In the first part of our storytelling series, we discussed how our brains respond to stories. Specifically, how well-told stories trigger the release of neurochemicals that cause audiences to be captivated by plots, identify with characters, impart their own desired outcomes onto those they desire for the protagonist, and continue to act upon or be influenced by the lessons presented in a story after it has ended.

In the second part of the series, we delved into some of the reasons why storytelling is an effective tool for learning, including our natural human predisposition to learn from stories, the staying power of stories, and how stories can be used to simplify complex information.

Now, in the third part of this series, we’ll explore several ways to use storytelling as part of an effective eLearning strategy that will help learners engage with, relate to, and retain the lessons they’re learning.

Use scenario-based questions to tell a story

Incorporating scenario-based questions into eLearning courses through quizzes and knowledge checks is a great way to engage your audience while helping them identify with, and learn to apply, the concepts you’re teaching. We’ve all sat through trainings — whether in-person or in an eLearning course — where the information we’re presented with is clearly valuable, but we’re just not sure how it relates to the way we go about our jobs on a daily basis.

Now, if the instructor or writer had shown us how the information applies to situations we encounter regularly, we’d know how to use what we just learned in the real world, rather than just guessing — or worse, ignoring the training we just received because we aren’t sure it applies to a given situation.

From our discussion of the neurochemical response to storytelling, we know that people connect to characters and situations they can relate to, and desire similar outcomes for the characters as they would for themselves. By creating a scenario through a sequence of questions posed to the learner using the second person voice — a “what would you do?” type question — you’re requiring the learner to put themselves into the situation at hand, use knowledge, logic, reasoning, and weigh the consequences of their actions.

You’re putting the learner into the role of the character, and — so long as your scenario is realistic and relatable to the learner — triggering a neurochemical reaction that is causing the learner to become more engaged and invested in what they’re learning. Contrast this with simply informing the learner of the correct way to perform a task or act in a situation, and it’s evident that situational based questions and training are a far more impactful (and interactive) way to get your intended message across to the learner.

Use stories to demonstrate abstract concepts

We know storytelling is an excellent way of making complex information easier for learners to process, and this is also true when it comes to abstract concepts. Abstract concepts, particularly soft skills like conflict management and leadership abilities, often rely on the preexisting knowledge, experiences, and emotional intelligence of the learner, and as such, can be difficult to teach, especially in an eLearning environment.

However, storytelling helps us there, as we can craft realistic scenarios, build up characters that learners can identify with, and teach these soft skills concepts through the evolution of the character, their actions, and the consequences of these actions.

Take, for example, an eLearning course focused on leadership training for entry- or mid-level managers. Employees at this level already have experience, perhaps even a great deal. However, with experience brings along ingrained attitudes, ways of doing things, and behaviors that might not be ideal for more visible leaders. Enter, the story.

How stories help teach situational training

Following a character throughout their leadership development journey — especially through a series of videos or interactive choose-your-own-adventure-style components that trigger alternate results depending on the learners’ answers to questions — can show the learner how to carry themselves, behave, and be effective and fair leaders when confronted with challenging situations.

How stories help show desirable outcomes

From the introduction of the character (again, so long as they’re relatable), the learner becomes invested in the outcomes of the characters’ decisions, and with each scenario (again, as long as it’s realistic) the learner wants the character to have a desirable outcome. Thus, the learner is more likely to pay attention, think about the characters’ actions and the potential consequences, how they might handle the situation in the real world, and — after seeing the character succeed — mimic the characters’ proper responses or behaviors themselves.

Use stories to organize your content

Sometimes we have a lot to teach, but we’re just not sure where to start. Crafting a story can serve as a framing device to organize the content you want to present to learners. We know that we humans evolved learning from stories and that storytelling is a natural (easier) way for us to learn new skills, ways to interact, and how to communicate.

So it only makes sense that tying a good story in with the content you’re presenting is an effective way to demonstrate scenarios, illustrate non-verbal concepts (i.e. body language), and reinforce the lessons you’re teaching with characters and actions the learner can identify with.

Use stories to demonstrate success and failure

Though almost any content can be taught through the use of a story, one commonality is that we want the learner to see what success looks like — and perhaps failure, too. Take, for example, creating a soft skills training course for sales representatives or other members of a team that regularly interact with customers or clients. You know you need to touch on topics such as account development strategies, relationship management, best practices for needs analyses, and negotiation. But how do you cover all that while keeping the learner engaged? Storytelling to the rescue!

Perhaps the right approach is to walk your learner through a day in the life of a successful sales representative (or whoever your audience is) and tie the events in the story to the concepts you’re teaching.

If you’re doing this with video, you can reference the important concepts through voiceover or on-screen text, explaining how the characters’ actions relate to information you’ve already taught. If you’re doing this through still imagery and text, you can link the text related to the image to a more in-depth analysis of the scene, allowing the learner to dive deeper, should they so choose.

Recap: Tell a story, engage your eLearning audience

There are, of course, many ways to use storytelling in your eLearning courses, and these are only a few examples of how you can engage your audience through story.

You may want to measure a learner’s understanding while helping them apply the concepts they’re learning with scenario-based questions. This helps demonstrate abstract concepts to the learner that are difficult to explain via text or out of context. You could also use a story as the framework for the entirety of the content you’re teaching. Or maybe you’ll find another way to captivate your audience with a story while simultaneously delivering the training they need.

But, no matter which way you choose to bring storytelling into your eLearning courses — and you should, since you know we’re wired to learn from stories — there are a few important things to remember as you build your plot.

You need to grab the learner’s attention with action or by creating a sense of risk at the onset of the story. Your scenarios should be ones that learners can see themselves in, and your characters ones they can identify with. Your resolution to the story should leave the learner with the desire to act upon the concepts they’ve learned, and mimic (or surpass) the success of the story’s protagonist in their own jobs and lives.

And, most importantly — above all else — make sure your story is one you’re proud to tell.

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