Pairing pithy videos—the epitome of hip modernity—with the ancient art of storytelling can invigorate otherwise ordinary eLearning.

Storytelling is among the best ways to communicate, share experience, and teach; a good story stays with the audience for a long time. Video storytelling might be a relative newcomer, but it has surged to supremacy. Reading a story or listening to a great storyteller can activate the imagination and lead learners to visualize a sequence of events, but a video can take them there and re-create the feeling of being part of the event. Newer technologies, like 360-degree video and augmented or virtual reality, promise to immerse learners even more realistically in stories.

Video is a natural medium for storytelling

The Internet is highly visual; according to Gigaom, a technology research firm, consumers and businesses are increasingly turning to video to tell stories. eLearning designers should take a page from their book—or would that be a frame from their video? The shift to video is, in part, due to the ease of creating and editing video with smartphones and apps. As short videos and video ads dominate social media and other mobile spaces, video is literally being reshaped and reimagined. (The age-old taboo on vertical shooting is fading as companies specifically design video to fit vertical smartphone screens.)

Animations, clever filters, and the instant ability for anyone to star in a video have fueled an explosion of creativity. Videos are becoming shorter and faster-paced, vital to holding the attention of time-starved, multitasking learners.

For eLearning designers, this points to a need to integrate compact, engaging videos into microlearning and eLearning modules. Even very brief stories require the essential components of a great narrative:

  • Tight focus—a central idea that you can capture in a single word
  • Appeal to viewers’ values or emotions
  • A character who is interesting and whom learners will care about
  • A tension point—a challenge, a problem to solve, a conflict
  • Actions, consequences, and resolution—a character’s journey

Incorporate video storytelling into eLearning

Microlearning and more traditional eLearning offer a plethora of opportunities to integrate short video narratives. A few suggestions:

  • Introduce characters in a learning game or simulation with a super-short, punchy video; this is a great way to draw learners in, engaging them in the eLearning.
  • Show, don’t tell. Many learners will master a procedure far more quickly by watching a video than reading a description of the steps. Simple procedures, like this six-second science example, don’t even need audio.
  • A longer or more complex procedure might need narration, but it doesn’t have to be heavy-handed or moralistic. Try to keep instructional videos short (under three minutes); use humor if appropriate, as Average Betty does with her cooking demos. Some instructional videos can stand on their own as microlearning units.
  • When offering a tip, feature someone who has successfully used it to improve performance, boost sales, or save time, like this guy in Video Tip #2 who demonstrates a tool to improve sound quality. This approach can also be helpful in compliance training, where the interviewee shares an experience that illustrates the importance of a rule or process.
  • Borrow TV reporters’ “person-on-the-street interview” technique: Ask three employees or clients the same question, or ask them to describe their experience with a product, process, or problem. Limit (or edit) their responses; 10 – 15 seconds per person can give a succinct but meaningful intro to an eLearning module.
  • A longer interview—or series of interviews—can focus on an engaging character who shares her experience with a product, tool, or procedure. Learners who identify with the character’s experience might see added value to mastering the eLearning. A single character can “stand in” for all of us—the one representing the whole. Two can show opposing views on a topic; three show a range of experience, allowing most learners to identify with someone.

Keep it short and simple

Even very short videos are an effective way to tell stories and connect with learners. Many eLearning developers assume that they’ll need to hire actors to create powerful video, but that is often unnecessary. Animated videos and screencasts, like Google’s Parisian Love story, can be evocative and memorable. This simple video also highlights the importance of the audio or soundtrack; the snippets of ambient sound enhance the storytelling evident in the sequence of searches shown on-screen.

Layering images with text, narration, ambient sound, and perhaps sound effects or music, it’s possible to create an immersive experience; creating a sonic environment is what sells the story, according to “Video’s Stepchildren: Writing, Audio, and Soundtracks.” A well-crafted short video complements other content—a simulation or game where learners participate, or links, text, checklists, images, or charts—to generate buy-in from learners, inviting them to an experience that pulls them in, carries them along, and stays with them.