Is Storytelling Overkill for eLearning?

Is storytelling overkill for learning? Maybe sometimes, but both short and long stories can be useful depending on the situation.

In response to my last post on Scenarios for Boring Training Topics, Dan Epstein asked a great question: Is storytelling overkill for elearning?

[Someone else in the field] says storytelling is overkill when it comes to e-learning. He proposes [very short stories] that drop learners right into the part of a story where the tension is high with only a very short introduction that sets the context. The learner is presented with a few decision points. [Another company] seems to be doing something similar, scenario-based training with really minimal set-up and only a few decisions for learners to make.

What’s your take on this approach? Is something like The Lab overkill?

Dan Epstein (my edits to remove some names and add a link)

I think the answer lies more in how we use storytelling rather than if we should use it at all.

Is Storytelling Overkill for eLearning?

No magic bullets

I’m always skeptical of anyone claiming that one strategy is the right one for every situation. I love branching scenarios, but I have a whole presentation on alternatives to branching for the situations where they don’t make sense.

There are no magic bullets in training and learning. You gain an advantage by having lots of different tools in your toolbox. Anyone who says their way is the only way is selling something, and you should view that with caution.

Some stories are overkill

That said, sometimes stories are overkill. Stories can be too long and drawn out. They can be irrelevant and waste learners’ time.

I remember someone once complaining about a pirate-themed training that required 17 clicks (not exaggerating) to set up the story before getting to any of the actual training. If that’s your expectation of “storytelling,” then I think you can make a good argument that it’s overkill.

Short stories are useful

Short stories and scenarios are useful in many situations. For example, Clark Aldrich’s Short Sims are one approach. Those are usually 10 minutes or less, but learners make LOTS of decisions in that short period of time. He packs a lot of decision-making and practice into a short period of time.

Cutting anything unnecessary and being efficient as possible is valuable. Generally speaking, you don’t need a long introduction or a lot of back story for your characters. Narrowing the scope of training down to a very specific skill or task can allow the story to stay laser focused on what’s most important.

Most of the scenarios I create are short. I frequently use one-question mini-scenarios for assessment. Many of my branching video scenarios have less than 15 videos. Even my more complex scenarios can often be completed by learners in about 10 minutes.

Long stories are useful too

But, I also think there’s a place for long-form training. Just like we should continue making training rather than asking learners to look everything up, we can’t just do microlearning scenarios for every situation. In fact, Clark Aldrich expects that learners may sometimes need multiple Short Sims to learn skills, building up individual smaller concepts into something larger. That’s a series of short simulations, rather than one large one, but many skills can’t really be learned in 10 minutes.

Long stories for complexity and nuance

Something like The Lab would be overkill for most situations. That was a really expensive program to create: probably high six figures for total cost. But, in this specific situation, I could justify it. The Lab shows much more complexity and nuance than most ethics training, even ones that are hour-long training programs. You simply can’t get that much nuance out of a 10-minute simulation or a 3-minute mini-scenario. And ethics is often a question of nuance and gray area.

Long stories for evergreen topics

The Lab training has also been around for years. It was originally a Flash program, now updated for HTML5. The content is stable and evergreen. Even as the clothes look a little dated, the story itself will likely continue to resonate with people for another 10 years. When you think about a training program having a 15- or 20-year lifespan, the investment calculation is different. Plus, The Lab addresses an extremely expensive problem. If they prevent one or two major research ethics violations, they can get their ROI.

Learning from long stories (even if we’re creating short scenarios)

The Lab is still a valuable example even for those of us who will never create such large projects. We can steal some of their storytelling techniques even for training which uses just text and simple images, or maybe just text. We can use some of those tactics for much shorter stories too. The point of sharing The Lab isn’t that you should spend a ton of money to record a bunch of video with numerous professional actors. The point is that you should take the pieces of their approach that make sense for your own situations.

Quick summary

Short scenarios and stories are great, but sometimes you need longer scenarios to train complex, nuanced decision-making. While you probably will use short stories more often, it’s important to use the strategy that fits the training needs.

4 thoughts on “Is Storytelling Overkill for eLearning?

  1. For me storytelling even in short videos is a strong booster of learning effectivity, motivation and success. Please remember that stories can evoke emotions and positive experiences. Emotions anchor your content to the memory of the learners, neurologicly. You don’t need Hollywood drama. Think of small challenges. What do you think?

    1. I’m cautious of any neuroscience claims. I don’t think we’re quite at the point where we know enough about the brain to really guide our design decisions. But, you’re right–emotions are tied to memory, and stronger emotions may help make memory connections stronger. Even a small challenge in a story may generate some emotional response that supports learning.

  2. In the end I agree with Christy that there is no one approach that works in all cases. As with any learning strategy, the needs and nature of the audience, the performance and business goals, the type and shelf life of the content, and the budget and schedule are all factors in determining what approach to take for a given situation.

Leave a Reply