Compliance training has a bad reputation. While learning and development professionals point to many reasons as to why this is so, there’s broad agreement on a possible solution: Storytelling.

Stories, a common element of great eLearning, lie at the heart of podcasts, serious learning games, scenario-based learning, immersive simulations, and more. Even microlearning can weave elements of story into connected units and mini-scenarios. Great storytelling and compliance training are a natural combination for L&D teams seeking to improve engagement and results.

For generations, humans have used storytelling to change behavior and impart knowledge, history, and culture. That’s because a good story taps into people’s emotions, arouses empathy, and can encourage identification with a character and her actions and experiences.

The essence of much compliance training is avoiding problems—safety incidents, legal, and ethical problems. This offers natural storytelling opportunities.

“I think compliance training lends itself to well-designed training because it’s just steeped with things we can use—there’s lawsuits, there’s fines, there can be jail time, there’s problems that happen,” said Deborah Thomas, president of SillyMonkey. Stories built around avoiding those fates or understanding the ramifications of violating regulations are a natural basis for compliance training. “Adding stories is so fun to do anyway. I think it helps us as designers. We get more excited about what we’re designing and developing, and then the learner gets excited about it as well. It’s win, win, win. To miss those things is terrible.”

Start with a great story

For storytelling to draw learners into compliance training, the story has to be at the heart of the eLearning. Jeff D’Anza, a learning and performance consultant for Nationwide Insurance, builds a lot of podcast-based training. There’s often specific content he has to include, but, he said, “A mistake people make is to get too concerned with the content. That’s not saying the content is not important or you don’t have to get across the information you have to get across, but when I approach something that’s going to be story-based, I don’t think of it as: Here’s the content; what can I build around that? I think of it as: What story can I tell? How can I gain their attention; how can I get their engagement? I then figure out how to get what I need to communicate to fit into that story. That way, I know I’ve got them interested so they’ll be paying attention to the content.”

After all, he added, “if you think about it flipped the other way, you might end up in a situation where you don’t ever get them hooked, so they don’t pay attention to the content.”

Add macro elements

Storytelling takes eLearning beyond merely conveying information, said Rashelle Tanner, director of compliance training at Microsoft. Tanner developed an episodic training series, now heading into its third season, that tells stories from the perspectives of multiple characters. She got the idea from the popular NBC drama, This Is Us. “When you do storytelling in this way, you can teach multiple things at once,” she said. The series teaches learners essential skills, conveys corporate culture, and reinforces corporate values.

Tanner has even developed spin-off training series aimed at specific groups of learners. Using the same characters and some of the same incidents extends the multilayered learning. “We can take the same story and tell it from a different angle, from one character’s point of view for this audience. Because they have the context from the bigger story, it’s an easier lift for them to connect the dots and get the context and they already understand that character. It seems to stick better,” she said.

Using the training series to teach broad lessons about the Microsoft corporate culture and values is subtle—but effective. “As [learners] meander through the story and see what’s happening, they might not catch everything. Because when you storytell this way, you can say big things—about our culture. And you can get granular, based on whatever somebody’s doing or doesn’t do, or a question somebody asks,” she said. Fleshing out the characters over time and in additional short “Behind the Scenes” videos provides additional opportunities to convey “what the rules are” in specific roles and situations.

Learners might have a micro focus on the characters, the plot, and the data security content, but there’s a macro focus on “what you want the culture to be,” she said. One manager character, for example, takes a lot of ethically questionable shortcuts. A sub-plot focusing on a new employee’s struggle to reconcile his advice with her sense of what is right offers a way for the training to emphasize a key message. “The overall theme is consistently, ‘If something doesn’t feel right, speak up,’ ” she said. She said she gets emails from people saying that the manager “should be fired,” which indicates that employees are internalizing the message that he’s out of step with the company’s values.

Then, “we come on the other side of it with an anti-retaliation message, a message to our managers about how to receive complaints and concerns in ways that encourage a speak-up culture.”

Experiment with different eLearning approaches

Compliance training doesn’t have to be an information dump on text-heavy screens that learners click through as quickly as possible. It can take any format, and a great story is often the best place to start. Learn from 10 eLearning experts who’ve created successful, engaging compliance training and who share their experience and advice in “Creating Compliance Training Learners Will Love,” a free white paper from The eLearning Guild. Regardless of their favorite eLearning approach, they all agree that storytelling and compliance training are a perfect pairing.