Most instructional designers are not writers, at least not in the literary sense. We don't often write short stories or novels, and yet we often need a good story to support learning. Learning Solutions has published a lot of articles and research on the value and power of stories in eLearning. Stories can engage learners, drive behavior change, compel learning, and support compliance training. But there’s a problem.
Karl Kapp summarized the problem this way in his 2014 research report, Big Answers: Using Stories for Learning:
“In learning design we tend to break everything down into component pieces; in storytelling we integrate everything together. In storytelling we take the time to provide the context and environment in which the story takes place; in learning design we usually just plop the person in the middle of the content to learn (we are not supposed to, but that happens more often than not). In storytelling we aim to create connections to the audience, while in most training we just tell the learner stuff he or she needs to know (like policies and procedures and ‘what not to do’). So the question is, ‘How do learning designers become better storytellers?’"
The good news is: Just as ADDIE is a methodology that creates effective training, in Instructional Story Design Rance Greene has documented a methodical, effective process that mirrors ADDIE for creating stories.
Greene’s book is a detailed guide to story design—the Story Design Model—written for instructional designers. He describes the result as “Where Instructional Design and Story Design Meet”and relates the use of stories to tasks in talent development, not just “training". I found many features in the book that I liked. Beyond its thoroughness and structure, the book offers:
- Worksheets and questionnaires that guide your thought and your writing
- Appendices that expand the parts of the Story Design Model in context
- Examples and an ongoing “story” that ties everything together
- Practice story design sections in each chapter
- Feedback that provides guidance
Why bother with stories?
Stories are memorable. Stories are actionable. Stories are emotional. These are the three reasons why stories work, and why they have always worked for learning. On top of those three properties, stories offer other advantages that support learning and engage the learner.
First, the story author can build in links to on-the-job resources, just as an eLearning author can build links into any asynchronous module. A well-written story provides the learner with a seamless experience. A story provides characters and situations the learner can relate to.
The Story Design Model
The story design model consists of three parts:
Each of these is addressed carefully and at length in its own section of Instructional Story Design. There is one aspect of Greene’s discussion that I think is especially valuable because it presents and builds key skills that I don’t think I have ever seen in another book.
ADDIE’s "Analysis" and the Story Design “Discovery”
Identifying the root problem and the business outcome by interviewing stakeholders and subject matter experts is so important but is often passed over in instructional design because the client has already made up their mind that what they want is training. This activity includes answering a key question, “Does solving this problem require training in order to achieve the business outcome?”
An advantage of starting with the Discovery process in Instructional Story Design is that the instructional designer learns to gracefully ask the questions needed “in order to get the story” while collecting materials for characters and conflict, essential to storytelling. Greene includes discussion of the Stakeholder Conversation and the questions that must be answered to set the stage for good instruction and a winning story. These are the PRIMED Questions: What to Ask Stakeholders For.
In the process, the designer can identify not only the training solutions that lead to necessary changes in knowledge, skills, and attitudes, but also other solutions (work environment and processes) that must be addressed in order to get to the desired outcome.
The Discovery section includes example conversation guides for exploring issues in:
- Customer Service
- New Hire Onboarding
- Systems Training
The same section guides the reader through the questions needed to create an audience profile. This is another detail that other advice to writers generally skips over.
Why you need this book
Instructional Story Design is focused on connecting a story (about a business outcome that is at stake and a root problem that is getting in the way) to an action that you want the reader to be able to take. To tell the story, you need relatable characters (ones that the audience can identify with and that they care about) and a strong conflict (intense enough to trigger a significant emotional response). The book teaches you how to collect the information you need about these two elements, and how to put them together. The result is a plot that is tailor-made for the audience.
Storytelling is a competency and it takes study and practice to master it, just like any other skill. Storytelling for training or talent development has specific challenges that are not the same as the challenges a literary author must meet. Instructional Story Design provides the in-depth study and practice required for the particular creative venue that is the instructional story.
Rance Greene (2020) Instructional Story Design: Develop Stories That Train. ATD Press, Alexandria, VA. 307 pages