Before diving into this article, stop and think for a moment about the last time you saw a film or documentary that impacted you in some way. Then, think about what made it so. Perhaps it was the scenery or location. Or maybe the characters seemed relatable, compelling, or provocative. It might be that you just needed a simple distraction or escape from the day-to-day. Regardless of your choice, and regardless of why you made that choice, the most likely reason is actually quite obvious when you get right down to it—the impact came from the story. (In case you’re wondering, my response is Muscle Shoals, the “incredible true story of a small town with a big sound.” Aside from the amusement of trying to comprehend Keith Richards and the awe-inspiring acts that made music in this small Alabama town, it is the story that evoked such emotion and resonated with me.)

As instructional designers and eLearning developers, we often get caught up in the intricacies of our work—learning objectives, evaluation methods, style guides, and so on. And yes, all of these details are central to what we do, but what would happen if we took a deep breath, stepped away from the storyboard, and crafted a fascinating narrative to guide our learners? One that our learners felt and experienced on an emotional level; that elicited a response to go, or change, or do; and above all, that resulted in the meaningful change we’re really seeking—now that’s a powerful tale!

Why are stories so important to learning?

Let’s frame the discussion about the importance of stories to learning by thinking about a common situation faced by many eLearning developers—compliance training—and how two companies might develop their respective solutions.

In revamping its onboarding training, Acme Corporation decides there’s no time like the present to redevelop their required annual compliance training. The instructional design team outlines the content—company history, regulations, penalties, statistics, procedures, forms, and checklists. After a few brainstorming sessions, they’ve gathered pages and pages of content and feel really good about where things are heading.

Meanwhile, Widgets Inc. is also hard at work making updates to their compliance training. The difference is, they’ve decided to tap into the power of storytelling. They, too, gather relevant content, but their course design is not solely focused on delivery of facts and figures. Rather, they build a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. They intersperse elements such as conflict, tension, contrast, and dialogue. They even segment their audience and craft stories that are most relevant to each sub-group. Ultimately, their approach can help learners think differently, feel differently, and, perhaps most importantly, act differently when faced with a potentially challenging situation in the future.

So, what’s the bottom line? Is Widgets Inc. “right” because they used a story and Acme Corporation “wrong” because they didn’t? Like many decisions we face as instructional designers and eLearning developers, the answer isn’t so rigidly dichotomous. In fact, stories can be a useful tool to help us convey content in the appropriate context, which can go a long way in explaining all those shades of gray in the spectrum between white and black. Here’s why:

  • Humans crave connections with other humans. And as learning professionals, we are charged with building the experiences that support those connections.

  • Emotions help form connections. If we can develop compelling stories that engage our audiences, then we increase the likelihood that learners will remember critical content and perform correctly when the time comes.

  • Learners are always asking, “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me?). This one is key. Regardless of your approach, if you don’t make it abundantly clear what’s in it for them, then you’ve already lost your learners.

Wait a minute … I’m no storyteller

Believe it or not, you can be a storyteller! And the best news is, it really doesn’t take much more than a bit of inspiration and good old-fashioned creativity to get started.

The easiest way to start building storytelling into your learning is to introduce characters and scenarios that require your learners to make decisions and see the consequences of their choices. By providing learners with a safe space to experience consequences, and giving them genuine, consequence-based feedback, they will be better equipped to make decisions in the real world. The most simplistic story design has a beginning (to introduce the lesson), middle (to give the learner a problem and allow him to discover the solution), and end (to recap and provide a conclusion).

Beyond simple scenarios, you can introduce two characters—a protagonist, who is striving to meet a goal, and an antagonist, who has a different goal. Though it may seem somewhat restrictive, the classic three-act structure can guide the characters through the story. Using realistic dialogue and creating a sense of urgency or tension are keys to crafting compelling narratives. An obvious example here comes straight from recent headlines. Your nurses aren’t just working the night shift; they’re the ones on duty when a patient comes to the ER reporting a high fever and muscle aches—“I’ve just returned from visiting my family in West Africa,” he shares. Now, the focus is most certainly on proper infection-control procedures.

The hero’s journey, common in myths and fairy tales, is a more involved structure where our main character accepts a call to adventure and, with the help of a supernatural force, he journeys from the known to the unknown facing seemingly insurmountable challenges at every step. Just when it seems all hope is lost, the hero emerges a victor and returns from the journey to impart his wisdom to mankind. Though this structure might well be too complex for our purposes, we can hope that our learners walk away from our courses with a similar level of confidence and keen insights about their own realities.

Three keys to the power of storytelling

Above all, the power of storytelling is realized when you:

  • Make it personal. Again, it’s all about the learner as he constantly asks, “What’s in it for me?” Never lose sight of this goal!

  • Make it relevant. We all wish for more hours in the day to get more accomplished, and no one wants to feel his or her time has been wasted. If a particular situation or scenario isn’t relevant to your learners, then refrain from underscoring the irrelevance with needless stories. Instead, concentrate on writing compelling content and building engaging learning experiences that are appropriate for your learners.

  • Make it about the learning. Storytelling is just one tool in your ever-expanding toolbox—it isn’t the tool. Focus on what your learners need to know, what they need to do, and how you can best support their journeys from point A to point B.