Make Your Stories Relevant

Focus on relevant context and characters for stories to engage learners and get better results, rather than just trying to entertain participants.

Not all stories for learning are successful in engaging learners. Stories that are primarily entertaining without being relevant can waste people’s time and annoy them. It might be entertaining to add a Mission: Impossible or wild west bank robbery theme to your corporate training, but is that the best way to engage your learners? In most cases, I don’t think it’s effective to add something totally unrelated to the content itself. In fact, it can backfire, as some companies have learned.

Tropical island with text overlaid. Make Your Stories Relevant

Is a remote island the best setting?

Let’s take the example of employee onboarding training. You could set up a story about an adventure on a remote island, where you explore different areas of the island to find information about your company. You could have flashy animation and professional voice actors, but this probably isn’t the best setup for a training.

Use relevant context for stories

Not all stories for training are created equal. Relevant context is critical. I think it would be more interesting to show the journey of a new employee in the company. If you create a completely fake context for learning, you might actually reduce the transfer to the job. In general, the more realistic the context for practice, the easier it is to transfer those skills to your real job.

I also hate sending learners the unspoken message that “your job is so boring that the only way we can get you to learn about it is with a silly story about a remote island.” No one intentionally sends that message, of course, but that can be the result.

A little exaggeration is OK

You could exaggerate a bit for humor or drama, depending on the culture, as long as the main plot within the context of the job.  I once saw a great onboarding with intros to the team roles as sort of super versions of themselves. The multimedia developer had super powers of visual design; the project manager could juggle 10 projects at once. It was exaggerated and lighthearted, but it also emphasized the relevant parts of each role. It’s a tricky balance, and it depends a lot on the company culture. Some companies are less open to that kind of playfulness.

Fantasy in games and stories for learning

When does fantasy work in games and stories for learning? Karl Kapp has summarized several studies showing that fantasy can support learning.

With fantasy, feedback is conveyed in a safe environment with specific, but not catastrophic, consequences for failure. The fantasy of dealing with say a zombie means that failure and experimentation are allowed and encouraged. Humans learn from failure more than instant success. The fantasy environment allows for failure and re-engagement with the content again and again which leads to mastery.

We also know that if a simulation provides the same cognitive activities as the real-life situation, the skills are transferable to the actual in-the-field situation.

Karl Kapp, emphasis mine

Note the last sentence above: “the same cognitive activities” need to be used in the fantasy for it to be effective. You may be able to to use a less realistic story IF you use that story to help people practice making the same kinds of decisions they need to make on the job.

My understanding of the research is that it doesn’t fundamentally contradict the idea of making the stories relevant. If your story is just an entertaining wrapper tacked onto training to distract from boring content, then it’s probably not going to work. If you can create a story that provides parallels in practice activities, it’s still cognitively relevant. I think it’s harder to use fantasy well though, so for most workplace training it’s easier to create a realistic, relevant story.

Tips for relevant stories

How do you make your stories relevant?

  • Identifiable Characters: Learners should be able to identify with the characters in the story, especially the protagonist. The main character making decisions should be similar to the learners, both in role and in other characteristics if possible.
  • Obstacles: The obstacles the protagonist faces should be realistic and relevant.
  • Decisions: If there’s a simulation, the decisions learners make should be the kinds of decisions you want them to practice.
  • Distractors: The distractors should be plausible errors, ideally common errors.
  • Consequences: The consequences for decisions should be realistic (if a wrong choice would result in the customer getting angry, show that).

Choose relevance over entertainment

If you’re faced with the choice between an entertaining story that doesn’t directly connect to your learners’ jobs and a relevant story that emphasizes their actual day-to-day work, opt for relevancy. Don’t strand your learners on a remote island.

Originally published 2/9/2016. Last updated 10/1/19.

2 thoughts on “Make Your Stories Relevant

  1. I like this idea about making your stories relevant, characters that your learner will identify with, a better way to help cement the information for the learner, to make those important connections between the data, the storage of the data and the recalling of the date in the workplace setting.

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