What You Didn’t Know About Story Design Could Hurt Your eLearning

Story design in eLearning is a hot topic. Just look at the schedule of any eLearning conference, and you’ll see many workshops that focus on different aspects of story design. Whether you are considering using story design for the first time, or you have used this approach in course development before, it’s a good idea to make sure you are using story design best practices. Here are three things learning designers need to do to ensure that their story design is effective.

Let’s start off with a part of a story that would be used in an eLearning course about customer service for bank tellers. This story is designed to be used at the beginning of the course to increase relevance and engagement with learners. We’ll start off our analysis with the story and then use the three tips to successively modify it and make it better.

A Customer

A customer walks up to the teller and explains that he needs to cash an out-of-state check. The teller asks to see the check and then says that there will be a three-day hold on it. The customer does not like the response and requests to see the manager.

Tip #1: Use First Person Narratives

This story is not engaging because there is not enough detail. Particularly, you don’t know what the people are saying to each other, which results in a very bland story. By using first-person narratives, learners can more readily gain a clear picture of what’s happening. Here’s the same story, with first-person narrative included.

A Customer

  • Steven, a customer, walks up to the teller window.
  • Patricia: Good morning, I’m Patricia. How can I help you?
  • Steven: Hi Patricia, I need to cash this out-of-state check.
  • Patricia: Let me see. Since it is out-of-state, I’ll need to put a three-day hold on it.
  • Steven: That’s too long. I want to speak to the manager.

Tip #2: Specify the Emotions You Want to Target

Now that we can more clearly see the scenario, it’s time to add an emotional impact to it. Humans are social and we are hardwired to readily connect to and identify with emotionally charged stories. Embedding emotions will make the story more realistic and memorable, both of which increase learners’ retention of the content. Here’s the same story, with emotions included.

An Irate Customer

  • Steven, a customer, anxiously walks up to the teller window.
  • Patricia: Good morning, I’m Patricia. How can I help you?
  • Steven: (speaking in a rush) Hi Patricia, I need to cash this out-of-state check – I need the money to to pay my rent today.
  • Patricia: Let me see. (nervously) Since it is out-of-state, I’m sorry but I’ll need to put a three-day hold on it.
  • Steven: (angrily) I won’t have the money for three days? But I’ll be evicted by then! (raising his voice) I need to see your manager right now!

Tip #3: Allow Learners to Insert Themselves into the Story

Now that we have a compelling story, we need to allow the learners to insert themselves into it. Doing so will increase learner engagement, deepen the level of thinking required, and ultimately will lead to improved rates of behavior change – which is really the goal of the learning. This tip is ridiculously easy to implement- Simply ask a question at the end of the story. For example, any of these questions would work:

  • How would you respond if you were Patricia?
  • How have you handled similar situations with customers?
  • What would you say if you were Patricia’s manager?

When you are developing a story for your eLearning project or course, review your first draft with these three tips in mind. As you make changes, your story will be more impactful and will result in not only a better user experience but more effective outcomes as well.