Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 2: 7 Tips for Effective Storytelling

April 22, 2010

In the first post in this series, I provided an overview for integrating storytelling into learning; now, in the spirit of translating all complex ideas into a few bullet points, I wanted to provide some tips. These tips come from my simulation design experience, but really, they apply to most learning opportunities. While storytelling is more art than science, here are a few points to keep in mind:

  1. Engage the heart as well as the mind. The workplace is emotional, so don’t be afraid to get under people’s skin. People should feel elated when they succeed, uncomfortable when they fail.
  2. Focus on what makes the job challenging. Is it the complexity of the product line? The demands of your boss? The intimidation factor of talking to a well-educated physician? Don’t shy away from the tough stuff.
  3. Show, don’t tell. This is one of the oldest writer’s rules. Instead of writing “he was nervous,” show your character’s behavior, and let your user/reader conclude that he’s nervous.
  4. Storytelling needn’t involve narrative. While a novelist employs narrative as her primary tool, the simulation designer has many more tools available. Computer users can only tolerate reading in small doses. Tell your story with video, audio, graphics and animation.
  5. Don’t feel you have to tell the entire story of a job in a simulation. Simulation stories work best when they are focused just on those parts of the job that are complex or difficult. In designing a sales simulation for a large pharmaceutical customer, we determined that reps did well at product detailing, but had opportunities for improvement in opening and closing calls. We designed a simulation that incorporated the entire call, but focused decisions specifically on openings and closings.
  6. Good stories demonstrate actions and consequences. Your user will be more engaged if you create a sense of anticipation, a driving desire to know what happens next. Watch the way an audience leans forward in their seats during an exciting movie, and determine what will get your simulation user leaning forward at his computer.
  7. Don’t lose sight of the basics. Good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They chart a logical progression of conflict, resolution, and conclusion. That’s part of what makes the process of reading a book or watching a movie so satisfying—the feeling that you’ve shared a journey with the characters. Make sure your story develops throughout your course or simulation and reaches a satisfying conclusion (or potentially several satisfying conclusions!) at the end.

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