Tag: writing

What to Write First in Branching Scenarios

Writing a branching scenario can be intimidating or overwhelming. Unlike a linear course, it’s not as easy to know where to start writing. Do you write the endings first? Do you write all the mistakes first? Do you start at the beginning and then flesh out each path as you write those choices?

I have found that it’s easiest to write the ideal path from start to finish first. I note decision points and sometimes draft bad choices along the way, but I don’t fully write anything else until I finish the ideal path.

What to Write First in Branching Scenarios

Writing the Ideal Path from the Outline

In my last post, I explained how I create an outline of the steps in the scenario. This is my plot outline for the story if learners take the “ideal path,” making the best decision at every step. For each step in the outline, create a situation in which the learner must choose to take that action. You create a decision point where the best choice is the first step in your outline.

Write the First Decision

Building on the example from my last post, a course on screening potential consulting clients, I have a process with 4 steps.

  1. Send client initial screening questions.
  2. Review client responses for fit and feasibility.
  3. Learn more about client needs during preliminary phone call.
  4. Propose a short road mapping engagement.

Because I did that planning in advance, I know exactly what I’m writing first: a decision where the right choice is sending the client initial screening questions.

Sophie receives an email from a prospective client, Robert.

Hello Sophie,

My company has 4 classroom training courses we’d like to convert to online. One of them is a half day course; the others range from one day to four days long. Can you please tell me what you would charge to convert these courses to online?

Regards,

Robert

What should Sophie do?

    1. Send Robert a price estimate.
    2. Send Robert some client screening questions.
    3. [[Some other OK choice TBD]]

Write the Remaining Ideal Decisions and Consequences

Once you have the first step written, the next thing you will write is the consequence from making that best decision in step one. In this example, the prospective client will reply to the email.

Robert replies with his answers to the screening questions.

[placeholder–questions and answers here]

What should Sophie do?

  1. These answers look reasonable. Schedule a call to discuss it further.
  2. [[OK choice TBD]]
  3. [[Bad choice TBD]]

Continue writing until you get to the end of the ideal path, showing the consequences for good decisions and how they lead to the next decision.

Don’t Write the Mistakes Yet

When I write my initial draft of the ideal path, I focus just on the correct or best choices first. I don’t write all of the mistakes and their consequences on the first pass through writing. As I draft choices, I might write down some of the bad choices if I already know them. For example, in step one, I know the mistake I’m trying to avoid is the first choice above of sending a price estimate without understanding the problem and scope first. However, at this stage of writing, it’s OK to just leave a placeholder for the other choices.

I find it helpful to indicate what kind of choices I still need in the placeholder. For most scenarios, the majority of decision points have a Good, OK, and Bad choice.  You can see how I noted that in my placeholders as “OK choice TBD” or “Bad choice TBD.”

Write the Ideal Ending and Feedback

At the end of the scenario, after learners have made all the correct decisions, write the ending. This should show the positive consequences of those choices. The ending should show what it looks like when people meet the learning objectives. In this example, the ending will show Sophie and Robert working together with a productive relationship.

You may also choose to include some more instructional feedback or coaching. At the end of the scenario, it can be helpful to tell people why the decisions they made were correct to reinforce what they learned.

Use Twine for Writing

I have tried a number of different tools and methods for writing branching scenarios. The open source tool Twine is my favorite for writing scenario drafts and creating quick prototypes. This makes it easy to see the connections between decision points. It’s also easy to leave placeholders for other choices that you will flesh out later.

More Reading

In my next post, I’ll describe how I write the mistakes and flesh out the rest of the scenario.

You might also be interested in my other posts on branching scenarios.

 

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.

How to Get Started Writing a Branching Scenario for Learning

In a recent conversation, a colleague asked, “Once you and your client have agreed on a branching scenario approach, how do you get started writing it? How do you get from the broad concept of training on X topic to actually creating the scenario?”

The short answer is to “begin with the end in mind.” Let me walk you through the process of analysis and preparation I do before writing a scenario.

Get Started Writing Branching Scenarios

Begin with the End in Mind

At the end of the training, what do you want people to do differently? It’s important to ask what you want learners to DO, not what you want them to KNOW. Cathy Moore has been beating this drum for years. If we’re aiming for behavior change, then we need to focus on what behaviors we want. It’s not enough to simply increase awareness.

Get Specific with Behaviors

Julie Dirksen describes this as the “photo test.” If you took a photo or video of the desired behavior, what would it look like? For example, a client might ask you for training on “quality customer service” or “better communication between nurses and patients.” As part of your analysis, ask what that really means. It’s not enough to just get a list of principles or broad best practices. You need specifics and examples.

“Quality customer service” might mean cashiers asking customers if they found everything they were looking for and calling for someone to get it if they missed something. That’s a specific behavior we can observe and assess.

“Better communication between nurses and patients” might mean asking open-ended questions to learn what concerns are most important to the patient. That’s another behavior we can observe.

Identify Common Mistakes

Ask your SMEs questions about mistakes. In a branching scenario, it’s not enough to know what the right behavior looks like. You need to know the wrong behavior you need to change too.

  • What are the common mistakes people make?
  • Where do people get stuck in this process?

If you have access to learners or people who have recently learned the skill, ask them too. They may have more insight than the SMEs.
The mistakes you identify become the distractors in the questions for your branching scenario. The mistakes and places people get stuck help you determine where to put decision points. If certain parts of the process are fairly clear and unproblematic, you can make those sections of the scenario passive review. That way, you can focus on what you really need to meet your objectives in the scenario.

Identify Consequences of Mistakes

For each mistake you identify, find out the consequences. Ask your SMEs and sources this question.

  • What are the consequences if people make this mistake?

The consequences of those mistakes become the feedback in your scenario. Asking a patient a closed question rather than an open-ended one results in a one-word answer. Forgetting to ask customers if they found everything results in lost sales and less satisfied customers.

Keep Probing for Specific Behaviors

Sometimes SMEs have a hard time switching from talking about abstract principles to describing behaviors. If they answer your questions about mistakes and consequences with broad answers, keep probing for specific examples and behaviors. You may have to ask these questions several different ways to get what you need.

  • Tell me more about that mistake. What do you think is going through people’s heads when they do that?
  • What does it look like when they make this mistake?
  • What does that consequence look like in practice?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Tell me about a time when you saw this happen in a real situation.
  • What happened next?
  • Where do people get confused? What do they do when they’re confused?

Sequence Decision Points

Once you have a list of mistakes, you can list and sequence the decision points. Often, you’ll be following a specific process where it’s clear what needs to happen at each step. In those cases, you outline the process and note where you’ll insert decision points that give learners a chance to make the mistakes you identified.

If you aren’t following an established process, think about a logical flow of events. Sometimes a particular mistake obviously happens at the beginning or end of a process. Look for the set points of the process and flow the rest of the steps around that.

Rough Flowchart

At this stage, I only do a very rough flowchart or outline. I find the flow is sometimes easier to determine by simply sitting down and writing it rather than planning out every branch in advance. However, if you’re just getting started with branching scenarios, you might benefit from planning out in more detail. In the planning process, I often only do the sequence for the main correct path; I fill in the branches later as the scenario develops.

Storyboard or Draft

Once I have a rough flowchart and I know my primary decision points, I start storyboarding or drafting. I check my storyboard against my list of behaviors from the beginning of the analysis. Did I include all the critical decisions and behaviors? Did I include all the common mistakes?

Your Process?

What is your process for preparing before creating a branching scenario? Let me know in the comments.

Do You Need a Villain in a Learning Story?

I recently attended an interesting webinar by Joe Ganci on how to use science fiction to improve eLearning. In the presentation, Joe talked about elements of storytelling common to science fiction and how to incorporate those aspects for better stories in elearning. If you’re attending the Learning Solutions Conference later this month, you can hear this presentation live. (You can attend my presentation on voice over script pitfalls too!)

One of Joe’s points was that great science fiction stories have a compelling villain that allows the heroes to be heroic. The same goes for storytelling for learning. Even if the major conflict is a tight budget or short timeline, Joe argued it’s better to personify that challenge. Provide a manager who explains the budget limitations or a harried customer who needs an project finished quickly.

To some extent, I agree with Joe. Instead of simply an abstract challenge of time or resources, you can humanize it by showing why the budget is tight or how being late will impact a real person. Stories help you make learning more concrete.

Bearded businessman with evil expression

However, I’m not quite convinced that a “villain” is what we need in learning. In the real world, the bad guys and good guys aren’t always so clear cut as in the movies. Real people are rarely motivated by simply being evil. They may be confused, misguided, angry, or disorganized. That doesn’t exactly make them a villain though.

I’m worried that forcing a villain into a story might make it too over-the-top or comical. That can work if that’s what you’re going for, but I think that’s challenging to pull off well in most corporate environments.

Maybe my problem is with the word “villain.” If we call that character an “antagonist” instead, then it works well. The antagonist doesn’t have to be evil like a villain; they just have to create the conflict or challenge that drives the story. I think that’s really what Joe is getting at. The harried manager telling you the budget is tight isn’t really an evil villain, just someone doing their job in a way that creates a challenge for the learners.

What do you think? Is it beneficial to include villains in learning stories? I am ambivalent and looking for your perspectives. Answer the poll and let me know. (Email readers, you may have to click through to the site to respond to the poll.)

If the none of the answers in the poll fit, or you want to explain more, leave a comment and tell me what you think.

 

ID and E-Learning Links (2/19/17)

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

Instructional Design and E-Learning Links