture on every level. 

To further support storytelling’s methodology, adult learning theorists such as Malcolm Knowles and John Keller have long claimed the process makes a deeper connection to the leaner, as the adult learner must find relevance in a topic to fully invest in the learning.

There is more evidence of storytelling’s efficacy. Renate Caine of John Hopkins University’s School of Education has found in his research that the mind organizes, retains, and accesses information better in the form of stories. He explains that information can occupy a range anywhere from experiences in human relationships to the duties expected of a worker in an organization. He emphasizes that, if you want a worker to really click with their job and the work expected of them, you should tell a story about someone else in their position.

Bringing learning to life

The effects of storytelling have taken on an even greater significance in my own life. In my work, I see the power of multimedia education and its potential, which all too often goes unrecognized. In the past, eLearning creators incorrectly assumed tutorials needed to be dull, lifeless PowerPoint-like presentations sans the benefit of a colorful classroom instructor. It became a widely accepted practice to allow educational videos to drone on hypnotically for 30 minutes or more.

Devoid of any kind of interactivity or humor, the monotonous stream of information challenged viewers to stay awake, let alone to learn from the content. No wonder training professionals and learners alike began to let out a collective groan at the thought of having to view the growing number of CBTs and long, mind-numbing video programs available. Unfortunately, no other options existed at the time.

New technology and a Next Gen culture have changed the landscape of multimedia education. Today’s learners are no longer willing to sit catatonically when there are so many possibilities for transferring information. The ability to mix the old media with the new now provides a near-perfect vehicle for storytelling. Unfortunately, not everyone in our field has recognized the shift. Educators too often continue to hold on to archaic teaching methods, which is even more frustrating to learners.

A personal epiphany

Why continue to bore learners with a PowerPoint on steroids and a 60-minute (so-called educational) video? Whatever the rationale, I have personally made it my mission to become a catalyst for change.

As part of my commitment to better education, I teach classes in how to make eLearning more engaging through storytelling. To demonstrate, I show my students—instructional designers—a typical PowerPoint presentation from an instructor-led training course on delegation techniques. The content itself is sound; the course itself can be engaging with an instructor who makes the content relevant through stories and examples. In this form it was actually a solid piece of learning.

However, the PowerPoint for the course is a bad 1990s template—bubbles in the background, clip art of bull’s-eyes, cartoon men with large heads, and lots and lots of text on the screen. Historically, many companies would order their instructional designers to convert the instructor-led class to eLearning. The designers would do no more than to export the PowerPoint to an eLearning format, part and parcel. I then ask the class if they would be interested in taking such a course—in other words, just clicking through the PowerPoint alone. The answer is always a resounding, “No.”

A conversion process that works

There is an effective transformation process, however, and this is the focus of my classes. As egregious as the PowerPoint may seem, it is still filled with valuable information. The key is to use the existing PowerPoint as a basis for conversion, to extract the information, and to present it in a more engaging format.

Look at the objectives and examine the content carefully. To make the material more engaging and relevant to the learner, wrap a story around the content. Use the classic storytelling elements of setting, characters, event (problem), development (actions and consequences), climax, and ending.

Here is an example of the way this worked in a class I originally developed for instructional designers in a high-tech company. The story took place in a pressurized technology setting. It featured a busy, overworked manager who refused to delegate. His staff became frustrated with him because he coveted information and made it difficult for them to do their jobs. In the story, the manager eventually misses an important deadline, falling asleep at his desk. His manager steps in, begins to mentor him on the importance of delegation, and shows him how to delegate properly.

A fast-paced two-minute YouTube-like video conveys the entire story up to the point of consequences. The course then becomes a more traditional interactive CBT, taking the learner and the manager through the proper steps to delegation. Along the way, scenarios get learners to think critically about their own delegation skills and to apply what they’ve learned.

The course participants immediately see the difference a story makes. In most cases, when I teach this approach, the story-based product blows designers away. For many, it is an eye-opening experience to see what was once considered appropriate eLearning (the PowerPoints) transform to something enlightening.

My next step is to challenge the designers to apply this new knowledge. Starting with a typical PowerPoint deck, they create a story, choose multimedia, write scenarios, and present it back to the class. Universally, at the end of the class we have stories and programs that continue to surpass my expectations. The stories are relevant, the scenarios connect with learners, and there is a transformation of both the learning professionals and the learning. It is amazingly satisfying to me as an educator and storyteller.

Finding a better way through storytelling

Education has gone through a lot of soul-searching the past few years. People have examined the method used for decades to teach. They have realized that surely there must be a better way to impart knowledge than barking facts at learners. Who would have thought the answer came from an ancient tradition, or Latin American television? As researchers and organizations are discovering, storytelling is not an artifact of the past. It may be the future of learning. For the world of multimedia learning, the story is the driver of interest, relevance, and getting results.