Instructional design

A tale to remember: The importance of storytelling in eLearning


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A tale to remember: The importance of storytelling in eLearning

I recently completed a Greek Mythology course on Coursera. I found it fascinating how the ancient Greek storytellers like Homer and Ovid were able to create elaborate stories that have become timeless and have been retold and redeveloped in TV and films centuries later. After reading The Iliad and The Odyssey, I wondered: How in the heck did Homer remember all of this?  As Instructional designers, we are tasked to create memorable learning experiences that may improve the skills or, even more so, the behaviors of the user. However, sometimes it’s not that easy to get people to remember a few points about a 30-minute module…even when we give them the objectives up front to tell them what they need to remember!

“Storytelling” is the new trend in eLearning. We all have a favorite story that we like to hear, and maybe retell. But how do we pull off the masterstroke of storytelling in eLearning? Perhaps we can learn a few things from Homer and Ovid:

Represent the culture

The Iliad and The Odyssey were an important representation of the Greek culture at that time. How does your story intertwine with that of the environment or the culture of the internal or external client? It just takes a few customizations on a packaged course to give the client ownership of the content (that is if you’re not building the module for them from the ground up).

Veritas omnia vincit

Metaphorically speaking, somewhere in our personal or professional lives, we know a Medusa or Cyclopes even though they don’t exist. Needless to say (but I’ll say it), your story needs to be based on truth, or some variation thereof. It’s important to make interpretations of your stories clear to the audience, when you can’t use actual names or events. We don’t want to leave them scratching their heads wondering what you meant. Tie your narrative to the true and familiar, before you introduce your audience to something unfamiliar.

If you can’t rhyme, then repeat yourself

In Game of Thrones, characters often refer to honoring legends and heroes by “singing songs” about them. A companion to the memorization of so many stanzas, is the ability to develop a repetitive rhyme scheme. So far, I haven’t met any client who has wanted their module content to rhyme (thankfully), but all of them want their material to be remembered. Rhyme scheme is simply repetition of a unique rhythm, which could also be interpreted as the repetition of your main points or objectives. Bullet points and lists don’t lend themselves to memorization. Repetition (even if it’s ad nauseam) will allow your learner to take away your main points.

Chunk it down

The structure of these epic poems is really a series of short poems which celebrate various feats. They carry the main theme throughout and apply it to the situation at hand. Odysseus was quite clever as he creatively passed each challenge, and each challenge being the same lesson retold.

Use emotion

WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) is the chief acronym behind grabbing the audience’s attention and making your story engaging. Make the story really matter to the learner. Don’t allow the learner to view the life of someone else in a passive and disconnected fashion. Make your learners a part of the story. Turn the WIIFM into WWHTM (What will happen to me?) if the learning is ignored.

Keep them guessing

Storytelling mimics life, and life, as we know, may get a little messy in between our expectations and reality. Also, not all endings are happy. Remember, Odysseus wanted to return home after the war…and he did…after 10 years of trials. And even when he finally returned, his trials did not end there. Your story may express how the best intentions may change on the way to getting something done. Also, does your story have to have an ending at all? Sometimes the best told stories allow the audience to interpret the ending on their own. You may not have liked the finale of The Sopranos, but eight years later, we’re still talking about it.