Tag: character development

Writing Conversations for eLearning

In the previous post, How to Start Creating Conversation-Driven eLearning, I described how I use conversations between two characters to deliver eLearning content. In this post, I’ll explain how to write and structure the conversation. My next post will discuss options for multimedia with conversation-driven elearning.

Writing Conversations for eLearning

Learner Challenge

In the introduction of the story, show how the learner is facing a challenge. That problem is one that can be addressed through your training. Maybe your character has been dealing with an angry customer, students that are disengaged in class, or a project that is behind schedule. Your character needs new skills: how to respond to customer objections, how to motivate students, or how to get a slipping project back on track. This character is facing a moment of need. If your audience faces a similar challenge, they can immediately see that this training is relevant because they want to solve this problem too. Your character seeks help from a mentor.

In my conversation-driven coaching and mentoring course, the main character, Michael, is a newly promoted manager. He struggles to coach one of his employees on how to handle a difficult client.  You can see the moment of need, and hopefully learners can identify with the struggle. (Email readers, if no video appears below, try watching it on YouTube.)

If you want to see the rest of this course, you can purchase it from Cine Learning Productions, who graciously granted permission for me to use this video.

Don’t Make the Learner Dumb

One temptation with this style is making the learning character an empty vessel with no prior experience or knowledge. The mentor explains something, and the learner simply nods along, basking in the superior knowledge. If you do that, you might as well write it with a single traditional narrator. Instead, treat your learning character (and your learners) as adults with prior knowledge and experience. Let your character figure some things out and make intelligent guesses.

Mentor Questions

Just like a good teacher or trainer, the mentor character can ask questions of the learner character to draw out information. The answers can be wrong sometimes, just like in real life, but they should be reasonable guesses that your audience might make. Asking and answering questions also helps with the next point.

Don’t Talk Too Long

Don’t let your mentor lecture for multiple paragraphs at a time. Neither person should have a monologue. Listen to conversations where someone is explaining something. The person learning interjects regularly with questions or affirmations of understanding. Add dialogue to show your learner is actively listening to the mentor. Have the learner reflect back what they heard from the mentor and connect it to something they already know or share an example.

Skepticism is Good

Does your audience automatically buy into everything you’re training on the first try? Maybe, but often they are skeptical or resist. Let your learner character be a little skeptical too. The character can voice some of the objections your learners might have, allowing the mentor to address those objections. Over the course of the training, your learner character will become less skeptical. You may be able to get skeptical audience members to feel less resistant as they see the change in the character.

Here’s an example from a conversation between two doctors discussing the treatment of addiction.

Tom: How many of our patients do you think have problems with alcohol or drugs? It can’t be that large of a number.

Deborah: I’ve seen estimates that the lifetime prevalence of alcohol use disorders is about 30 percent of the total population.

Tom: Thirty percent?!? That can’t be right.

Deborah: It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? I couldn’t believe it either. That includes both abuse and dependence though.

Tom: I never would have guessed it was so high.

[A little later in the conversation, after a few more statistics on the impact of addition]

Tom: Wow, I didn’t realize what a significant issue this is. I must treat patients all the time who are dealing with addiction without even knowing it.

Deborah: That’s probably true.

Tom: But is this really something we should be dealing with as primary care physicians? Aren’t counselors and specialists really better equipped to handle these issues?

Deborah: We should refer patients to specialists when they need extra help. We need to address it here first though. We’re still the people our patients see the most. It’s even more important that we do so now with the Affordable Care Act.

Tom: Why does that matter?

What Else Do You Need?

I’ve heard from several readers already that this technique is one they can apply to their projects. If you’re thinking about trying this strategy, what else do you need to get started? Ask your questions or tell me what else you want to know in the comments.

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How to Start Creating Conversation-Driven eLearning

Several studies have found learners can remember information in a narrative format better than bullet points (for example, Glonek & King, as cited in Kapp, 2014). One strategy for creating a narrative is delivering content with two narrators having a conversation rather than the traditional approach of a single narrator lecturing. Instead of one voice acting as an instructor, this approach lets learners listen in on two characters who are talking about it.

Conversation-Driven eLearning

Advantages

  • Less tiring to listen to: Let’s face it: Voice over, even good voice over, can be tiring to listen to for long periods of time. It’s more engaging to listen to the back and forth of two voices. Think about morning radio shows. Most shows have two or three people talking rather than one. If it is one person talking, they usually have interviews or guests to break up the monotony of a single voice.
  • Easier to write conversationally: You probably already know that a conversational tone is better for elearning. It can be challenging to write a single narrator delivering content in a conversational style though. On the other hand, if you write dialog, you’ll naturally stay away from bullet point lists.

Who are your characters?

One Mentor, One Learner

In a two-narrator course, one character is the mentor, and one is the learner. You need some difference in the knowledge and experience level between the characters in order to drive the conversation. You’re still doing some instruction, after all, just in a different format.

This strategy is used in television and film to deliver content. NCIS, for example, always has one character on the team who is new to the agency. That allows the script writers to deliver expository information in dialog between an experienced agent and a new one. The same approach is used when a more technical forensics expert or coroner explains something to a less technical agent. Watch any crime procedural and you’ll see this technique in use.

Reflect Typical Learners

The job or role of the learners should be similar to your learners. Who is your audience? What experience and background do they have? What are their concerns? What obstacles to they face? Who is a typical learner? Your less experienced character should reflect your typical learner. At the beginning of the course, your character lacks the same knowledge and skills as your audience. This helps learners identify with the character. During the course, your character follows a similar path as the one you want your audience to take. The learners are on a parallel path, shadowing your character as he or she learns.

Mentor as Manager or Leader

Who are the mentors for your audience? In their jobs, who do they learn from? Is it a manager or a more experienced person in the same role? Figure out who would explain this information if it happened as part of on-the-job training. That’s the role for your mentor character.

Gender and Diversity

Unless your audience is overwhelmingly male or female, generally one character should be male and one female. That makes it easier to distinguish the voices, plus it provides equal gender representation. If you create multiple courses or modules with this technique, aim for 50% of the modules showing a female mentor or manager.

Be aware of racial, ethnic, and other characteristics of diversity as well. Representing people of color in leadership roles can help challenge stereotypes.

Example

For an example of a conversation-driven course with two characters, check out my post on a Story-Based Coaching and Mentoring Course.

Coming Next

In the next post, I’ll provide more details on how to build the conversation and multimedia.

References

Kapp, K. (2014, December 24). Abstract of a Study Related to Storytelling. [Blog post.] Retrieved from http://karlkapp.com/abstracts-of-study-related-to-storytelling/

Consider 4 Cs in Scenario-Based Learning

When I create scenarios for learning, I keep these four elements in mind: characters, context, challenge, and consequences.

Characters

4 Cs of Scenarios: Characters, Context, Challenge, and Consequences

The main character of your scenario who drives the action should generally be someone similar to your learners. Even if the main character isn’t named and the scenario is in second person (What do you do next?), the role of that character should be familiar to your learners. Give your main character a goal that aligns to the learning objectives and that your learners share.

The other people your main character interacts with should be typical and mostly realistic, with perhaps a little exaggeration. If you’re doing customer service training, think about the different types of customers employees interact with. If you’re creating manager training, the other characters might be employees and coworkers.

Context

The context is the background for the situation. This is often implied by the training, especially if the scenario is part of a larger course. The context isn’t just shared with words. When you add a photo background for a scenario, you show learners the context rather than telling them. Your learners’ work environment should match this context. It’s easier to transfer learning to a similar situation than one that’s radically different.

A hospital room on the left; comfy chairs in a corporate lobby on the right
These two backgrounds provide very different contexts for scenarios.

Challenge

Your characters face challenges in the scenario. Those are the points where learners have to make a decision or take an action. The challenges are where the learning happens. Think about the frequent obstacles: faulty technology, impatient customers, or a limited budget. Common mistakes are good challenges to include. If sales associates often forget to provide a recommendation at a specific point in the sales process, include that point in the scenario. Give learners a choice to make a recommendation or not. You might also include challenges that happen less often but are critical to address correctly. Sales associates won’t often have to deal with a customer so angry that they threaten violence, but it’s important to know how to handle that volatile situation.

Consequences

Especially in branching scenarios, the feedback should be part of the scenario rather than something you just tell them. A customer gets angry, a patient refuses to follow your recommendations, the technology continues to malfunction, or you run out of budget two months before your project is finished. Show learners the consequences of their mistakes rather than just telling them. You might also provide coaching or instructional feedback, especially for novice learners, but don’t neglect the consequences of their actions.

While this isn’t a complete list of everything you need for scenarios, these are elements I see people omit or downplay. Which of these four elements do you find most challenging to incorporate into your scenarios?

More Reading

Interested in reading more? Check out all my posts on storytelling and scenarios.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants who have shared their ideas before us. My list of the 4Cs overlaps with concepts in Michael Allen’s CCAF (Context, Challenge, Activity, Feedback) model. I do prefer Consequences to Feedback, as designers too often assume feedback is only verbal (although Allen explains otherwise in his great books). While I didn’t have Tom Kuhlmann’s 2009 post in mind when I wrote this, I came across it again recently. I’m sure I did read this many years ago when it was first written, and I suspect his “Challenge-Choice-Consequence” model was somewhere in my subconscious as well.

This is post number 1000 on my blog! Thanks for reading!

What’s Your Character’s Goal?

In Protagonists Should Be Like Your Learners, I mentioned some critical elements to creating a scenario for learning:

  • Protagonist or main character
  • That character’s goal
  • The challenges that character faces

The main character’s goal is what drives the scenario. All of the action and decisions in the scenario move you closer or further from that goal.

Begin with the End in Mind

This might seem counter-intuitive; we usually start writing at the beginning of a story. It’s more natural to start writing with “Once upon a time…” than “…happily every after.”

For learning scenarios, this is exactly what we need though. How will your scenario end? What do you want the character to do at the end of your story? How will it conclude?

It might help to think of the conclusion of your story in relation to your learning objectives. What do your learners need to be able to do at the end of the training? What skills do they need to demonstrate? What does successful performance look like? Successful performance is the goal or conclusion of the story. In a branching scenario, meeting that goal is one of several endings to the story.

Learning Objectives to Character Goals

As an example, say one objective is for learners to “Provide reasonable accommodations for employees when requested, following company procedures and meeting legal requirements.” What does that really mean for managers? Think about the business need. A manager’s goal isn’t really to provide the reasonable accommodation for a disability. Their big goal is to help their team be productive and successful. That’s the driving motivation.

Goals May Be Hidden

You might not ever explicitly state that goal. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. It can sound a bit stiff and artificial if they do. Most of the time, people don’t cheerfully voice their goals like the character below.

Smiling manager saying, "Hi! I’m Cindy, a manager with a team of six technical writers and graphic designers. My job is to help them be productive and successful."

Instead of telling your learners the goal directly, try to show that goal through their actions, dialog, and concerns. Cindy, the manager, still has the same motivation and goal here. She wants her team to be productive and successful. She doesn’t say it directly though. Instead of telling you her goal directly, she’s showing you her goal through dialog with a VP. In this case, there’s a more specific goal for a project.

Manager telling director, "We have an aggressive schedule for this next launch. I’m working with the team to make sure everything keeps running smoothly."

You might not even show the goal as clearly as in that dialog. It might only be revealed in the decisions, your characters make. It’s easy to see how a manager who is worried about a deadline might decline to give an employee time for training. However, if that training on assistive technology will help the employee perform better, it would actually help the team.

Scenario decision: Rosa requested a two-day training to learn how to use her new screen reading software effectively. What should Cindy do?

Primary Goals and Secondary Goals

Cindy’s primary goal is helping her team be successful so they can meet their deadline. That goal is still pretty far removed from the learning objective though. I’ll keep that primary motivation in mind while I write her character, but I need her to have a secondary goal that ties to the course. In this case, her secondary goal might be to provide reasonable accommodations for her team so they can keep working effectively. She might have an additional secondary goal of following HR policies so she doesn’t get in trouble. I wouldn’t say that goal directly in the scenario, but the choices she makes (like consulting HR for help) would reflect that goal. In the last example above, delaying Rosa’s training would violate HR policy. The consequences for making that choice would show how she didn’t achieve her goals.

Thinking about your characters goals and motivations makes them more realistic, and it helps keep your scenarios moving forward towards those goals.

Want to Learn More?

If you’re interested in learning more, check out all my posts on storytelling and scenarios.

Image credits

Name Generators for Learning Scenarios

Because I create lots of scenarios and stories for learning, I create lots of characters. Some of these characters are only mentioned for a sentence or two, while others drive the progress in extended narratives. All of those characters have one thing in common: they need names.Name Generators for Learning Scenarios

I usually avoid using generic characters in my stories. Part of the value of scenarios for learning is that they make abstract concepts concrete.

This is OK: “A manager is having trouble with an employee who’s late all the time.”

But this is better: “Tom is a new manager. He’s having trouble with one of his employees, Abbi, who has been late to work 3 times in the last 2 weeks.”

See how much more concrete the situation is in the second example? This isn’t just any manager and employee; this is Tom and Abbi. I added a few more specifics too (Tom isn’t just any manager, he’s a new manager; we know how often Abbi has been late).

The book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath explains why some ideas “stick” and are memorable while others are quickly forgotten. One of the characteristics of “sticky” ideas is that they’re concrete. Giving characters names is the kind of detail that makes those characters and their situation more realistic and memorable.

But how do you come up with character names, especially if you have a large cast of characters?

I use a variety of name generators for my scenarios. Different tools may be better for different situations.

  • Fake Name Generator: This is my go-to site for generating names. It creates an entire profile for you at the click of a button–not just first and last names, but birthday, age, address, job, height and weight, car, and more. You can choose the gender, age range, name set, and country. Choosing the “name set” gives you names from different nationalities, making it easy to create diverse character names. (Bonus tip: If some website requires you to enter a bunch of information and you don’t feel like creating a fake profile yourself, just copy and paste one from here.)
  • The Name Generator: If you need something quick and easy, this has a simple interface. Click Generate Name repeatedly until you find a name you like. The power of this site comes when you expand the options. You can set the minimum and maximum characters for the name, as well as what letter each name should start or begin with. If you want an alliterative name, you can have Mary McCune or Dylan Daugherty.
  • Social Security Administration Names: This site is most helpful if you need popular names from a specific time period. For example, if your character is a new baby, Madison might be a good choice. For a 60-year-old woman, perhaps Donna or Janet would be better. Choose Popular Names by Birth Year and enter a year to see popular names for babies born that year. (h/t to Desiree Pinder, who I learned this tip from.)
  • Behind the Name: This site lets you choose the background or nationality for your names. Some of the choices are perhaps less useful for corporate training scenarios and more useful for role-playing games (fairy or Xalaxxi names, anyone?). You can get some great diverse names here from other nationalities though.
  • Just for fun specialty name generators: There are random name generators for all sorts of topics. Most of these are more for entertainment (or perhaps novel writing), but a quick search online turns up some fun options. You can use the Dickens Name Generator to create that perfect name for your Victorian novel. Perhaps Harry Potter is more your style? Try this one or that one. Maybe you need a pirate name or a futuristic name.

How do you create names for the characters in your scenarios? Do you have a favorite name generator site? Share your suggestions in the comments.