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Is Storytelling a Part of Your Learning Design?

Aboard a recent flight from New York to San Francisco, I watched the new United Airlines safety video. Yes, I watched it because it was not only a smooth piece of marketing for the airline, but it was also an improved means of teaching or reminding passengers about airline safety. The video was a well-crafted piece of storytelling and held my interest as I heard each of the characters tell their part of the story. Storytelling has proved its value as a teaching tool time and time again, but just how much of a place does storytelling have in today’s learning culture? How do we define storytelling nowadays? How do we adapt best practices to meet the needs of the millennial learner-employee?

Use of Expert Stories

Expert stories are used in a number of ways in the development of training and performance support content.

  1. An expert story might provide the basis for the learning design, as a foundation from which objectives are extrapolated and around which the training content is presented. This is frequently the way most training design begins. Sometimes this is referred to as the “brain dump” in situations where the expert shares what s/he knows and the learning designer “takes it from there,” building a learning design around those objectives in a series of presentational screens or PowerPoint slides. Interactivity may be introduced at varying levels to make the experience more engaging.

  2. In other situations, an expert story may become a part of the training itself, either in the form of video clips integrated within the learning design itself, or as the main component of a course or learning module, around which activities such as assessments and discussions may be designed.

  3. “The expert clip” (those video clips of varying lengths) can also be included as part of a more extensive knowledge base, tagged and categorized as appropriate for maximum findability to be accessed by learners and employees on an as-needed basis in order to complete training or on-the-job tasks.

Immersive Stories (aka “Scenarios”)

All of the above examples use stories to illustrate effective decisions made and lessons learned. There is a more learner-centric use of stories, and that is the participation of your learners in the story in order to actually practice effective decision-making, perhaps fail, and receive remediation and feedback as part of the skills-building process.

While “illustrative storytelling” can support learners and employees engaged in specific tasks, it’s the “immersive storytelling” that is going to place them within a task for the sole purpose of actually simulating the doing of that task in a safe environment. And while immersed in that practice task, your virtual characters are still going to need the support of an expert to guide them safely to goal.

So it’s not an either-or situation but rather a matter of how safe and appropriate it is to let your learners loose on the specific tasks at hand.

Storytelling in an Organizational Context

Storytelling has immense value across today’s educational continuum, and it can play a role anywhere within the mix of learning appropriate to your specific audience. Stories have their place in PK-12, higher education and the workplace, whether discussing “moral tales” or case studies. In the corporate arena, stories can play a role not only in training and performance support, but also as a leadership tool for multiple purposes. Stephen Denning wrote on this in a great piece called “Telling Tales” in the Harvard Business Review, May 2004. It still has value today. Denning talks about how a carefully chosen story can help the leader of an organization translate an abstract concept into a meaningful mandate for employees and lays out the different types of storytelling for different audiences and purposes. According to Denning, stories can:

  1. Spark action

  2. Communicate who you are

  3. Transmit Values

  4. Foster collaboration

  5. Tame the grapevine

  6. Share Knowledge (intellectual capital)

  7. Lead people into the future

Storytelling in a 70:20:10 World

Today everyone can be an expert and contribute their stories to the knowledge base whether as part of small group interactions in the classroom, online discussions as part of a synchronous learning experience, or within the workplace in the form of content shared within a company portal.

The trick here is in the monitoring of the conversations, the curating of the content and the appropriate form of storytelling at the right point in time. The mix is changing on a regular basis. With today’s growing acceptance of blended learning within PK-12, for example, students are getting more opportunities to engage in online learning experiences, including some scenario-based gaming applications rejiggered for the school environment. (Minecraft)

When we consider today’s learners and our audience within the workplace, we know we need to provide learning content in appealing doses and formats.  While a talking head may not be enough to sustain a 10-week college course, it might be just the right thing for a salesperson looking for quick advice on how to meet a specific type of customer objection, for example. And if that salesperson is a new hire, it might just be appropriate to immerse him in a 30-minute scenario where he can practice meeting different objections and fail safely within the confines of the learning experience.

Stories come in many different formats and serve different purposes. What they all have in common is that they can play an integral role in increasing understanding and driving performance across the educational continuum.

Stay tuned for more stories from Designs2Learn. And if you’d like to see more about that new airline safety video, Forbes has a nice piece on it, including the video itself here.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

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