Principles of Storytelling

Guest post by Sean Stoker.

When you design an eLearning course, your main objective is to create material that keeps the user’s attention. After all, how can someone learn something if they have nothing mentally invested in the presentation?

But how do you engage the user? It’s no secret that many people are more interested in works of fiction than they are a plain lecture. That’s why we sneakily read comic books in high school when we should have been listening to the facts and figures our teachers were spouting off at us.

So what is it that a comic book has that a boring classroom lecture doesn’t?

A story!

We zoned out in our duller classes because we had no context for what we were hearing. They were just facts rolling around on the floor like marbles, waiting for our minds to somehow gobble them up like “Hungry Hungry Hippos.” If you want the material to really land with your audience, you need to engage the principles of storytelling.

Take Your Learners on a Journey

Your learners should feel like they are being taken on an adventure. Does that mean that every course should involve copious amounts of fireworks, dragons, and robots? Of course not. But it does mean that each individual class should have some sort of story arc.

If you took any writing classes in high school or college, you’ll probably have some sort of familiarity with the basic steps every story should take: Introduction, Rising action, Climax, Falling Action, and finally, Resolution.

You might think, “Well that’s all good for novelists, but I’m not telling a story! I’m teaching people about forklift safety!” Whether or not you think you are telling a story, I assure you that you are. It may not be the kind of story you read about in a novel, but essentially, your course should tell the story of your audience learning the principles at hand.

Take our forklift example. Our story arc might look something like this:

Introduction: OSHA’s estimates put U.S. forklift fatalities at around 85 deaths each year.

Rising Action: These are the most common scenarios where people are injured by forklifts.

Climax: This is what you can do to prevent accidents.

Falling Action: This is the protocol to take in the event of an accident.

Resolution: Now you know about forklift safety. Here’s a quick review of what we just learned.

This is just one approach one could take given the subject. You could trade out certain parts of this arc for other principles that are more relevant to your specific course or organization. But following this basic structure gives the facts and figures more context, and ultimately makes the learner feel satisfied or fulfilled on some level.

Using Cliffhangers

Once you master the basic story structure, feel free to experiment with alternative structures that fit your needs. Say, for instance that you are writing a course that consists of multiple parts. If you feel like it’s appropriate, try ending one course on a cliffhanger by posing an intriguing question that will not be answered until the next installment. I had a world cultures instructor that was an expert at this. While learning about the cultural and religious landscape of India, he ended one class by saying, “Ponder this: Hindus believe in many gods and goddesses, but technically they are not polytheistic. I’ll tell you how that is next week…”

Telling Actual Stories

This is self-explanatory. Within each course, illustrate a principle using a real-life or hypothetical story. As long as it fits organically in the course, teach a lesson relevant to the subject. Offering a small anecdote amongst the material puts a human face on the subject matter. Ultimately, if a learner can relate to the topic and it’s applications, it becomes that much easier to absorb the material.

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