eLearning can leave users wondering how the content applies to them. While this may be especially true for compliance training, it can also be true for skills training, onboarding, software tutorials, and any other online instruction. One of the answers to this (and to content that just overloads learners) is to use stories that help users relate to their personal challenges at work. Hadiya Nuriddin, senior learning strategist and instructional designer at Focus Learning Solutions, uses her experience and her education (a masters in writing) to create these kinds of stories. She recently shared some of advice with me in an interview; I've summarized some of her insights in this article.

How stories help eLearning

BB: Why use stories in eLearning? What are the advantages?

HN: First of all, it gives you an opportunity to evoke emotion in your courses. That's important because people become more vested in the outcome of what's going to happen in this course. One thing that we have a problem with in eLearning is people not finishing courses, not being engaged in those courses. One thing that can help with that is people really feeling invested with what's happening with the characters. But more importantly, it matters that those characters are reflections of themselves. Not just that they care about Sally or Sally's journey, but that they see themselves in Sally, and they have the same struggles as Sally. They begin to feel, "I have a vested interest in getting Sally across the finish line." Sally's really a proxy for themselves. So that's reason one why stories work in eLearning.

Another reason is that the stories are more memorable. We know that from our personal experience. Sometimes people give us information in stories and we remember the story more than the message itself. Ideally we remember both. But you definitely remember the story and it ties back to that emotion. We remember stories—not necessarily always for the content, but for how they make us feel.

We're really trying to tap into memories, people feeling invested in engaging, and people remembering what's happening. Those are two things we're trying to really tap into, especially in eLearning, because people are on their own. We can't dial up the emotion like we would if we were delivering in person. The users are on their own, they're having this experience with this module. I think anything that we can do to facilitate that engagement and invoke emotion is important. Stories are just one way to do that.

BB: In your example, is Sally a real person or is Sally fiction?

HN: Well, that depends. One of the first steps is trying to figure out what you want your story to accomplish, what's the purpose of it. The second step is going to your subject matter experts and trying to get from them who are the people who are experiencing these situations, and what's at stake for them. What are they going through; what are they thinking when they are in the situation? Sally is an amalgamation of the information that we get from our subject matter experts. So Sally is a character in that she's fictional, and yet she's real. Ideally she is built upon the information that you are getting from your subject matter experts. If you have the right interview techniques and you get the right leads, you're able to make sure that the picture is accurate. That's one of the challenges: Is the story an accurate portrayal of what's happening to people in that situation? Sally’s a fictitious person, but she's also real in that she is suffering or involved in the same challenges as the person taking the course.

How much of a story is needed?

BB: Can you use stories as the entire content of your eLearning?

HN: I probably wouldn't recommend it, but it depends on how you look at it. There's two broad ways that we use stories. One is that we can use a narrative stream throughout the entire story with the same characters who are coming in and out of one full situation. For example: If it's a course on performance management, then you would have Sally the manager with Fred and Tyra, who are her employees, and these characters remain consistent throughout.

That means you have to make sure that the story ties together. If you said that Tyra and Sally had a contentious relationship, that plays throughout the course and they can't all of a sudden be best friends because you forgot that you said that they had a contentious relationship. For a short module that plays out.

I've had some really long modules or courses where sometimes it's difficult to keep that narrative flow throughout. The other option is to have an overarching course—say in performance management—but have little stories that pop in with different characters. So that one long story isn't tied together, and it doesn't matter whether or not Sally and Tyra's relationship remains as it was. It doesn't have to be carried throughout, so it's easier because you don't have to remember the relationships as you said initially.

To sum it up, it’s a balancing act. You can have one long narrative arc that follows throughout the whole story and ties everything together, or you can have individual stories—often scenarios—featuring different characters. It’s challenging because you want to still make room for the learner.

BB: When does it stop being a story and turn into a lecture?

HN: I get this question a lot when I talk to facilitators about storytelling. One thing that's sometimes forgotten about storytelling is that it's a tool. It's not just to be able to tell clever stories, and it's not just to seem interesting and make your learning pop. The point is to use story as a tool to connect to people and to get them to feel like they are a part of this experience. They can apply it to their work. If you have forgotten that, then it's really easy to focus only on this great story that you're telling.

You need just enough so that the learner can say: "Yeah, I guess that's what I've been through." It becomes a lecture when you forget about the learner and you're focused on your story. As long as you make sure that you're staying focused on the purpose of what you’re doing—not to be funny or entertaining and be interesting—you can tap into the learners’ experience so that they can really connect to what's going on in this module.

Learn more about using stories in eLearning

Hadiya Nuriddin will provide you with practical steps for adding stories to your eLearning that will enhance the courses you develop. She will give you tips and methods for bringing stories to life through scriptwriting, imagery, and audio. You will also learn how to interview subject matter experts to get the information you need to build stories that your users can identify with. Join Hadiya for "Designing Stories Into eLearning" during The eLearning Guild's eLearning Foundations Online Conference December 11-12. Register today!