Stories are how we attempt to create structure out of the many events of our lives. The most powerful stories teach us lessons about living, making choices, building better relationships, and finding deeper purpose in life. We love stories, and we need stories to learn.
Children love to hear stories, but adults have story ‘rituals’ too. Like reading articles on CNN while we drink our morning coffee. Watching a TV show while relaxing on the couch in the evening. Or listening to songs as we work out. Even daily conversations are like tuning in to our favorite soap operas or serials. “How was your date last night?” “Did your sister pass the exam?” “What happened to your car?” Each question advances the story of our family, friends, and co-worker’s lives bit by bit toward an unknown but potentially fascinating future.
So… Why Not Structure eLearning Experiences With Stories?
Let’s say you’re taking a course on truck safety procedures. Would you rather
A) Read the facts about incident reporting
B) Engage in an interactive story about two managers struggling to understand why safety procedures are relevant?
Most learners will pick B, because not only is it more interesting to engage with a “real world” scenario, it’s also easier to absorb the information when we get to make choices and picture ourselves in a similar situation. Stories help us make sense of what we’re seeing, hearing, or reading. It’s not just about entertaining learners, but actually connecting with them and helping them learn better.
Research shows that storytelling crosses cultural and communication boundaries, and it facilitates comprehension, which is very important when dealing with a broad learner base. What’s key in an eLearning context is that the stories and characters you choose
- Are relevant to the context and audience
- Are diverse and inclusive
- Don’t feel “tacked on” or distracting
- Are properly integrated into the rest of the course material.
We are always very careful that the stories we choose to tell within our eLearning solutions don’t overshadow the course purpose, learning outcomes, or learner needs.
Storytelling in Action: Rise Asset Development
An example of how we’ve used storytelling effectively is in a course we developed for Rise Asset Development. Rise runs a successful in-person Youth Small Business Program for individuals aged 16 to 29 who self identify as having mental health or addiction challenges.
Rise wanted to extend the reach of this program to empower more young entrepreneurs across Canada by creating an online version. The challenge was to create a course that was as strong as the in-person program that would still keep the specific youth audience motivated and engaged.
We decided to centre the course on the story of two friends, Adnan and June, who were interested in running their own businesses. We also created a central metaphor of how becoming an entrepreneur is like going on a trek. Learners follow Adnan and June’s trek through a variety of animated videos and interactive activities and also have the opportunity to learn from Adnan and June’s mentors, Shirley and Tony. Along the trek, learners can also participate in challenges and collect badges that go into their “backpacks”, continuing the story and adding further engagement and interest.
The response to the story and characters has been very positive, with learners feeling engaged and connected to the material. Using this storytelling approach allowed us to deliver the content in an approachable way, without “talking down” to the audience or over complicating the content.
So next time you’re putting together content for your audience, then consider storytelling as a way to do so. As Vanessa Boris says on the Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning website, “Good stories do more than create a sense of connection. They build familiarity and trust, and allow the listener to enter the story where they are, making them more open to learning.”