Category: Storytelling & Scenarios

Building a Simulated Phone Conversation in Storyline

In my last post on creating layouts for a branching scenario, I identified a need to build some long phone conversations. These are basically like a “cut scene” that shares additional information between the decision points. The conversations include some back and forth between the two characters, Sophie and Robert.

Building a Simulated Phone Conversation in Storyline

Side-by-side Layout

When I created the layouts, I had two options for the long phone conversations: one with the two characters side-by-side and one with a comic book style layout. I decided to work on the side-by-side option first.

Side-by-side phone conversation layout
Side-by-side conversation layout with placeholders

Create the Background as a Slide Master

The first step was to create a slide master with the background. This has the two blurred pictures I identified earlier. I also decided to add a thick line in the middle to divide it more clearly. I want the pictures to show these are two different locations without making people focus on the details of those settings too much. I also added some guide lines to help me line up the characters and conversation bubbles.

Slide master with two blurred photo backgrounds and guide lines
Slide master for long phone conversations

Build the First Part of the Conversation

Here’s the text from my prototype in Twine.

Sophie thinks these responses all seem reasonable, so she sends Robert a link to her calendar so he can schedule a meeting.

Sophie starts by summarizing her understanding of the problem Robert is facing and asking him to confirm.

Robert says, “Yes, that’s right. Our existing classroom training is good, but it’s just too time consuming and expensive to fly everyone in from all over the country for on site training. We want to move to online training to reduce those travel costs. We also want to convert these to shorter modules so they don’t disrupt people’s work days for so long.”

What should Sophie ask next?

[[How long do you want the modules to be?]]

[[Tell me about what changed that made you realize you need to move to online training.]]

[[What level elearning do you want?|Ask Robert what level of elearning he wants.]]

I started with the first part of this conversation. I’m skipping the first paragraph for now; I’ll come back to that transition later.

I created a layer called “1” and added the two characters. Since the very first part of the conversation is summarized rather than shown as dialog, I leave that as a text box. Robert’s dialog goes in a conversation bubble. I also added a continue button with a trigger to show layer 2.

Sophie and Robert talking on the phone
Part 1 of the conversation

Continue the Conversation

Robert’s paragraph of dialogue is too long to fit into that conversation bubble. I could change the layout to create a larger conversation bubble or decrease the font size, but that amount of text feels like a good place to break.

I duplicated the first layer and renamed the new layer “2.” I changed the poses for both characters and added the rest of Robert’s paragraph. The continue button shows layer 3.

Robert talking on the phone while Sophie listens.
Part 2 of the conversation

Add Decisions

Next comes the decision point. While I considered putting these decisions on a new slide, I chose to add this as a new layer 3 instead. Either way would work fine, but I decided to aim for fewer total slides.

In this layer, I have three buttons for the three choices. Each of these jumps to a different slide. For right now, I’m just using placeholders for those choices.

Sophie on the left, three buttons on the right
Conversation with decisions

Add a Transition

This conversation had a transition at the beginning, moving from the initial email contact into a phone conversation. That transition isn’t really part of the conversation, as it doesn’t happen on the phone. I could show this as an email for more realism rather than describing the action, but I don’t feel like this is such an important point that I need to emphasize it. I want to speed up the action and get to the meatier conversation.

Therefore, I added a new layer called Transition with a text message and a continue button that shows layer 1. On the base layer for the slide (which is empty), I added a slide trigger to show the Transition layer when the timeline starts. I can’t put this transition on the base layer because it would show up behind the conversation.

Transition screen with text box and continue button in the center
Transition from email into the conversation

Reviewing the Layers

Here’s what the final layers look like in Storyline: a base layer, transition, 2 conversation layers, and a decision layer.

A base layer plus 4 layers
Slide layers in Storyline

Review and Evaluate the Conversation

You can view the functional conversation. Note that once you make a choice on layer 3, you’ll see my placeholder slides where I haven’t built anything yet. I didn’t build a restart button into this sample. If you want to try it again, just reload the page in your browser.

After testing it out, I was overall happy with this conversation. I realized I should have built Previous buttons to let people go back and review the conversation, rather than forcing them to only go forward. I’m at a 14 point font for the text in the conversation bubbles, which is about as small as I want to go. I might decide to move the characters down further to make the conversation bubbles larger to accommodate 16 point text.

After building this out, I think I will stick with this side-by-side version rather than trying to do a comic book style with multiple panels on a single slide. I think I would end up with too much small text if I tried to show more of the conversation at once.

Branching Scenario Process

I’m going to keep working on building this scenario based on the text in Twine and the layouts in PowerPoint. In the next post, I’ll talk more about building the scenario and decisions.

Read the previous posts to see my process for creating this scenario.

Creating Branching Scenario Layouts

I created a branching scenario prototype in Twine a while back about an instructional design consultant screening and booking a new client. My previous posts have shown my process for planning and writing the scenario. Now I’m going to show my work and my thought process for some of the development process, starting with creating layouts.

You can review the scenario prototype and the map of the decisions in my previous post.

Creating Branching Scenario Layouts

Identify What Layouts Are Needed

Many branching scenarios are simulated conversations. That means you’re mostly focusing on two characters talking plus the choices.

For a simulated conversation, you only need a few different layouts. 

  1. Intro screen
  2. Conversation with choices
  3. Ending

The bare minimum is 3 layouts, although you might choose to have more. For example, you could have different layouts for positive and negative endings.

This scenario is a little more complicated. I have a simulated phone conversation, but I also have some email interactions. I also have some longer “cut scene” phone conversations that require some back and forth between the characters without interaction. That means I need the three layouts noted before, plus some additional ones.

  1. Intro screen
  2. Email with choices
  3. Phone conversation with choices
  4. Long phone conversation
  5. Ending

Create Layouts in PowerPoint

Intro Screen

You can start by sketching on paper, but I’m starting in PowerPoint for this project. The first layout I mock up is the intro screen. I need space for the introduction paragraph, a character (Sophie), and a button to get started.

For the background, I want to set the scene of a home office where a consultant like Sophie might work. I chose a photo by NorbertLevajsics on Unsplash and blurred it. At this stage of development, I often work with just shapes in PowerPoint and no real images. I usually wait to add images until later. This time, I wanted the background to help me figure out the layouts and the placement of the computer for the email interactions.

Branching scenario introduction layout (character on left, intro paragraph on top right, and button labeled "Let's get started.")

Email with Choices

For the email interaction, I’m going to focus on the computer rather than showing the character. I keep the background, but change the focus to zoom in on a computer. I also use a computer image from Storyblocks as a frame around the email. I keep the choices on the right. In these mockups, I’m using the lighter blue for buttons and the darker blue for text and image placeholders.

Branching scenario email layout with three choices

Phone Conversation with Choices

I want to keep the buttons on the right, the same as with the email layout.

Branching scenario layout with character and three choices

Long Phone Conversation

For the long phone conversations, I want to show both Sophie and Robert. I need some space for conversation bubbles so they can have some back and forth. My initial thought is to do a split screen showing the two characters. The background on the right is by  MattHoffman on Unsplash.

Branching scenario layout with placeholders for two characters and conversation bubbles.

I’m not quite sure about this layout. If I was going to use voice over for this scenario, this would work well. I’d drop the conversation bubbles and just show the characters changing as the speaker changes. I’m planning to just use on screen text though. If I use this layout, I need to add some navigation to move forward and backward. This layout gives me nice large text bubbles, but it might make it harder to get a sense for the whole conversation.  It also doesn’t seem like there’s quite enough separation between the two settings, so I probably need to add a line or play with that more.

Because of that, I decide to try something else for the longer phone conversations: a comic style layout. This is nice for showing a whole conversation. I’m worried the text will have to be too small to fit it in though. Maybe this is too much on the screen at once and will be information overload. I’m also not quite sure this visually works as well for a phone conversation as an in-person conversation.

Branching scenario layout in comic style

At this stage, I’m not quite sure what I want. I will probably end up building one of the conversations (or at least part of one) in both layouts to see what I like best with actual content. I think I might want to look at some other comic style layouts for inspiration too.


I’m going to use the same basic layout for all of the endings. This is like the intro slide, but with a potentially larger block of text for feedback.

Branching scenario ending and feedback layout

Next Steps

While I’m not happy with the layouts for the long phone conversation yet, this is a good first pass through creating layouts. It’s probably enough for me to start developing, knowing that I’ll keep tweaking as I get into the tools working with actual content.

I’m going to develop this in both Storyline and Captivate so I can show the process and final product in both. Watch for future posts showing that process.

I spent about 1.5 hours creating these initial layouts in PowerPoint. That would have been a little less if I hadn’t selected background images too. That total includes some time picking character images for Sophie and Robert, although those aren’t shown here.

Looking for More?

Read the previous posts to see my process for creating this scenario.

Make Learning Immediately Relevant with Scenarios

One way to engage learners is to make content immediately relevant. People naturally pay more attention to information they can use right away than information they “might need someday.”

Create a Sense of Immediacy

In August, I attended a webinar by Julie Dirksen on the Science of Attention and Engagement. One of her tips to promote learner engagement is about making learning immediately relevant.

Create a Sense of Immediacy

It’s easiest to pay attention to content that you can use right away. Use strategies like test-then-tell, scenarios or problem-based learning to create an immediate use for the learning content.

Julie Dirksen

Check out Tracy Parish’s sketch notes from the webinar as well.

Make Learning Immediately Relevant with Scenarios

What Does The Research Say?

If someone offered you $10 today or $11 one year from now, what would you choose? Most people would choose the $10 today. A reward is worth the most in the moment; the perceived value of the reward drops the if you won’t get it until some date in the future. This is known as hyperbolic discounting.

For example, the reward for exercising is generally long term. You have to do a lot of work over weeks or maybe months before you start seeing results. That makes it hard to stay motivated.

However, if you can make exercise immediately rewarding, it’s easier to stay motivated. People with diabetes can test their blood sugar before and after exercise to see an immediate change. If a 20 minute walk drops your blood sugar from 150 to 120, it’s easy to see the value in that activity.

Immediacy in Learning

Similarly, the rewards for learning are often long in the future. We train people on principles which we say will be important, but they might not get to apply that new knowledge for weeks or months.

We can create that sense of immediacy in learning by giving people a scenario where they apply it right away. We can create an immediate reward for learning. That helps learners stay motivated and engaged with our training.

Example Comparison

Before (Traditional Training)

Reasonable Accommodation: What Managers Need to Know

It’s important to remember these 5 factors when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation…

After (Scenario-Based Training)

You’re working with your team to keep everything running smoothly. You have an aggressive schedule for the next month with an upcoming product launch. Rosa just asked if she can take a two-day training on how to use her new assistive technology more effectively. What should you do? Do you approve the request for training, or do you tell Rosa she can’t take the training until after her upcoming deadline?

What feels more important to you, the traditional or scenario-based version? Which version would you find more motivating? Using scenarios to create a sense of immediacy shows how learning is relevant and useful.

8 Kinds of Training Where Scenario-Based Learning Works

In her book Scenario-Based eLearning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning, Ruth Clark identifies 8 learning domains where scenario-based learning can be used effectively. These common topics for workplace training all involve more strategic decision-making rather than simply following a checklist of tasks.

  1. Interpersonal skills
  2. Compliance policies and procedures
  3. Diagnosis and repair
  4. Research, analysis, and rationale
  5. Trade-offs
  6. Operational decisions and actions
  7. Design
  8. Team coordination

Let’s look at each one of these kinds of training with some examples of what might be included.

8 Kinds of Training that Work with Scenario-Based Learning

Interpersonal skills

Simulated conversations as branching scenarios are great ways to practice interpersonal and communication skills. This is a common place to use branching, and one of the types of scenarios I most commonly build for clients.

For example, this branching scenario helps doctors practice talking to a patient about alcohol use to motivate the patient to change his behavior.

Compliance policies and procedures

We’ve all taken boring compliance training. “Oh look, another course on corporate ethics or blood borne pathogens, how exciting.”

But think about the drama in ethics or sexual harassment–those topics are ripe with stories and examples of what happens when things go wrong.

Blood borne pathogens always seems to be taught as a straightforward “here’s what they are, here’s why they’re bad, here’s what to do” approach. Why not grab people’s attention right from the start by telling a story about someone who didn’t pay attention and might have gotten infected? Use the story to show them why it matters.

The Lab by the Office of Research Integrity is a great example of ethics training with a compelling story and consequences for poor decisions. (Note that this is a few years old and requires Flash.)

Diagnosis and repair

Diagnosing a problem requires deeper analysis than can be practiced or measured via a single multiple choice question. You might try several different questions or tests to determine the root cause. Those steps might not need to always happen in the same order, which makes a non-linear practice exercise ideal. However, sometimes a troubleshooting skill would be better practiced with a more complex simulation than a branching scenario.

Examples of diagnosis and repair skills:

  • Doctors asking questions to diagnose a patient
  • Technicians determining how to fix an intermittent problem on a car
  • Managers investigating why performance has dropped in a team
  • Network engineers troubleshooting network reliability problems

Diagnosis and repair may have a single “right answer,” which makes these skills a little different from some others where branching scenarios are helpful.

Research, analysis, and rationale

Research and analysis require gathering and using information from multiple sources. Usually there are multiple possible acceptable solutions, rather than a single correct answer. They gray area makes these skills a good fit for scenario-based learning.

Providing a rationale for decisions requires context. You can’t tell someone “What’s the best car?” without knowing who that car is for and how they’ll be using it. A scenario provides the context that allows you to analyze the situation and provide a rationale for your recommendation.


The classic project management joke says, “Fast, good, and cheap: pick any two.” You can have something that is fast and cheap if you’re willing to sacrifice quality. You can have something that is fast and good if you’re willing to pay enough for it. Those are trade-offs we make all the time in our jobs.

A great example of this is deciding which software to use. Storyline and Captivate both have advantages and disadvantages; which tool is the best choice for any given project is a matter of trade-offs. Which LMS is the best for an organization depends on a huge number of factors. Every system has some trade-offs for power, ease of use, and other functionality.

Operational decisions and actions

Operational decisions are exercises in analysis and trade-offs, balancing multiple factors. Clark recommends that these skills be practiced in a simulated environment, so they may need a less structured treatment than a branching scenario.


Design skills often have a wide range of acceptable solutions. If you ask 5 people to design a website given the same constraints, you’ll get 5 very different solutions. All of those might be functional websites that would solve problems for an organization, although with some trade-offs. 

It’s hard in self-paced elearning to really effectively simulate designing something new. Unless you can create a very open-ended simulation, you have to sacrifice some realism and complexity. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t practice and assess parts of a design process through decision-making scenarios.

Team coordination

Several years ago, I designed a scenario-based course on improving equity in school systems. A scenario about a specific school system was woven throughout the course, including a number of key characters. One of the first exercises in that case was picking the team to work on the solution. Learners needed to include a variety of specialists and roles, as well as making sure different groups were represented.

The skills for communicating and coordinating with a team benefit from a scenario to provide context and practice making decisions. This domain can overlap and include several of the domains mentioned earlier, such as interpersonal skills, research, and trade-offs.

Looking for more?

Note that this list of domains isn’t intended to be a complete list, but a starting point to show a variety of ways scenario-based learning can be used.

Check out When to Use Branching Scenarios and 40+ other posts on scenarios and storytelling.

Scenario-Based Learning Experiences Podcast Interview

Jacqueline Hutchinson of The Lounge podcast and I had a lovely conversation on scenario-based learning. She had some great questions about how to use scenarios and storytelling in learning experiences that led to a really fun chat. We talked about some “horror stories” and scenarios gone wrong, using scenarios to make compliance training not sleep-inducing, and options besides branching scenarios for incorporating storytelling.

Listen to our conversation on scenario-based learning on her site or follow the links to listen on other platforms. The episode is about 45 minutes long.

As a side note, since Jac and I are both tea drinkers, I mentioned that I was drinking an iced lemon basil oolong from my local tea shop while we recorded.

What we talked about

  • What is a scenario
  • When are scenarios useful
  • Branching scenarios versus simple one question scenarios
  • Getting started with a simple scenario
  • Process for designing a scenario
  • How to determine when to use a scenario
  • Working with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts)
  • How long does it take to design different scenarios
  • Manage the complexity of the scenario

If you’re looking for more, check out my other posts on storytelling and scenarios.

Podcast interview on scenario-based learning experiences

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash