Scenarios for Boring Training Topics

How do you come up with scenarios for boring training topics? Shift your focus to the people who have to make decisions or take actions.

Several people have asked me, “How do you come up with scenarios for boring training topics? I have to do this content that’s really dry and tedious.” That’s a concern with a lot of the training we create. Compliance training can have very detailed rules, regulatory training can be filled with dense language, and technical training can be overwhelmed with complex systems.

So what’s the trick? If you’re having trouble identifying a scenario for training, stop focusing so much on the content. Shift your focus to the people who have to do something related to that content. Every rule, regulation, system, and process has to be implemented by actual human beings. If you focus on the people and the decisions or actions they need to make, scenarios will be easier to write. Ultimately, this can help us create training that improves learner engagement and outcomes.

Worst case scenario

One strategy you can use for many types of training is the worst case scenario. Tell the story of what happens to someone who doesn’t follow the rules, showing the catastrophic consequences. Sometimes I use this at the beginning of training to “hook” learners’ attention. Then, you can back up and show how to prevent that problem.

For example, the ORI interactive video training The Lab begins with the words, “It was a bad day. It started with just one reporter…” This ethics training starts with news reports discussing research misconduct. In the training, you can pick a role in an “alternate reality” to attempt to prevent that misconduct from happening.

In that example, the focus of the problem isn’t on the research integrity, but on how that affected the people involved. One person lost his job; others had to deal with the effects of lost reputation. You watch the uncomfortable interviews about the fallout from these poor decisions. The training starts with that focus on people. Later, it asks more specific questions about research integrity, but only after learners have a reason to care about the training.

Compliance training: the boring way

Compliance training can be the bane of an instructional designer’s existence. But let’s face it–if it’s boring for us to create, it’s probably boring for the learners too, right? We have to find the people involved and tell their stories.

For example, say you need to create training on wage and hour laws. The boring way to create the training would be to cite the regulations. In the US, that’s the FLSA.

The federal overtime provisions are contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Unless exempt, employees covered by the Act must receive overtime pay for hours worked over 40 in a workweek at a rate not less than time and one-half their regular rates of pay. There is no limit in the Act on the number of hours employees aged 16 and older may work in any workweek. The Act does not require overtime pay for work on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, or regular days of rest, unless overtime is worked on such days.

The Act applies on a workweek basis. An employee’s workweek is a fixed and regularly recurring period of 168 hours — seven consecutive 24-hour periods. It need not coincide with the calendar week, but may begin on any day and at any hour of the day. Different workweeks may be established for different employees or groups of employees. Averaging of hours over two or more weeks is not permitted. Normally, overtime pay earned in a particular workweek must be paid on the regular pay day for the pay period in which the wages were earned.

Excerpted from the FLSA explanation of overtime pay

Compliance training scenario

In order to make this not-so-boring, you first need to identify the important people. Let’s say the audience is retail managers, so that’s the primary focus. Include the employees in the scenario because that helps provide realistic context.

Next, identify the specific problems. The SME tells you they’ve been having problems with managers not tracking and paying overtime correctly. You can ask the SME and stakeholders more questions to gather information to create the scenario.

Based on the information you gather, you might draft a scenario like this:

Lisa is an assistant manager for Retail Spree, a discount retailer. She manages the weekday evening shifts plus two weekends per month. One of the employees, Manuel, asks, “I’m picking up an extra 6-hour shift on Saturday. I already worked 36 hours this week. Do I track the whole shift as overtime?” How should Lisa respond?

  • Just track it as regular hours, and I’ll fix it in your time card later.
  • Yes, report the entire shift as overtime since that’s over 40 hours for the week.
  • No, report 4 hours as regular time and 2 hours as overtime.

Instead of an abstract question about overtime rules, this asks the learners to apply the rules to a specific scenario.

In that example, you could also include an option for “I’m not sure, let me check with HR.” That option could provide an explanation of the rules. Sometimes, you do need to list the actual policy in compliance training. However, if you can include that policy with a scenario, it gives people a reason to look up the information. Instead of pushing information to learners, you give them a reason to pull the content themselves.

Lots of text

In some training, you can’t get away from large blocks of text. Some job roles require working with text, so practicing important skills means having big blocks of text on the screen. While we should try to rephrase regulations into plain language where possible, what if the job itself requires reading and applying different regulations? In that case, you need to practice that skill.

Regulations example

One of my past projects involved training advisors on how to support international students. Part of their job is understanding regulations so they can explain and advise students. We used a series of case studies to give learners numerous practice opportunities with a wide range of problems.

In this example, the advisor was working with a student facing disciplinary action and possible loss of a visa. In the case study, they needed to determine the conditions of the regulations and potential consequences. Therefore, one of the activities was to review the regulation and identify the important text.

While I can’t share the full version of this with the proprietary content, you can get an idea of how the activity worked even with the text replaced. This is a practice activity for one step in a real-world skill.

Screenshot of an activity. Question at the top: What are the consequences for a failure to follow these regulations? Select the relevant sections of the citation.

Below is lorem ipsum placeholder text with some sections highlighted in yellow.

Connect regulations to people

The regulations activity above was one piece of a larger scenario.

  1. A story about the student’s actions and situation
  2. Two advisors discuss how to help the student
  3. Review the regulations
  4. Two advisors discuss how to apply the regulations using a framework taught earlier in the course
  5. Multiple choice questions about actions to take
  6. Additional information about the student in the story
  7. Decide whether to take additional action based on the new information

I didn’t show the regulations in isolation; I connected them to the people affected by them. The regulations on their own would be extremely dry and boring. In the context of the case study, understanding the regulations meant determining if an international student could maintain her visa or not.

Your tips?

Do you have tips or suggestions for creating scenarios for boring training topics? Add a comment or reply to this email and tell me how you have managed this in your own projects.

6 thoughts on “Scenarios for Boring Training Topics

  1. Thanks Christy for this amazing article. I am implementing this in classes from traditional activities like dynamics (games) to real cases with dilemmas, especially ethics and worst days, I have seen better portrays in students, and connecting with their reality, even with critical perspective. Thanks you again

  2. Ray Jimenez of Vignettes Learning often says storytelling is overkill when it comes to e-learning. He proposes so-called “hyper-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. Allen Interactions 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?

    1. 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 for the situations where they don’t make sense. There’s no magic bullets in training and learning. There’s an advantage to 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.

      Ray’s work has focused a lot on microlearning and hyperstories in the last few years. I saw that same email you did, where Ray said that “storytelling is unnecessary.” But think logically about it for a second: he says storytelling is unnecessary, and then immediately says we should use “hyper-stories.” So, is the author of Scenario-Based Learning: Using Stories To Engage e-Learners now claiming that his hyper-stories don’t use storytelling? Of course not! In fact, I suspect that title in the email may have been written by an editor or marketer at TMN rather than Ray himself. It’s too absolute to be realistic for training.

      That said, in the body of his description, Ray makes some points I agree with. Stories can be too long and drawn out. They can be too irrelevant. 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.

      But Ray’s hyper-stories ARE storytelling, no matter what his presentation is titled. They’re just a short version of it. And there’s a place for short stories and scenarios like that. Clark Aldrich’s Short Sims are also a valuable 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.

      I haven’t seen anything from Allen Interactions that was short like that; everything I’ve seen from them has been more complex simulations. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have some short scenarios for certain situations too.

      But, I also think there’s a place for long-form training. Clark expects that learners will need multiple Short Sims to learn skills, sometimes in combination with other training. Something like The Lab would be overkill for most situations. That was a really expensive program to create; that was probably high six figures for total cost. But, in this specific situation, I could justify it. The Lab shows much more depth 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 hyper-story. And ethics is often a question of nuance and gray area. The Lab training has also been around for years. It was originally a Flash program, and I’m glad it’s been updated. 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.

      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, but that you should take the pieces of their approach that make sense for your own situations.

      TL;DR: Short scenarios and stories are great, but sometimes you need longer scenarios for more nuance. Use the strategy that fits the training needs.

      1. Thanks for responding. Like you, I don’t believe in a one size fits all approach, and I like branching scenarios because they show the consequences of decisions and allow learners to deal with those consequences.

        I think with Ray it’s not so much storytelling or not storytelling; I’m going to bet he knows that hyperstories are stories. I think his position is just to get right to the tension point requiring a decision.

        I’ve read a bit about short sims and that’s something I definitely want to learn more about.

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