Sticky Stories: 4 Narrative Elements To Use in Your eLearning

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Mrs. Madsen-Leibold, my Afrikaans language teacher, called the class to her table. With interest piqued, we watched as she spilled her pencil bag onto her desk. She was about to demonstrate the ancient practice of Indian Code Sticks, a long-forgotten (and completely fabricated by my teacher, I’m sure) technique to warn allies of how many enemies were approaching.

She carefully placed her stationery in a pattern: we had to guess what number it represented. How many foes lay waiting? We couldn’t. A few more numbers followed – each presented as a different stationery configuration.

We tried our best to find the pattern in each new arrangement. Insert lightbulb moment – unfortunately not mine. My classmate figured it out and correctly named each subsequent number pattern.

I was stumped. My teacher asked the bright spark to decipher the code for us. It was a Homer Simpson palm-to-forehead moment.

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via Giphy

We were expecting the pens and highlighters to reveal the truth. But, that’s not where we had to look to find the answer.

After arranging her pencil pattern, Mrs. Madsen-Leibold placed her hands neatly on the table clearly showing us the number she wanted us to see with her fingers.

The lesson? Sometimes the answer is hiding in plain sight. You just need to know where to look. She made learning stick by telling us a story. She got us invested in the Indian Code Sticks tale before we even knew the lesson she was trying to teach.

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Power of Narrative

Humans are natural storytellers – from cave paintings to TikTok videos, we use stories to understand, make sense of, and share our experiences.

Our teachers know the power of story, well some of the memorable ones do, so why not leverage this basic need to enhance eLearning too? Before I tell you how, let’s get into the why by exploring the 3 superpowers of narrative.

1. Creates emotional connection and engagement

Whether you’re talking about Bambi’s mom or Mufasa, masterful storytelling is all about emotional investment. The same rule applies to your learners.

Think about the last movie that made you cry, why did you care so deeply for a fictional character (or animal)? Storytelling invests your learners emotionally. When you are emotionally invested, you are more likely to be engaged with and care about the content you are consuming.

If you can weave narrative into your learning in a way that invites the learner into a relatable world where they can laugh, feel, and be surprised (everyone likes surprises, right?), then you’re one giant leap closer to making learning stick.

2. Facilitates retention

We cannot negate the role memory plays in learning – just look at me, Mrs. Madsen-Leibold, and the Indian Code Sticks.

Yes, the internalization of knowledge is what we really want, and rote learning is not an admirable goal to strive for in any learning design, but to some degree, we rely on our learner’s ability to retain knowledge while constructing our learning journeys. And storytelling helps. A lot.

Do you think a bulleted list will be easier to recall than an interesting story with peaks and valleys?

3. Creates context

Without a why, your learners will simply go through the motions and are unlikely to retain any knowledge. That’s a lose-lose – you’ve wasted their time and your own.

Ask yourself: Why is it important for your learner to take this course and what is the return they’ll get on their time investment? That’s the story you need to tell.

Every effective learning journey needs a carefully crafted why to make learning stick. Read more about that here. Using narrative is an easy way to express the why in so many words and guide your learners to find it for themselves. Tell the story that switches on the light for your learner: “Ah, I get why this matters to me.”

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Stories engage us, they make us sit up and pay attention. That’s the ultimate goal for a teacher and should be for an Instructional Designer too. You want your learners to care about the content you are teaching, you want them to engage with the subject matter and most importantly, retain that knowledge so that it can be applied to a novel, future problem or challenge.

Why then do so many of the courses we create fail to make use of storytelling and narrative? It is such a simple and easy-to-incorporate tool.

Don’t believe me? Well, here are four really simple techniques (with examples from the Curious Lion production team) that you can include in your next course.

Technique 1 – Weave a narrative thread

Let’s take a pyramid approach by examining the most arduous technique first – a linear narrative throughline woven into your course.

This technique requires careful consideration and planning. Is there a way that you can thread each module and lesson together like story beads to form a coherent narrative that’s easy to understand and supports the learning material instead of confusing it?

If the answer is no, that’s fine. Move on to the next technique. Don’t try to make fetch happen if it just isn’t happening.

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via Giphy

Real-life example:

I am creating a series of courses for a well-known sports academy. I’ve written about this client before, so if you’re a repeat reader, this might not be new information. The learners are teenagers – amateur athletes aged 12 to 19 aspiring towards sporting greatness.

I mention this because, to my previous point, I don’t know if this solution would have worked were the audience professional adult athletes – knowing your audience is imperative.

The topic is Nutrition. The course starts off with a coach congratulating the student-athlete on being selected to take part in a fictional competition series. This is a great opportunity for the athlete and a great honor for the academy. The academy decides to enroll the learners into a nutrition coaching program to help them prepare for each round in the competition. The program has been developed by and is delivered by an elite team of international coaches. A great opportunity to tell multiple stories.

The course transforms into an immersive coaching program and is no longer a course at all. Learners are transported to a contextually relatable yet fictional world where they encounter various challenges mirroring common student-athlete experiences. Expert coaches provide guidance, teaching new skills and strategies for each new challenge.

The course ends with…

Just joking, I can’t give away all my ideas that easily!

Practical tips for implementation:

  1. Understand your audience and the return on investment they are expecting from the course. Think of a story you can tell to motivate them, one they can relate to, or one that will encourage them to read every sentence on the page.
  2. Plan your narrative learning journey just like you do your course map. Take just as much time and care during this process as you do for the latter.
  3. Keep it simple, but not too simple. It’s a balance between creating a compelling narrative and keeping it simple enough to understand.
  4. Keep it relevant. Choose your context and characters thoughtfully. For athletes, it’s coaches, sports, and competition.  What or who will your audience be able to understand and get behind?
  5. If you can’t make it fit, it shouldn’t be there. If you find yourself forcing the narrative into lessons that don’t make sense in the context of your story – scrap it. Don’t be precious, it either works to support the content or it doesn’t.
  6. Commit! If narrative is what you’re selling, it should be baked in throughout each module. Mentioning the story at the top of each module and then forgetting about it is not going to cut it. Each activity and scenario should somehow relate to and support the narrative.
  7. Seek expert advice. Involve your SME in crafting the tale. They will know more about the stories that resonate with your learners and the narrative they may buy into.

But whatever you do, don’t half-bake the potato. If you don’t have the time or resources to spend on crafting a well-thought-out and intentional narrative that will drive the content forward, don’t.

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Łukasz Rawa / Unsplash

Technique 2 – Use a storyteller

All courses deliver content, but who is delivering it? A wise Morgan Freeman baritone, an inquisitive David Attenborough, or an eager adventurer like Dora the Explorer? From whose perspective are you writing and how are you addressing the audience?

Your character doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting either. Because you’ve created a fictional (but contextually relevant) character, they could have experienced or witnessed absolutely anything. Your stories and examples can be weird and wonderful and deliver the exact message you intend for them to deliver.

Real-life example:

I recently created a course on flash drive safety. Yawn! Who even uses flash drives anymore? I chose a character to guide learners through the course, Dave from IT. A quirky character you’d have to be a monster to hate. He laughs at himself, addresses stereotypes related to IT guys in a humorous way, tells really dry jokes, and makes nerdy references to the IT Crowd and World of Warcraft.

By using Dave to deliver the course, I created a very specific voice and mood and carrying that through became effortless. It was easy to spot and rewrite moments where Dave had left the page.

Practical tips for implementation:

  1. Choose your storyteller wisely, plucking a whimsical character from the sky won’t sell your content. Your guide should be a plausible and credible one.
  2. Create a voice for your storyteller. Who are they? How do they speak, what phrases do they use and what references would they typically quote? If it helps (it does for me) create a rich backstory, a colorful personal life that can spill onto the page.
  3. Choose human qualities. Make your storyteller real, relatable, and likable. They don’t have to be pushovers but choose qualities you know your learner will respect.

Think about that teacher you couldn’t stand at school, the one that picked on you, and made you feel small. Would you take an online course if this teacher presented it?

Now think about your favorite teachers at school. Did you enjoy their classes because the subject matter was interesting or did you enjoy the subject matter because of how your teacher presented it? Would you take an online course if this teacher presented it?

There’s no reason why we can’t mimic this relationship in our eLearning courses too! Give your learners a Mrs. Madsen-Leibold who can deliver the content in an engaging way.

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National Cancer Institute / Unsplash (not the real Mrs. Madsen-Leibold)

Technique 3 – Show don’t tell

Nobody likes heaps of theory with no practical applications.

Your course should always be a minefield of examples, strategically placed to blow the mind of your learner. Arrive at the ‘how does this apply to me’ bit as soon as possible.

Real-life example:

To demonstrate how we use this technique at Curious Lion, I’ll show you an example instead of telling you about it. Watch this video we created to see how Steve Jobs weaved narrative into the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and forever changed an industry.

Examples can be hypothetical or made up, but the most hard-hitting are real-life examples and case studies, like the one you just watched.

Practical tips for implementation:

  1. Choose stories and examples that your learner can relate to. Stories that inspire the learner to take action or change their behavior. Mimic reality so that learners can take what they have learned and apply it immediately.
  2. Choose human stories. People connect with people, and we love to back the underdog. You don’t always have to tell the winner’s story – tell the story of the unlikely hero, or the hero’s fall from grace like my colleagues did in this brilliant video.
  3. Tell stories for a reason. Don’t waste everyone’s time by concocting an elaborate tale to deliver an irrelevant piece of information. Reserve your stories for content that you want your learner to retain and that actually fits.

Don’t squeeze in a story where there is no story to tell. If you have 10 stories in one lesson, it won’t be impactful and the learner probably won’t remember a single one. Pick and choose only the most relevant, memorable stories and examples that really pack a learning punch.

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Johann Walter Bantz / Unsplash

Technique 4 – Use scenarios

You’ve delivered the content, you’ve given the learner examples, and told meaningful stories to make the content stick. Now allow the learner to take action, drop them into the field, and ask them to apply their new knowledge to a real problem or challenge. Do this by telling a story.

Scenarios are great for applying knowledge in a lower-stakes environment. Ask your learners to try out what they have learned by responding to a plausible scenario they may face sometime in the future. Perhaps even attach a current or future project challenge to the scenario.

Real-life example:

My Curious Lion colleagues created an 8-sprint development program designed to orientate Delivery Executives (DEs) to their new role. They used podcast-styled interviews to showcase the experience of various DEs. Learners got the chance to hear real-life examples of how their peers dealt with complex issues and how they overcame difficult hurdles.

Listening to these scenarios, shared by colleagues in the same role, provided valuable insights. Learners can now remember these examples as helpful references if they face similar situations in the future. These were no longer theories, but real human stories. In their workbook, they were faced with similar scenarios to unpack and decide on an appropriate action, applying the skills, tools, and behaviors they had gained from the course.

Practical tips for implementation:

  1. Add scenarios mindfully. They should make sense in the larger narrative context, they should be contextually relevant and provide a real opportunity to apply knowledge.
  2. Don’t insult your learners’ intelligence. Your scenarios should be difficult, don’t try to trick your learners, but give them options to carefully consider. Don’t you hate it when the answer is blatantly obvious? Would you a) set your laptop on fire, b) quit or c) inform the IT department about a potential malware infection?
  3. Give meaningful feedback. An incorrect answer should provide the learner with just as much learning as a correct answer. Tell the learners why they got it wrong, what the consequences would be in this scenario, and why they should consider a different approach. Simply saying “Nope, try again!” is a missed learning opportunity.

When I enrolled in a Padi Open Water Diver course, I had to study heaps of theory and pass a test before dipping a single toe into the water. I learned about currents, underwater navigation, decompression, and diving safety.

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Bobbi Wu / Unsplash

Passing the theoretical test was just the first component of my training. You can’t dive into the deep blue sea without first practicing the life-saving skills you learned about in a lower-stakes environment.

By using scenarios, you’re taking your learners into the pool to practice their skills before unleashing them into the ocean.

Tell your story

Stories are the missing link, they connect us, engage us, and open us up to learning in a more profound way than any storyless content ever could.

I struggled to stay focused during class and lectures in my schooling years, and I still struggle with staying engaged in meetings now – even reading a book loses my attention on a regular basis. What keeps my interest piqued and truly makes learning stick for me is stories!

We use stories as a conduit for learning because it doesn’t feel like learning. So, remember the stories and the examples I shared when you craft your next narrative learning journey or choose the Mrs. Madsen-Leibold to deliver your content. Lean on the power of story to teach, engage, and deliver the most memorable learning experiences.

The End.

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