Selling Storytelling in Learning

A prospective client called asking to convert some training to online. This is our (fictionalized) conversation about using a scenario-based approach to the course.

I got a call from a prospective client looking to hire an instructional designer.

“Tell me about what you’re looking for,” I said.

“Well, I have a classroom training program I’d like to convert to online. It’s a course on pregnancy discrimination. Our company has added a ton of specifics about this to our employee handbook, so it’s important everyone’s aware of the new policy. We’ve already got the slides built, so it just needs to be converted to an online format. Everything’s all in the text on the slides.”

I suspect this needs a lot more than just converting existing slides, and I’m not convinced that making people aware of the policy is really going to meet his goals. “Hmm…how is that classroom training working for you so far?”

“It’s OK, I guess. We only have two trainers who can deliver it though, and they just can’t train everyone in the company. We’re spending a lot of money on travel for people to come to our main office too. If we can do it online, we can cut those travel costs, and our trainers don’t have to spend so much time on this one course.”

“That sounds like a great motivation for moving this course online. Tell me about the course itself. Is it mostly lecture, or do you have some activities or role plays or anything?”

“It’s pretty much all lecture. We always avoid doing role plays for issues of discrimination to avoid insulting someone. We don’t want people practicing bad behavior, you know? It’s too uncomfortable to pretend you’re discriminating in front of a room full of people.”

“OK, I understand where you’re coming from. How are you measuring the effectiveness of this training?”

“Just a smile sheet.”

“And how have the results been from that evaluation?”

“Fine, but not great. There’s been some grumbling that it’s kind of a boring course, but it’s compliance training–what are you going to do?”

Selling Storytelling in Learning

“Actually, there’s several things we could do. Have you ever considered using a scenario-based approach to your e-learning?”

“What do you mean?”

“Instead of having just slides with bullet points and audio explaining the policy, what if we created a story about a woman who is pregnant? We can put learners in situations where they have to make decisions about how to treat her. Rather than pushing the policy information to them all at once, learners can look up the specific information they need depending on where they are in the scenario. That gives them the motivation to find the information, instead of it being forced on them.”

“That sounds interesting. How exactly would that work?”

“Let’s see…have your problems in this area been more with managers or coworkers discriminating?”

“We’ve had a couple of accusations of managers discriminating. Some of it was related to hiring, and some of it was related to making accommodations for employees who either have more physical demands in their job or work with toxic chemicals.”

“What if we had a scenario with a manager with a pregnant employee on the team? We can set it up with points in the story where learners have to help the manager decide what action to take. We’d give them a few choices based on your past incidents or common misunderstandings about the policy. Maybe there’s an issue where managers cut back on someone’s hours trying to be helpful and make it easier for a woman during her pregnancy, but the woman can actually handle the hours fine if she just has a stool to sit on instead of needing to stand all day.”

“That sounds more interesting than what we’re doing in the training now. What happens if they make the wrong choice?”

“Ideally, I prefer to show people the consequences of their actions rather than simply telling them. Which do you think is more memorable–multiple choice feedback saying, ‘Sorry, that’s incorrect. You have violated section 5.3 of the employee handbook,” or ‘Peg from HR knocks on your office door. She wants to discuss why you declined to make an accommodation for Rhonda during her pregnancy’?”

“The second one, definitely. I get that feeling of being called to the principal’s office in school just imagining it.”

“And that emotional reaction is part of what makes this approach work. It draws people into the story so they’re more engaged during the course, plus it sticks with them longer afterwards.”

“OK, I’m starting to understand.”

“Great. Let’s go back to the topic of evaluation. You mentioned earlier that you need your employees to be aware of the policy. Is that really the goal here, or do you really want to reduce the number of complaints and incidents?”

“Well, obviously we want to reduce the complaints. That’s the ultimate goal.”

“Do you have any statistics on how many complaints you’ve had in the past? It would be great to have a concrete business measurement to work towards.”

“I don’t have those numbers, but I’m sure I could get them from HR.”

“That would be terrific. If you get those numbers, we can set a goal for reducing those complaints and really show what difference this training makes.”

“OK, I can do that. What’s our next step?”

“Let’s talk about some more details…”

This is fictionalized, but it gives an idea of  how a conversation with a client could go to convince them to use storytelling in their course. Have you been successful in selling storytelling or scenario-based learning? How have you made this an appealing approach?

Originally published November 13, 2013. Last updated August 22, 2019.

33 thoughts on “Selling Storytelling in Learning

  1. Christy, as a freelancer, I LOVE hearing how you approach these consultations with the client. This provides a great example for how to have a conversation with a client and also shift what they consider to be meaningful training. This is a constant question I have….how do we encourage our clients to see things from a different perspective without coming off as condescending. GREAT EXAMPLE. Thank you!

    1. I actually just got off the phone with a real client. We are talking about how to make some compliance training more relevant and to change behaviors rather than just checking a box. We won’t do a full scenario-based approach for that, but I’m shifting the focus of the conversations.

      The version above is definitely an idealized version. In practice, it usually ends up that I shift people a little bit on one call, and a little bit more on the next. Sometimes it takes a few projects together to build the trust and relationship to do more. But this is the goal for how I would like my conversations to go.

  2. Well written! I read your article all the way through! I really like your approach, but I wonder what response to provide if my client were to say: “Oh, people won’t look up the information…that takes too much time, and they just want to get through the course.” I see my workplace clients saying this, because often they just want to check off a box to say that they provided training.
    This is in response to: “Rather than pushing the policy information to them all at once, learners can look up the specific information they need depending on where they are in the scenario. That gives them the motivation to find the information, instead of it being forced on them.”

    1. Maybe “look up” is the wrong way to explain this. I wasn’t envisioning learners going to search a vast intranet for a specific policy document. I was thinking about something where the interface in the course has a button to access additional information. The learners would have a scenario and a question. If they aren’t sure about the right answer, they could click the button for more information.
      That “more information” could take several different forms. It could be a link to a PDF with the whole policy, or just the text from the immediately relevant portion of the policy. It could also be an “Ask HR” button, where another character from HR explains the policy in a conversational way.
      If you’re not familiar with it, I highly recommend Cathy Moore’s Connect with Haji Kamal as an example of a branching scenario. See how in this example learners can ask two people for advice on how to proceed? I think you can do something like that in compliance training too. Getting the additional information doesn’t actually take much time.
      Overall, scenario-based learning may take learners less time than a traditional course, especially if learners are already somewhat familiar with the content. They can skip content they don’t need and only pull the information needed. Even if they access all the content, if you’re only showing exactly the piece they need at the time they need it, it’s no more time than learners would have spent listening to a voice over droning on over bullet points in a traditional linear course.
      When clients just want to check a box for compliance training, those trainings tend to be courses where you have to bribe or threaten learners to complete the courses. If that’s the situation with your client, you might try arguing for more engaging courses that people want to complete. I worked with a company where complaince training had always created battles to coerce people to finish these courses. A lot of effort was expended with managers repeatedly nagging their teams to complete them. I’ve heard of a move to a story-based approach reaching 98% completion rate without bribes or threats. That’s a lot of time and hassle saved. Tying compliance training to performance would be ideal, of course, but reducing wasted time is a real benefit too.

  3. Great post! I like your fictional story, it drew my whole attention. I think those should be some of the questions we need to ask when conducting needs analysis. I also like how you are results-driven on your approaches.

  4. About 15 years ago we created 54 online accredited high school courses (the first fully accredited distance education high school) in which many of the courses were complete stories. The hitch, we upset the applecart buy professional storytellers and filmmakers producing the courses and teachers being in the background. Actual three act story structure, done properly, works insanely well to teach. This works well because of how neural patters function in acquisition of information. Later, I worked with Carnegie-Mellon University at several of their centers to create models for interactive learning under contract to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I have 3″ of research we performed with the same team that did Oregon Trail. We pioneered using stories/story structure in interactive learning. I had students showing up from India that believed our stories and characters so much that they wanted to meet them. We did mountains of research with at-risk learners that FAILED in traditional settings getting A-B grades when they had NEVER passed a course before. We went on to win multiple national awards from the NEA and NSF for our work. – Oh, the real kicker. The number of Ph.D.’s that told me it was a silly idea and would never work. – We now use those same methods in a new form of marketing. The Harvard Business Review has backed up what we teach our (many time reluctant) customers. Immersive story worlds work to create emotional bonds with the “user/student/customer” and their buying/learning habits are actually manipulated by the story.

    1. Bravo to you, Carl, for all the work and research you’ve done. As I told one prospective client this week, humans have been learning via stories since we were all sitting around fires together. I didn’t get into the research support for story-based learning in this example conversation, but I have used it with actual clients before. The evidence is there to back us up in this approach.

      1. No doubt, in fact the research is there to back up using it in many areas. I’d love to see what you have because much of what I have currently gathered is from film theory and marketing. This is the one blog I mentioned from the Harvard Business Review. (oddly the conclusion is that it will be done, but not saying how) and another of my blogs (among many) about the subject – One of my good friends Lew Hunter is one of the designers of the UCLA Masters level screenwriting program and often tells stories about MBA students taking his class to learn story structure and its structure is almost a duplicate of the constructs used in education. What is mind-blowing is; that, done properly, you can also weave in marketing, video game theory and experiential forms, such as theme park rides to provide an immersive story-based learning experience that also sells stuff.

    1. One of the other ways I’ve used storytelling in a course is by having all the content delivered via a conversation between two people rather than a single narrator. I used one new employee just starting in a job and her mentor. The new employee asked questions and the mentor explained. Sometimes the mentor asked questions and the new employee answered (either with the right information or with common errors that could then be corrected by the mentor). It was more complex to have two people for voice over, but that also meant the course was more interesting. Even just having two voices meant it was less tiring to listen to than a single narrator. That strategy could be used for a lot of introductory topics, even if a branching scenario doesn’t make sense for the practice exercises.

    1. Hi Christy, nice convo. What definitely struck me was that you included the bit at the end evaluation and how an ID could weave that into the conversation in a way that makes sense to the client. Definitely agree this is an area we need to work on more, and something I’m also starting to address in a similar way. I think it’s important to get stakeholders to link training interventions with specific business measures like this – and then also hold them account to following up on the results – (and aknowledging that a measurable difference is usually not going to be seen until several months after the training). Actually would be interested in your view on this – obviously we only have so much influence on whether clients / business stakeholders follow through with evaluating. Do you see an ID’s involvement ending at the point of helping the client / business determine an appropriate business measure? Or do you follow up with them 6 months later on the outcome?

      1. I think it’s something we should try to do more, but realistically I know won’t happen in every situation. When I’m a freelance ID, I’m often brought in for a short-term contract. In 6 months when that measurement would happen, I’ve moved on to another client. That’s especially true when subcontracting; sometimes I’ve been so removed from the process that I didn’t even see the final course.
        If we have a long term relationship with a client or are an internal ID, I think it’s easier. We’re around and visible, so we can do that evaluation to help justify the next project or adjust what we’re doing to make it more effective.
        I wonder when I’m working freelance projects if I could sell this as an additional service though. Six months down the road, I’ll come back and review the business measurements and revise the course if needed. Do you think clients would be interested in that?

        1. Hi Christy, thanks for your response (sorry about the delay in mine!). Yes – I understand the difficulty in consulting / following up on evaluation as an external contractor or vendor – this was a big part of my frustration at working on the vendor / external design/developer side of the fence > the (often) total lack of feedback that you receive following the delivery of the solution.
          Now as an internal elearning ID, I am certainly seeing more opportunities to do this and consult directly with the business in the medium-long term on business impacts.
          I’ve been thinking about your proposal to incorporate this type of evaluation followup or consultation as an additional service offering. I think this would need to be pitched quite carefully to a client – as I think their gut response would be to balk at paying an external an additional fee to do something they should really be doing themselves. Granted, I do believe there is a need out there for this type of service – organisations need help with this, as many don’t really even know where to start (or even that it’s a problem). I think the best bet would actually be to package evaluation into your existing design/development service offering (you could add a bit extra on top of your overall costs, or increase your rate slightly to absorb the cost), so that it’s not seen as an optional éxtra’ that clients have to pay more for. Because a) it shouldn’t be optional, and b) it will be too easy for clients to just say no if they feel like it’s something extra.
          Having examples of real, measurable business impact would also of course be beneficial to you and your business.
          And I think you *could* potentially offer to do it for them, OR possibly consult or workshop with them a process or strategy for getting them to do it themselves…
          Good luck, will be keen to hear how it goes if you decide to do this!

          1. Hmm…good points. It probably would be hard to sell this as an “add-on” service. I’d have to really sell the value, and I’m not sure if I really am enough of a salesperson to do it. I may try to build it as part of my package the next time I have an opportunity. Maybe if it’s included I can explain it as “Yes, I’m more expensive than some of the people you can hire via eLance, but here’s some of the extra value you get for that money.”
            To some extent, I can also see the argument that they should be doing this internally. I just think most companies aren’t doing it, or aren’t doing it well. Maybe there’s a market for training internal teams to do these sorts of analyses too.
            Thanks for helping me think through this!

          2. Hello again Christy,
            just on the evaluation thing – def agree with you that most companies aren’t doing meaningful evaluation or not doing it well. Part of this is lack of knowledge on how to do it, what to do, where to start. So: I think potentially there is an opportunity to train internal L&D teams on your approach of helping the business stakeholder to see that measuring business impact is important, and assisting them to identify what an appropriate business measure might be. Essentially this a performance consulting approach to to learning design and scoping (which a lot of L&Ders either still aren’t aware of, or just simply don’t do).
            I think where it gets a little more complicated is that when it comes to the actual evaluation or measurement part, it’s often not down to L&D: ultimately it’s the business’ responsibility to make sure they’re following up on obtaining the agreed business measure over time. Not sure how much influence you could have on this as an external contractor. As an internal L&D / OD person I’d be following up with the business stakeholder in say 3 or 6 months on the business measure / impact – this is also about relationship management with the business. I don’t know – perhaps there might be an opportunity as an external to build in a follow up contact / evaluation check into your service. Not sure I’d be charging extra for this though – at least not until you have established that a good working service model for it, and have some outcomes to show that it’s something you’ve been able to add value to other orgs with. Anyway – best of luck with it, don’t think there are many (if any?) consultants doing much of this so it potentially may be a gap in the market if you can get it to work!

  5. Nice illustration! I agree with Eric. Plus, it’s a great script for a video on how to convince people to use scenario-based design 😉

    1. Thanks! Someone asked me recently how I convince clients to use this approach. Honestly, I struggled a bit to just tell her. I realized it would be easier to show it with an example. Besides, it’s fun to write conversations like this. 🙂

  6. Compliance training is one of the best uses for scenario-based learning, in my opinion. All of those policies have stories behind them. You don’t write a specific ethics policy without some incident causing it. The organization I worked with who had an 11-page policy on pregnancy discrimination (not exaggerating) had a whole bunch of stories that led to that policy.
    I think if we’re going to make an argument for story-based learning (or better multimedia, or games, or whatever), we need to show real results. That means we need to have more conversations about changing behavior and performance.

  7. You certainly make an excellent case for storytelling in “training”. But I also see a number of other victories that you won here: 1) You convinced the manager that the real goal was a change in performance/behavior rather than just a change in knowledge, 2) You showed that emotional and cognitive engagement will probably have enduring effects, and 3) You broke open the assumption that compliance training had to boring — “what can you do?”. Your fictional story is right on the mark — I see this every day as a corporate training ID. It’s quite a challenge to get managers very senior to you onboard with the “telling ain’t training” idea. Thanks.

    1. I agree with Eric; well done. I was very engaged listening to this ficticious example and applaud your performance consulting within it. Well done. Just yesterday a colleague of mine asked if I took the “Trade Secrets Compliance Training”. I responded; I don’t know, I took a bunch of them… what’s that tell you? However, when she started talking about it, and a true story within it, I said, “Oh Yeah! I remember that!” It was the stories shared within this training that helped me to recall the content that I took months ago. Had the training not included a story or two, I really would have forgotten it.

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