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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7 thoughts on “Software Training with Stories

  1. Hi! I’m not an instructional designer, but I work in a place where there is no instructional training even though it needs it. I’m learning on my own about how to build instructional training material in the near future. This article is helpful. Thank you!

  2. I’ve often heard this term of telling stories in relation to training and had no idea what was meant by this. Thank you for clarifying. As someone trying to break into the field and learn as much as I could, your post are a God-send!

  3. Christy, I have been studying the power of storytelling in learning for a while now. I agree that stories can make training concrete and relevant to the learner. What do you think about using stories for novice versus expert learners? Do you think experts don’t need stories to provide motivation to learn? Just curious what you thought about it.

    1. That’s an interesting question. I think stories can be useful for both novices and experts.

      For novices, a story may provide context that they haven’t yet experienced themselves. A story might also help them connect the new knowledge to their prior knowledge and experiences in other areas.

      I do think experts need motivation to learn, especially when we’re asking them to change. “We’ve always done it this way” is a powerful force, and you have to convince people to be willing to do something different from what they’re used to. Even if the current way is inefficient or prone to mistakes or whatever the problem is, inertia keeps people stuck doing what’s familiar. Stories can help “unstick” people when they need to change.

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