I got a call from a prospective client looking to hire an instructional designer.
“Tell me about what you’re looking for,” I said.
“Well, I have a classroom training program I’d like to convert to online. It’s a course on pregnancy discrimination. Our company has added a ton of specifics about this to our employee handbook, so it’s important everyone’s aware of the new policy. We’ve already got the slides built, so it just needs to be converted to an online format. Everything’s all in the text on the slides.”
I suspect this needs a lot more than just converting existing slides, and I’m not convinced that making people aware of the policy is really going to meet his goals. “Hmm…how is that classroom training working for you so far?”
“It’s OK, I guess. We only have two trainers who can deliver it though, and they just can’t train everyone in the company. We’re spending a lot of money on travel for people to come to our main office too. If we can do it online, we can cut those travel costs, and our trainers don’t have to spend so much time on this one course.”
“That sounds like a great motivation for moving this course online. Tell me about the course itself. Is it mostly lecture, or do you have some activities or role plays or anything?”
“It’s pretty much all lecture. We always avoid doing role plays for issues of discrimination to avoid insulting someone. We don’t want people practicing bad behavior, you know? It’s too uncomfortable to pretend you’re discriminating in front of a room full of people.”
“OK, I understand where you’re coming from. How are you measuring the effectiveness of this training?”
“Just a smile sheet.”
“And how have the results been from that evaluation?”
“Fine, but not great. There’s been some grumbling that it’s kind of a boring course, but it’s compliance training–what are you going to do?”
“Actually, there’s several things we could do. Have you ever considered using a scenario-based approach to your e-learning?”
“What do you mean?”
“Instead of having just slides with bullet points and audio explaining the policy, what if we created a story about a woman who is pregnant? We can put learners in situations where they have to make decisions about how to treat her. Rather than pushing the policy information to them all at once, learners can look up the specific information they need depending on where they are in the scenario. That gives them the motivation to find the information, instead of it being forced on them.”
“That sounds interesting. How exactly would that work?”
“Let’s see…have your problems in this area been more with managers or coworkers discriminating?”
“We’ve had a couple of accusations of managers discriminating. Some of it was related to hiring, and some of it was related to making accommodations for employees who either have more physical demands in their job or work with toxic chemicals.”
“What if we had a scenario with a manager with a pregnant employee on the team? We can set it up with points in the story where learners have to help the manager decide what action to take. We’d give them a few choices based on your past incidents or common misunderstandings about the policy. Maybe there’s an issue where managers cut back on someone’s hours trying to be helpful and make it easier for a woman during her pregnancy, but the woman can actually handle the hours fine if she just has a stool to sit on instead of needing to stand all day.”
“That sounds more interesting than what we’re doing in the training now. What happens if they make the wrong choice?”
“Ideally, I prefer to show people the consequences of their actions rather than simply telling them. Which do you think is more memorable–multiple choice feedback saying, ‘Sorry, that’s incorrect. You have violated section 5.3 of the employee handbook,” or ‘Peg from HR knocks on your office door. She wants to discuss why you declined to make an accommodation for Rhonda during her pregnancy’?”
“The second one, definitely. I get that feeling of being called to the principal’s office in school just imagining it.”
“And that emotional reaction is part of what makes this approach work. It draws people into the story so they’re more engaged during the course, plus it sticks with them longer afterwards.”
“OK, I’m starting to understand.”
“Great. Let’s go back to the topic of evaluation. You mentioned earlier that you need your employees to be aware of the policy. Is that really the goal here, or do you really want to reduce the number of complaints and incidents?”
“Well, obviously we want to reduce the complaints. That’s the ultimate goal.”
“Do you have any statistics on how many complaints you’ve had in the past? It would be great to have a concrete business measurement to work towards.”
“I don’t have those numbers, but I’m sure I could get them from HR.”
“That would be terrific. If you get those numbers, we can set a goal for reducing those complaints and really show what difference this training makes.”
“OK, I can do that. What’s our next step?”
“Let’s talk about some more details…”
This is fictionalized, but it gives an idea of how a conversation with a client could go to convince them to use storytelling in their course. Have you been successful in selling storytelling or scenario-based learning? How have you made this an appealing approach?
Originally published November 13, 2013. Last updated August 22, 2019.