Caveo Learning

Corporate Strategy and Learning Center

Bring Dry Training to Life with Characters, Conflict, and a Realistic Plot

Posted by Brian Ziemba on April 24, 2018

storytellingTraining content on onboarding information, product knowledge, or processes can be inherently dry and hard to deliver in an engaging manner. But dry or not, this content is important for employees to learn about their workplace, the processes they need to follow, regulations they need to comply with, and changes or initiatives happening throughout the company. It’s up to the training department to deliver this content properly.

However, because this information often does not apply directly to everyday tasks, it’s difficult to train using performance-oriented learning methods. Therefore, before training on informational content, it’s important to consider the learners’ perspective, existing knowledge, and how motivated they are to learn the content.

Once you have that baseline information, there are many strategies available to improve learner engagement, but one of the best is to turn content into a story. Humans are innately drawn to storytelling, and they often pay more attention to characters, situations, and dialogue than they do to paragraphs of informational text. Stories can also be more memorable, which can improve knowledge retention. So, give learners something they'll remember, not just a long information dump of things they should know.

You may have heard the old writers' adage "Show, don't tell." That's a great place to start. Instead of telling the audience everything, show them how the content works in real work scenarios along with the consequences of knowing—or not knowing—that content. For example:

Sarah is excited to start her new role as a project manager this week. She studied for the project manager role for years, and finally has been accepted into a new role at Tech Industries, where she has worked as an analyst for four years. She knows the company inside and out, and feels she will excel in her new role.

Think of a character like Sarah to build your story around. This persona will depend on the type of content you’re presenting. If it's new hire orientation, a new hire will be your character. If it's information on a new regulation, show someone performing the job affected by the regulation. Name your character, give them a real position at the company, and consider what they may or may not know about the information you’re presenting in the training.

Sarah was eager to attend the first meeting for her new implementation project team. The project started a few months ago with a different project manager who has since left the company. Sarah will lead the project through its implementation end date, and she's sure she can ramp up quickly and achieve success with this initiative. She has studied the project goals, its plan has already been created, and there are key team members in place ready for the meeting.

Now that you have a character, think of a realistic situation they might encounter using the information you’re presenting. For instance, is it their first day at the company? Is someone telling them the company's history? Are they about to perform a procedure for the first time and need to know the regulations around it? Do they need to know when a change is about to happen, and how it will affect them?

During Sarah's first team meeting, the lead engineer and the systems analyst kept using terminology about phases and testing that were unfamiliar to her. Sarah knows how to manage projects and she’s done it before, but she realized she needs to learn more about the processes and components in this implementation project cycle. After the meeting, Sarah realized she should have spoken more, that she mostly kept silent while the team talked around her. Sarah needs to find a way to learn more about the project so she can participate fully in the next meeting.

Once you've determined the character’s situation, draw a plot diagram for your story. The story should begin with the character not knowing most or all of your content. Then something happens to trigger their need to know it. The inciting incident is when they first encounter that situation or first experience conflict; show the character in that encounter. Decide whether the conflict is caused by a lack of knowledge or a change in the organization. Does the character mess something up? Are they asked a question they don't know the answer to? Do they read an email notifying them of a change?

Sarah got back to her desk feeling overwhelmed. She needs to figure out how to find and absorb all the knowledge she doesn't have about projects with this team. First, she goes online to the Systems Implementations site on the company intranet. She finds some information she didn't know before, including a process graphic for implementations. She also finds a glossary of terms and reads that. She looks back through her project plan again; now she sees how the plan aligns with the process. She has a clearer vision of the path ahead now, which is great because there's another team meeting tomorrow.

Now that the character has encountered a conflict, the true heart of a good story, you can choose how interactive you make this story. A memorable learning experience will encourage the learner to participate in the story by answering questions like, "What would you do?"

If you don't want to do that, show how the character manages or resolves the conflict to demonstrate the importance of the information. Do they ask for help? Do they read a specific resource to learn more? Do they try again until they figure it out? Do they receive negative feedback from a manager or client for not following the new process? Show the behavior you want your audience to learn, or show the consequences for different approaches.

The next day's meeting went only a little better for Sarah. She was able to talk to the team leads about the project timelines with some confidence, and she recognized several of the acronyms and concepts they tossed out. However, about a third of the way through the meeting, they started a discussion about testing phases using the names of different testers, and Sarah felt lost again. She wasn't sure what she needed to know about this part of the process, but she was determined to figure it out.

At that point, you can decide whether to resolve the conflict, or to continue the story. Does the character obtain the information and make the right decision the first time, or do they need to learn more to continue? Has the story reached a climax, or should more conflict occur so that the character learns more or has to make new decisions? You decide based on how much information you're trying to deliver, and how much time you want the learner to spend reading about it.

After the meeting ended, Sarah quickly approached the systems analyst. "David, can I ask you a question or two really quickly?"

David smiled. "Sure, Sarah, and welcome to the project!"

"Thank you. I'm trying to ramp up and learn everything I can about this project and the team, but I feel like there are some big gaps,” she explained. “Like this testing topic we just went over. Do you have any idea where I can learn more about that, or who I should talk to?"

"I can help you with that, but I have to run into another meeting,” David said. “Send me an invite, and we can spend a little time talking about it this afternoon, okay?"

"Thank you so much,” Sarah said, feeling relieved. “I'll look at your calendar and set something up. Talk to you soon."

Realistic dialogue is key to create an engaging story. Dialogue shows how a conversation might go on the job while demonstrating how the character obtains information from a key resource. Even if the content is dense and technical, someone having a natural conversation where they explain it to the lead character can make the content more interesting to read and easier to absorb.

Dialogue between an expert and a character who needs to learn new information can include visual elements just as if you were in a meeting or classroom using diagrams and examples. But the dialogue should allow the learning character to interrupt, ask questions, or even answer questions along the way. Even presenting information in dialogue, with a character stating it in plain language, can make it more appealing to a learner.

Note, dialogue typically doesn't happen in large paragraphs, which are hard for learners to process; most dialogue is a few sentences at a time. If you break dense content into dialogue and give it context, such as a meaningful story line, it becomes clear to learners why they should want to know and use the information.

After spending an hour asking David questions, Sarah had a much tighter grasp on the key concepts and players for the project. She knew there would be more to learn, but she was ready to go to the next meeting and keep up with the team. Not only that, David pointed out several resources she didn't know about that helped her locate more information about the project.

The next day during the meeting, Sarah was able to keep track of the conversation much better. She knew all the acronyms, roles, and testing steps mentioned, and she was able to ask critical questions to help her manage the project schedule.

A story-focused learning activity doesn't need to be a novel. After all, people enjoy short fiction. Not only can you chunk the information into more digestible bites by using dialogue, consider using an eLearning or VILT learning event based on one short, concept-focused story.

Whatever learning delivery method you choose, follow the story arc: introduction, incident, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution. The object is to enhance learning engagement and knowledge retention. Avoid adding lots of information or details that don’t directly impact or move the story line, and don’t forget to provide links to reference materials or additional courses that provide supplemental information. If the learner grasps the information or lesson from the story, great. If they need more information, help them to find it. When they do, make sure there’s a good story waiting for them.

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Topics: Instructional Design, eLearning, VILT

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