Storytelling For eLearning

What makes storytelling so effective for eLearning?

We’ve always told stories – think cave paintings, Irish folklore and Greek mythology. Stories have transcended generations and connected us to a world much bigger than ourselves. They’re now embedded into many aspects of our lives, from real life case studies to legends, autobiographies to narratives. Poet and novelist Margaret Atwood argues, “you’re never going to kill storytelling because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it”.

Stories can be told in eLearning through a range of different ways, including scenario-based learning, narratives, case studies and testimonials. Used in the right context, storytelling has the power to create emotional connections between people and ideas. Stories make learning relevant; they make us curious; and they inspire us to act.

Stories make learning relevant

Malcolm Knowles and other learning theorists suggest for adults to feel compelled to learn about something, they must see the relevance of it. We’ve all experienced training sessions that left us puzzled at the end as to how this relates to our everyday jobs. eLearning is no different. The key for integrating effective storytelling into eLearning is to ensure the stories are relevant, relatable and realistic. Regardless of the type of story being used, these stories allow learners to experience similar situations to their job, making the learning feel specific and tailored to them. The emotional connection is created when the learner feels as though it could be them in the story and all of this helps them stay motivated and engaged.

Stories make us curious

The immersive nature of stories keeps us wanting more. This is also what drives us to keep watching the series where all the action is packed into the first and last episodes; we like knowing what happens in the end. In the same way, weaving case studies or narratives throughout a digital learning course can draw the learner in, keeping them curious about the outcome and invested in the story. This can be especially beneficial for courses that contain a lot of complexinformation. For example, a course designed for upskilling senior management on new company wide policies could have a lot of specific and detailed content to cover. Interspersing elements on why the company does certain things the way it does, with stories of success or failure in the organisations past woven throughout will keep learners engaged and curious, while the course is still able to cover the essential theoretical principles of the new policies.

Stories inspire us to act

When we connect emotionally with stories and the messages they share, we feel compelled to take action. This might be a desire to approach difficult conversations or manage conflict in a new way or it might be inspiration to volunteer for a new cause. Thinking about the overall goals of a course can be useful when developing stories: what behaviours, actions or attitudes are you need the learners to change because of the course? Finding or creating stories that compel learners to think differently and change their behaviour will have a larger impact.

When should storytelling be used in eLearning?

Stories can be told in many ways, but different types lend themselves better to different use cases.

  • Scenario-based learning works well when you want learners to be actively involved. An interactive scenario where the learner makes decisions that change the course of how the story unfolds is an excellent way to personalise the learning experience and give autonomy to the learner. This offers the learner real time feedback based on their decisions.
  • Narratives, such as an animation or short story, convey a message to the learner, usually in the form of a moral or key takeaway. These types of stories also lend themselves well to formative assessment.
  • Case studies are particularly useful for an in-depth study of a particular person or event.
  • Testimonials are used to deliver the thoughts and opinions of a particular person, who could be an expert or respected figure in the area.

Particularly in relation to scenario-based learning and narratives, Freytag’s Pyramid outlines five steps for effective stories:

  • Exposition (originally called introduction)
  • Rising action (rise)
  • Climax
  • Falling action (return or fall)
  • Catastrophe, denouement, resolution, or revelation

Applying each of these steps to the scenario or narrative will provide a framework for an engaging story, bound to keep learners interested until the end.

It is important to think about how to pitch the complexity of the story. Stories which are too complex will lose the learner, and ones that are too simple risk missing the key message. A really effective story in an online course is one that is relevant, relatable and realistic.