Story Is Everything: How To Make Workplace eLearning More Engaging With Lessons From Chess And Video Games
Storytelling is just about the first thing humans figured out how to do. I think it was probably somewhere after spears and fire. We needed something to do around the fire, where we filled our bellies with the day’s hunt. It is innate to us as organisms. We go to the grocery store for milk and come back with a story about something mildly odd we saw or the annoying person we met. And we regale our loved ones and friends with full details. We do it without thinking, like breathing or blinking.
Every medium we develop as a species is fundamentally there to tell stories. Writers tell stories, and so do visual artists, photographers, musicians, and dancers. Their toolsets are different, yet at their heart, they’re all telling stories. Even educators.
Which leads me to the premise of this blog post: If we can master the art of storytelling, we can transfer that knowledge to eLearning used in workplace training. The result will be training that is more engaging and more effective for your entire team, with better outcomes including higher information retention, greater employee safety, and deeper technical skill sets.
How Storytelling And Learning Work Together
There are numerous studies into the benefits of storytelling in learning, so I won’t retread their findings too much here. We know that storytelling helps us:
- Cement learning in a real-world context.
- Connect emotionally to content.
- Build strong memories by creating a mental connection between the information we want the learner to absorb and the story we use to teach it.
Childhood educators are well aware of these benefits and have made good use of these strategies for generations. But beyond childhood, stories tend to be dismissed as frivolous, whimsical, or otherwise ill-suited to an adult audience. This strikes me as a great waste because storytelling is innate to us. We all form narratives in our heads as we make sense of the world.
How eLearning Benefits From Stories
This natural tendency to embrace stories expresses itself most clearly in the world of eLearning via scenario design. Here at The Learning Network, we take a situation that a learner could encounter in the real world. We create characters to play the necessary parts. We put faces to names so the situation is relatable and doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Once the scenario is completed and the eLearning activity commences, learners take on the final role in this cast of characters. Ideally, the learner gets placed into the role for which they are training. This makes the learner an active participant in the story, not just a member of the audience. Some training programs place learners in the role of observer. It’s my least favourite approach because it invites learners to serve as observers who pass judgment on the characters in the scenario without investment or personal stakes. Films and novels provide this type of one-way storytelling experience.
eLearning Storytelling Lessons From Role-Playing Games
A better analogy for the most successful eLearning experiences comes from role-playing games (RPGs). At their most basic level, RPGs enable players to assume the role of a character in a fictional setting. Some people argue RPGs are a very specific game genre, but I’d like to propose all games have some type of role-playing element.
Let’s consider chess, for example. It’s among the world’s oldest games, and it continues to thrive in the modern era. Chess emulates ancient warfare and originally served to hone players’ strategic instincts. It wasn’t an especially accurate depiction of warfare, but it could teach prospective leaders about the mindset required to succeed in battle.
Each player in chess takes on the role of a general. They issue orders to their army as they push forward across the battlefield. They take territory and prisoners as they march ever closer to the enemy’s crown city. The story plays out with the same cast of characters, but the choices each player makes form a unique narrative that makes each game fresh and exciting.
Scenarios designed for eLearning place learners in a type of RPG, too. The act of applying game principles to other disciplines is popularly called gamification, but this isn’t new—we’ve always had gamified elements in eLearning. I’m hopeful this recent focus on gamification can create greater harmony across the spectrum of games and stories used to help us learn, grow, and lead.
Storytelling is the unifying force across all types of games and learning applications, in my view. Video games have taught us interesting new storytelling techniques that I think can absolutely be considered and even applied to the eLearning space.
Novel eLearning Approaches Borrowed From Video Games
One of my favorite eLearning techniques taken from video games is to enable learners to use the same character throughout the entire training piece. A great voice performance can breathe life into content that might otherwise be somewhat dry. When that voice has a name and a personality, it does so much to elevate the material. Learners build familiarity and connection with these characters. Learning becomes more than just words on a screen.
Not every topic is well suited for this sort of treatment, of course. A character can change the tone of a piece, and it might not be the right tone for everything.
Yet even with technical training, you can employ storytelling techniques to help cement the content in its own physical reality for the learner. For example, let’s say you’re developing an eLearning course that puts your team through equipment inspection. Treat the photographs used in the training to recreate a first-person point-of-view for the learner. Create an environment that feels as if they are standing in the very scene you’ve photographed.
As your learners move through the course and conduct walk-around inspections of the equipment, use photographs to capture the path they are taking in the physical space around the equipment. Never show your learners anything in an eLearning platform without helping them understand its spatial relationship to the previous image. This is a key principle in film editing, and it’s just as vital for us in the eLearning industry as it is for filmmakers.
The Bottom Line: Build Your eLearning With Stories That Teach
I know what you’re thinking: a person walking around a piece of heavy equipment during an inspection isn’t the most riveting story in the world. But it’s a story, one that many organizations need to tell to build skills, add understanding, and strengthen awareness of safety issues, among other learning objectives.
In fact, everything is a story, as you may recall. And every story deserves to be told with care and consideration for its audience.
A colleague of mine once said, “If you put good things into your brain, then good things will come out of it.” She meant that the work we produce is influenced by the work of others. We have a duty to find the best work and let it influence our eLearning development.
There’s so much you can learn from other mediums and industries, and from their storytellers. There’s so much new ground to explore and things to discover.
You can learn so much on the path to making your organization’s workplace training better.
One day, it will make for a great story.