Storytelling in an Elearning World

Storytelling in an Elearning World: How to Turn an Elearning Course Into a Great Story

Want to know how to boost elearning engagement by adding storytelling to your design process?

Storytelling is contagious, and if you can add it to your elearning, I guarantee you’ll enjoy your work a bit more and heighten engagement a few percentage points.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that stories don’t write themselves once your content is online.

If you aren’t going to settle for old, limp, and boring course content, the truth is,… you’ll need to get your hands dirty.

But, believe me, it’s worth it.

So, if you want to do the work to improve your elearning, I’m happy to share a secret technique with you.

“The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”
― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

From Outsider to Story Hero

Now, as you know, elearning design requires lots of collaboration. In my opinion, more than most software projects.

And, if you’re a consultant — just like me — you’re on the outside looking in.

So, naturally, you’ll be genuinely bewildered.

I used to stress about that.

But, you know what?

I’ve learned organizations are just as bewildered.

Why? Simply because, the juicy and meaningful stories are buried deep inside their culture,…namely,…their subject matter expert’s head.

So, you have the opportunity to be the brave knight who will enter the cave, face the dragon, and return with those stories.

Simply put: If you want story-based elearning you’ve got to be strategic, focused, and fearless!

The Hero Closes The Story Gap

After the performance consulting stage, you should see the big picture—a list of situations or behaviors. As long as it’s fresh and contextual, it should be good enough.

But, the big picture — 50,000 foot view — is intimidating.

And it gets especially nerve racking for stakeholders with insane deadlines.

So, you’ve got to act fast, but not let artificial momentum get ahead of engagement and meaning. For example: corporate goverance requirements may be a milestone, but, they may not really move the project forward.

Anyways. You need to close the gap from pie-in-the-sky stuff to an experience that flows and is intrinsically compelling.

Pour The Foundation

How does it work?

You take your 50,000 foot view (what you know) and restate it under five succinct headings. (I use the one-heading-per-slide mentality to stay focused as I pitch.)

Then, meet with your stakeholders to discuss each heading one by one.

The headings will feel somewhat redundant. But, you know what? It’s better to be redundant than to have a weak narrative.

What follows is the “Five Heading Strategy” to lay a storytelling foundation and, bring elearning to life.

Heading #1 Vision

In one or two sentences sum up the context of the experience. But, include the fact there’s a character (or characters) and they’ll experience certain events.

Heading #2 Events / Situations / Scenarios

In one sentence, add more context to what kinds of events are happening and why they’re happening.

Heading #3 Central Premise

In two or three sentences, try to capture the essential meaning of the story. Focus on an intrinsic reason behind your character(s) journey. Describe their transformation, if only internally.

Heading #4 Plot

From the The Seven Basic Plots, pick either “Rebirth” or “Voyage and Return”, and attempt to make your plot sound similar within your context.

Rebirth – During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person.

Voyage and Return – The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with experience.

Heading #5 Backstory

In two short paragraphs, add more detail about the setting, the character(s), and the exaggerated — but contextual — journey that is about to unfold.

Here’s a fill-in-the-blank to get you started with your backstory:

Set in [setting], [briefly contextualize the setting], the story follows a [protagonist/adjective noun] [doing something] [aiming to OR struggling to achieve some purpose].

[Protagonist name and title], [brief protagonist description], will become the hero that [desired outcome]

For example:

Set in a XYZ Store, looking to improve its monthly sales quota, the story follows a new team lead managing a small group of associates struggling to work together.

Julie, a new team lead at a XYZ retail store, cautious and mild-mannered, would become the hero that would turn an unmotivated team around.


Going through the five headings is a big step, doesn’t take long, and, in my opinion, accomplishes one important thing:

Everybody is getting ideas about story elements.

That’s one of the great things about a “story meeting”. Everybody will come up with ideas to make the elearning better.

You should all be leaving excited and seeing the same story unfold in your minds.

Oh, I almost forgot…

There’s a sixth heading.

Stay tuned.

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