Storytelling Story Instructional Design

What makes content engaging? Courses need to sparkle, or your message goes in one ear and out the other. We add stories to help capture the imagination. That’s a great start. Then we add an avatar coach to guide us and provide narration. Nice idea. It feels like we need to connect the dots and have our avatars act as characters playing out those stories, however.

As a strong advocate of wheel enhancements and not reinvention, I did a bit of research on telling stories within e-learning courses. (This research was done on the Internet from my comfy recliner. See my earlier blog for details on my tumultuous affair with research.) I wanted to find some formulas for creating storylines and developing characters within courses, even if I had to draw from script-writing techniques used by the entertainment industry. Low and behold, I was able to find exactly what I needed — even streamlined for the e-learning audience! The following is a brief summary of a fantastic article by Karen Westmoreland Luce, called “Creating Great Stories to Enhance eLearning.”

There are four, basic, building blocks of any story in an e-learning course:

1) Triggering event. The triggering event is always the first and most-essential element in any story. It’s the problem — and it’s used to set up the context of the story. Sometimes it’s part of the story, and sometimes it’s the background of the story. Answering these questions will usually give you the basis for your triggering event:

  • What is the problem that this lesson is supposed to address?
  • What is the learning objective for this course?
  • Who is my audience for this course?
  • What details about this event will make it familiar to learners and their real-world situation?

2) Plot. Plot lines are often recycled. How many times have we seen such recycling in movies or on TV? Cop dramas since the 1970s come to mind for me! You can use the same basic scenario or plot over and over to illustrate a point. The time and place, characters, and details change. We just have to fill in the right details to our audience and our situation. Basic plots have five main components:

  • The situation or problem tells why you are telling the story in the first place; for our purposes, this is usually our triggering event.
  • The rising action is where most of the story occurs. This is where we introduce our characters, outline the problem and details, and build to decision point.
  • The decision point is where the character is forced to take one course of action or another. In e-learning, the decision point is directly tied to your learning objectives.
  • The desired course of action reinforces the objective and goal of the course — the behaviors that we want the learner to demonstrate on the job.
  • The outcome or resolution provides the closure for the story.

The original article offers a great brainstorming worksheet for these five components to help you walk through the process.

3) Characters. In creating characters for your avatars, you must give your learner a good sense of the character, but do so without sliding into stereotypes.

Using archetypes can be very effective in helping you work out your characters. In literature, we often see classic archetypes: the hero, the villain, the goddess, and the innocent. In e-learning courses, we see archetypes such as the novice, the expert, the mentor, and the skeptic.

Once you have a framework for your character’s purpose in the story, it’s easier to fill in the details of who that character really is. The original article provides another great worksheet; this one for developing characters.

4) Setting. The setting is the visual backdrop for the avatar characters in your course. You should work with your creative designers to generate the right visual environment. Again, look to your target audience and learning objectives to help figure out the setting. Make a rough sketch and include details you would see in the scene. (Annotated boxes in PowerPoint® are adequate for you non-artist types like me.) Challenge yourself to draw something representing all five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. Visit the setting and create a description. For example, if it is a retail setting, visit some local stores and write down notes. Listen to the conversations between customers and store associates.

The type of story you are using and the learning objectives for that story will determine how much of each building block you need. Keep in mind that all courses are a stage, and all avatars are merely players.

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