Better to Write in Second or Third Person for Scenarios?

Is it better to write scenarios for learning from a second person (you) or third person (he/she/they) perspective?

In my recent webinar for the Learning Guild, someone asked if it’s better to write in second or third person perspective for scenarios. I have written scenarios from both perspectives, and I think both have advantages and disadvantages for different situations.

Is it better to write in second or third person for scenarios?

Second person (you)

Second person perspective means writing the scenario so “you” are doing the action and making the decisions. The biggest advantage of this is that it can feel more immersive. This is the perspective used in the classic Choose Your Own Adventure stories, where you make the decisions that determine the final outcome. Using second person perspective draws people into the story and can make them feel like they’re a part of it.

A second person perspective also means you may not have to create too many details about the character; you let the learners project themselves into the story.

My text message simulation is an example of a short scenario written with a second person perspective.

However, it can also feel inauthentic and jarring to some users. Have you ever taken a training where none of the options seemed quite right? You might think, “I wouldn’t make any of those choices. I’d do something else entirely!”

Using second person in your scenarios can feel that way sometimes. If your learners don’t feel like the choices are plausible, it pulls them out of the story and can be disengaging.

If you use a second person narrative perspective and you want to use visuals, you’ll may need to give learners the option to pick an avatar and probably enter their name. That kind of personalization can add a lot of complexity to the development, but I’m not convinced it adds much for a short scenario for learning.

Third person (he/she/they)

Writing in a third person perspective in a scenario means you focus on a character you create, rather than the learner. This gives you more control over the protagonist so you can represent them in a specific way to fit your objectives. You can show the thought process and feelings of a character, even if that experience doesn’t quite match what your learners experience.

A third person perspective can overcome some of the resistance of “Oh, I wouldn’t do it that way.” Maybe an particular learner wouldn’t do it that way–but this character would.

My client screening scenario is written in third person perspective, so the learners are helping the main character make decisions.

This third person perspective might be a less immersive though. If you have an image of your character, your learners might not identify with that character.

How much does it matter?

While research supports using a conversational tone (including using second person), everything I’ve seen in the research on writing for elearning is related to a narrator style, rather than scenarios. I’m not sure we can stretch that research to firmly recommend a second person view in all scenarios though. (If you are aware of some research I have missed, please let me know!)

I’d love to do a comparison sometime with two different versions of a scenario: one in second person and one in third person. I’m curious if there would be any noticeable difference in what choices people make or what outcomes people reach.

Ultimately, my educated guess, based on my experience, is that it doesn’t matter too much whether the scenario is written in second or third person. A well-written scenario that is aligned to the learning objectives, has plausible distractors, and provides appropriate feedback is probably going to be effective regardless of the perspective. I think providing good choices and feedback matter a lot more than the perspective.

Your thoughts?

What do you think? Do you have a strong preference for either second or third person perspective in scenarios?

If you’d like to read more, Articulate has an article about how to choose the point of view for your scenarios.

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