Objections to Stories for Learning

“Not everyone can be a storyteller.”

“Stories are a waste of learners’ time.”

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

Have you heard any of these objections? Maybe you’ve even raised some of these objections yourself. Here’s how I would respond to each of these objections.

Objections to Stories for Learning

“Not everyone can be a storyteller.”

Imagine you’re on the phone with someone explaining a bad day and everything went wrong. What happened first that made it a bad day? What happened next? What did you do about it? How did you feel? Did anything change by the end of the day?

Can you imagine yourself telling the story of a bad day? Congratulations–you’re a storyteller! We tell stories about ourselves all the time. We explain our lives in narrative form.

No one is born a storyteller. Telling stories is a skill like anything else. You can develop it with practice and training. Maybe you’ll never write the “great American novel,” but that’s not what you need for creating stories for learning. You need specific skills for creating relevant stories to meet learning goals. Stories for learning are often short, maybe even only a few sentences long.

You CAN learn to be a better storyteller. This is a skill like anything else. With practice, feedback, and the right strategies, you can improve your story writing skills.

“Stories are a waste of learners’ time.”

In a LinkedIn group discussion, someone (we’ll call him “T”) argued, “Learners aren’t there to be entertained. They have a very low tolerance for time-wasting content. If you include games or stories, use them sparingly, and don’t patronize your learner.”

First, I think it’s arguable whether or not learners want to be entertained. However, I think it’s fair to say that learners primarily want to accomplish a goal or solve a problem. We should use stories when they help us meet our objectives. If a story doesn’t support the objectives (or distracts from the objectives), we shouldn’t use it.

Stories can be a waste of learners’ time. “T” shared an example of content with a pirate theme that had nothing to do with the course content. Learners had to click 12 times to get through the intro story before they got to any substance. I agree with “T” on this example; that’s a waste of time. It’s a flashy wrapper around content. It doesn’t add context or relevance.

If you’re going to use stories, focus on how they can help you meet your learning objectives. That might mean using stories as examples or mini-scenarios for assessment. You have a range of options for storytelling available; pick the kind of story that best meets your objectives. Make your stories relevant, not just flashy distractions.

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

Stories aren’t always appropriate or necessary, but they can work in most kinds of training. For example, software training can use stories for motivation, to show why certain features are used, or to model the thought process of using the program.

For compliance training, every regulation, rule, or policy has a reason behind it. (It may not be a great reason, but set that aside for now.) Chances are, the rule exists because someone broke it. What are the consequences? Why does it matter if people follow the rule?

In compliance training, you can use stories to show people the consequences of violating policies rather than just telling them. You could start by showing a disaster or accident to hook learners in the story. After the intro, go back in time. Show the sequence of events and decisions that led to things getting so bad.

A fantastic example of this is The Lab from the Office of Research Integrity (Flash required). Ethics in research is a topic that could be dry and boring, but this brings it to life and shows the real long-term consequences of decisions. The very first words in the video are “It was a bad day.” You see a reporter questioning someone about questionable lab results. In this branching scenario, you have an opportunity to go back in time to undo the mistakes and avoid the public scandal. Even if you don’t have the budget for something at this level, you can use this worst case scenario strategy.

You can also set up a scenario where learners have to make a decision following the policy. Use the story to give them motivation to look up the relevant rules.

Other Objections?

What other objections do you hear or have to using stories to support learning? How do you respond to objections? Tell me in the comments.

Image: Graphic Stock

Software Training with Stories

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

One of the common objections I hear to using storytelling in training is that “stories don’t work for all kinds of training.” Those who are skeptical of storytelling often use software training as an example where stories don’t work. However, I think stories can have a place in some (maybe even most) software training.

Software Training with Stories

When to Avoid Stories and Focus on Features

Sometimes software training should be just about the features. In that case, you’re often doing more technical writing than instructional design. Just get in, show the features, and be done. Short tutorials and demos are great for that, and they don’t always need a story. If your goal is to create 5 minute tutorials to help people solve a problem at a moment of need, they’re already motivated and engaged. You don’t need stories in that case.

We often provide software training in advance of the need though. Instead of something learners seek out to solve their own problems, we’re training them about what they’ll do in the future. That training is often much longer; instead of 5 minutes, we might spend hours reviewing everything software can do. Have you ever gone through software training that was just a list of features with no context? How helpful was it? Did you wonder WHY you might use certain features or why a software update would help you?

Examples as Stories

With a few exceptions, nearly any training can benefit from examples. Those examples are often stories. When I taught Microsoft Office as a classroom trainer, I often told stories as examples. I had a collection of stories about colleagues or past students who had solved a specific problem like this one.

“One of my past students had a spreadsheet that needed to be updated every day. She added new data at the bottom, and then she sorted the spreadsheet. The way it was set up required significant manual cleanup. She spent at least an hour or two every day making manual adjustments to the spreadsheet. We found several ways to adjust the structure of the spreadsheet so nearly everything was automated. Instead of one or two hours, the new process only took her about 15 minutes a day. With a bit of initial work to set up the spreadsheet, we saved her at least 5 hours a week of wasted time. That’s why this information I’m about to explain about setting up your spreadsheet for sorting and filtering is so important.”

That’s a real story (it’s the only time in my training career where a student literally jumped up and down with excitement at the end of the course). When I was training Excel, I didn’t just tell students, “It’s important for you to set up your spreadsheets to make it easier for sorting and filtering.” I gave them the example so they understood why it was important and why it would matter to them. I made it concrete and relevant.

In elearning, this example could be presented similarly to how I used it in my classroom training. Instead of having a narrator tell it in the third person, I’d probably reword it to come from the point of view of the user. “I had a spreadsheet that needed to be updated every day…”

Stories to Increase Motivation

When we create software training, we want people to change their behavior. We want them to use the software and use it in specific ways. We want them to be motivated to use the software effectively.

This is especially important when software is updated and people need to change how they use it. It’s not always enough to just say, “here’s a new feature.” Sometimes we need to show people why that feature is going to make them better. Stories and scenarios put those features in context so users are more motivated to try them.

Hands-On Practice with Scenarios

As a software trainer, the books I taught from included examples that were often scenarios. Excel pivot tables are much easier to understand if you have a realistic project where you need answers from data. Those projects are scenarios, whether you’re teaching in a classroom or creating elearning.

The example above with the poorly formatted spreadsheet could easily be converted to a practice scenario. Instead of simply giving people a set of steps to follow, the scenario provides some context.

Why and When to Use Features

If your software training is meant to help people solve a problem while they’re in the middle of working, then microlearning focused on just the features can work. If your software training is intended to give people an overview of complex software, including why and when to use certain features, stories can be helpful.

For example, layer masks are a critical tool in Photoshop. It’s not always obvious to novices why they’re important though. This tutorial puts layer masks in context by creating a realistic scenario (merging together two wedding photos for a client). The author even starts by explaining how to merge the photos with an easy but incorrect and destructive technique. This shows the benefits of using the right technique and addresses a common mistake. There are plenty of tutorials out there explaining various features of Photoshop. Not so many explain how to select the correct tool for the job–that’s what’s valuable in this example.

In complex software, it’s often not enough to know how to use various features. Sometimes you have multiple options for an action, each with pros and cons. In Captivate, you can use a regular Advanced Action or a Shared Action. Depending on your needs, one or the other may be a better choice and make your development more efficient. Stories and scenarios help learners understand how to choose the right tools.

Model the Thought Process

Stories can also be helpful for modeling the thought process that accompanies using software. For example, I once created a software tutorial on how to troubleshoot a particularly problematic task in an LMS. We wanted the online instructors to do some basic error checking themselves before contacting technical support. While I could have simply provided a PDF document with the steps to troubleshoot (and I did provide that as a job aid), I also created an interactive simulation.

In the simulation, an instructor (represented with voice over plus character photos) narrated how she solved the problem. She walked through each step of her thought process. The actual story was pretty thin (an instructor has a problem in the LMS), but the character gave learners enough to relate to. This training gave learners more confidence that they could troubleshoot it because the process was modeled by a character similar to themselves.

How Do You Use Stories and Scenarios?

How do you use stories and scenarios in software training? Do you have a great example of your own? Share it in the comments.

If you’re developing software training and are feeling stuck, feel free to share that in the comments as well. We can brainstorm together ways to use stories to make your training more relevant and engaging.

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ID and E-Learning Links (6/4/17)

  • Instructional Design and Technology “MicroMasters” through edX and UMUC. 4 courses, 8 weeks each, 4-6 hours per week. Free to try, around $800 for verified credits. While I’m not sure how much hands on experience this program gives, it might be a good option for formal education for people looking for something less than a full masters program or even a typical certificate.

    tags: newid instructionaldesign highered

  • Spreadsheet for analyzing LMS needs from different vendors. Add your criteria on the Evaluation Sheet. Criteria are in categories (usability, management, reporting, technical, administration), but you could customize the categories. Rate vendors on their own tab on how well they meet the criteria. The top 5 of 10 vendors are highlighted.

    tags: LMS analysis e-learning

  • Yes, you can, but training alone isn’t enough

    tags: diversity learning training equity

    • For diversity and inclusion training to stick, it needs support, reinforcement and a firm foundation in a broader talent management strategy that includes culture, leadership and learning and development.

    • Ask these questions: Does our culture embrace diversity and inclusion? Do our leaders understand their value to the business and the workforce? Do the organization’s talent management strategies and systems support and enable diversity and inclusion? If not, training would be precipitous because the right support for this type of development is not there.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Instructional Design & eLearning Links

Book Review: Write and Organize for Deeper Learning

Patti Shank’s latest book, Write and Organize for Deeper Learning, is a great read for anyone who writes to help people learn: instructional designers, trainers, professors, tech writers, etc. The book explains 28 tactics to improve your writing. Following these tactics will help your readers spend more mental effort on actual learning rather than wasting mental effort figuring out your meaning. Each tactic is clearly explained with a brief description of why it’s important. While all the tactics are supported by evidence (and references are provided at the end), it never gets bogged down with theory or overly stuffy descriptions of research. The book is squarely aimed at practitioners who want to start writing more effectively today without wading through any fluff.

Cover of Write and Organize for Deeper Learning
For experienced instructional designers and others who are already good writers, many of these tactics will confirm what you’re already doing. For example, you’re probably already determining your key points and using active voice. Those aren’t new tactics for me, and I expect some of this will be reinforcement for most readers rather than brand new content. I found the reminders helpful, and it will make me focus on some tactics I knew but hadn’t been using (like checking readability statistics).

I also find books like this helpful in justifying my decisions to clients. I will be pulling this book out again and referring to it the next time a client argues with me that their content is so serious that it must be written with a stiff, formal tone rather than a conversational, plain language style.

The book contains worksheets to help you remember and apply the tactics in your own work. In addition, the checklists and job aids make it easy to use.

This is the first book in a planned series called “Make It Learnable.” I’m looking forward to reading the next installment in the series.

ID and E-Learning Links (5/15/17)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Instructional Design and E-Learning Links