Why Talent Development Pros are the Best Storytellers

Jake Comic

Stories give audiences the upper hand when it comes to remembering your message. The dilemma is not that we don’t believe this, but that talent development professionals generally don’t know how to compose stories for training and communications. Story Design is the answer to this problem.

You, the TD pro

In the comic above, Jake, who is struggling to build a tricycle, represents your learner. The instructions, a step-by-step method of assembling the tricycle, represent the list of performance objectives (I call it an action list) you want your learners to be able to do after they’ve taken your training. It’s not working out so great for Jake. Somehow, the training has fallen short.

You have a specific audience, like Jake, that needs to take action on a specific set of objectives, like building a tricycle. Who is that audience and what are those actions? Instructional designers and consultants are great at getting answers to both of these questions. And that’s good, because without them, there is no character, there is no action, there is no story. Here’s what I mean:

Stories for learning have two main components: relatable characters + strong conflict.

Let’s look at both of these components of a story and what you’re already doing to make writing the story easier.

Relatable characters

Jake represents the learner

Characters in a story must give your audience reason to care. As a designer of training, you are already collecting information to create an audience profile…or you should be. The makers of the tricycle probably didn’t do a very good job figuring out who Jake was. Ask some questions of your audience, or someone who knows your audience well. Questions that reveal their:

  • Values
  • Current circumstances
  • Reactions to surroundings
  • Fears
  • Challenges
  • Favorite things to do in their spare time

Answers to these questions begin to reveal possible characters. For example, if my audience:

  • Values quality work
  • Works for a company entering a new international market
  • Enjoys stability, not variety
  • Fears losing their job to overseas
  • Struggles to adapt to change
  • Likes to hang out with their families, play baseball and go to church in their spare time

Characters start coming to mind. Perhaps a proud foreman who is embarrassed that he doesn’t understand a new process. A perfectionist operator whose quality scores are suffering because she’s challenged by a new way of doing things. The more information you have about the audience, the easier it will be to create relatable characters.

Strong conflict

If you haven’t been collecting information about who your audience is (please start doing that), it is doubtful that you have neglected the second story component: the action list.

Action list
The tricycle instructions represent the action list

What is it that stakeholders want the audience to do? Likely, you’re doing a lot better job than the tricycle company. You’ve conducted extensive interviews to find out if training is the answer. You’ve met with subject matter experts and created a detailed list of actions that must be performed to reach the goals of making a business impact. As you compose the action list:

  • Use strong, positive action verbs (Avoid Avoid…)
  • Put the actions in a logical order, such as an outline
  • Ask questions of stakeholders that unearth real stories that are happening in the workplace

You’re already do all of this, right? What you may not have realized is that you’ve just outlined the conflict for your story.

You, the storyteller

Let’s put all of this together. Below are the two components of the story. Do you see how they relate to the components of instructional design? Relatable characters come from your audience profile. The strong conflict comes from your action list.


If I were to write a story premise about the comic above and apply it to what I’d like you to do after reading this post, I’d say it was a story about a tricycle company who struggled to know who their audience was and had a hard time writing instructions in a way that their customers could make sense of their product’s assembly.

Do you see the story here? It’s a metaphor. You’re the tricycle company! And here’s what I’d like you to do:

  1. Know your audience and you’ll know who your relatable characters should be
  2. Know what you want them to do and put the characters in direct, strong conflict with those actions

If you’d like to master Story Design, sign up for a master class series at needastory.com.



THE UNEXPECTED Chapter Four Graphic

“Okay.” Jess was still laughing. “What was the surprise?”

“So Susan–she’s the compliance attorney–is going through her list of compliance topics, right? Everything is boring and fine, and then she asks me if I can make the course engaging!”

“Really? That’s great! I knew I liked her!” Jess looked at him, prompting him to go on. “What did she mean by that?”

“That’s exactly what I asked her!”

“And what did she say?”

“I’ll tell you…I’ll tell you her words exactly. She said…I’m not kidding…this is what she said…” Damien lowered his voice, “I love a good story.” He leaned back in his chair, “That’s what she said…’I love a good story’…that’s it!”

Jess looked past Damien in a far-off look kind of way. “Yeah,” she said.

Damien could see his actress friend imagining a staged production of compliance-on-Broadway. He wasn’t having it and tried to bring her back to reality. “Isn’t that crazy?” asked Damien, looking for a little bit of empathy.

“You know, I think she’s on to something,” said Jess.

“Come on!” said Damien, “You’re siding with the lawyer?”

“Listen, I tell stories all the time when I’m facilitating training.”

“Yeah, but that’s with sales people in a classroom! We’re talking about eLearning for thousands of employees!”

“So?” she challenged him.

“So, it’s a huge difference!”

“How is it different?” She went on, “I tell success stories, I tell stories about sales people who make missteps, we do role play…you could do something like that in eLearning, right? Maybe not role play per se, but what about writing some scenarios?”

Damien didn’t like the direction of the conversation, but Jess made some sense. “Okay, maybe I could see where scenarios would be helpful…maybe.”

“Look, it’s not that complex,” she said. “You have some fictitious employees in some sort of an ethical dilemma. Right?”

“Okay,” Damien relented. “You’re the actor. Any tips?”

“Well…why don’t you find out what’s really happening out there and build a scenario based on that? Did the compliance lawyer give you some examples?”

“No, but…yeah, I guess I could ask her about that.”

“Damien…” she stopped. She looked serious. Jess took a pen out of her purse and scribbled on a napkin. She slapped the napkin face down on the table in front of Damien. “This is your mission. I want a report next week.” She got up and joined a group of friends near the bar.

Damien chuckled. “Always the actor,” he said as he turned the napkin over. There was Jess’s dramatic flourish and his mission:

“Write a story they’ll love.”

Master the art of storytelling from analysis to delivery with Story Design.


THE UNEXPECTED Chapter Three Graphic

That evening, Damien met some of his college friends at the Question Mark Grill. Jess, a theatre major turned corporate trainer, and the one responsible for introducing him to talent development, was there.

“Hey Damien! How’s the job?”

“Full of surprises lately,” he said.

“How so?” asked Jess.

“Well, I had a meeting with a corporate attorney a few days ago and something she said is bugging me. She wants compliance training.”

“And that’s bugging you? Come on, compliance is a blast!” she teased.

Damien shook his head. “This should have been an easy project. Just a bunch of boring policies that people need to know about. Awareness stuff, you know.”

“Hm,” she said thoughtfully. “Awareness…I don’t know. Wouldn’t you put awareness into the same category as marketing…or communications? Is that really the realm of training?”


Jess ate a chip, then continued,

“Think about it. What should you actually do if you are aware of something? Shouldn’t you focus on that?”

“Focus on what?” Damien was confused.

“Focus on the action. Like theatre. When you read the policy…what are you supposed to do with it? It’s like reading a script and just…you know, you can’t just read it. You’ve got to act!”

“That’s what Susan said.”


“The lawyer. She said that too.”

“She talked about theatre? I like this lady!”

“No, she said it was important for employees to know what to do with the policies.”

“Did she give you some examples?”

“I didn’t ask.”

“Well, what do the polices say? You read them, right?”


“What do they say you’re supposed to do?”

“Have you read a corporate policy lately? They don’t tell you to do anything. They tell you not to do things.”

“Good point,” she said, but she was still thinking. “But what if during one of my sales training classes, all I did was teach sales people what not to do. How is that going to help them?”

“That’s an interesting way to put it.” Damien thought a minute. “But compliance is different.”

“How?” she asked. “If you aren’t training people to do something, how can you call it training?

“Yeah,” he had to admit she was right, “But seriously, the policies are basically a list of ‘do nots’. To your point, they are full of…what would you call it?…non-performance?”

Jess laughed, “I can just see the looks I’d get if I started my class with: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, let’s review the non-learning objectives before we get started.'”

Damien smiled. “Anyway, that wasn’t the surprise.”

Master the art of storytelling from analysis to delivery with Story Design.



THE UNEXPECTED Chapter Two Graphic

Damien mentally went through the topics Susan had just outlined: Confidentiality of Information, cybersecurity, conflicts of interest…engaging? It could mean a dozen different things. Visually appealing? Professional voice over? Drag and drops? Puzzles? Games? He was pretty sure she didn’t know much about instructional design, so he was curious: “What do you mean by…um, engagement?”

“It’s important that employees know what to do with all of these policies and regulations, so I want it to be as engaging…” She searched for the right word, “I want it to be as practical…as possible.” Now, she really had his attention. He’d never heard a corporate attorney say anything close to that before.

“Okay…and what does engaging look like to you?” he asked.

Susan perched her chin on her hand and looked up toward the corner of the ceiling. Damien leaned forward and waited. Her brow was furrowed. Then, a small smile. She almost spoke but instead picked up her pen and scribbled something on the page in front of her and handed it to Damien.

“I’m not a training professional, but that’s what engages me.” Damien looked at the paper and read her note out loud: “I love a good story?” It came out as a question.

“Tell me a story and you’ve got me!” She smiled. Damien smiled back. He wasn’t sure what to say to that. Susan stood. “Thanks for stopping by, Damien. And let me know if I can clarify any of the points.”

“Sure,” he replied. There was a lot he wanted to clarify, but before he could think, he was already on the way out the door. “What happened to checking boxes?” he thought, “I’m not a novelist…”

“Thank you,” he said over his shoulder, “I’ll be in touch.”

Damien spent the next two days wrapping up another project. Now, he had the list of Compliance topics on his desk. Susan’s hand-written note at the bottom of the page seemed to both taunt and challenge him. “A good story,” he muttered to himself, “…about Compliance?” No, he could not imagine it.

Master the art of storytelling from analysis to delivery with Story Design.


THE UNEXPECTED Chapter One Graphic

Damien sat, staring at a page on his desk. It was a list of about eight topics that needed to be covered in an eLearning course for the Corporate Compliance Department. Normally, this kind of course would have been a no-brainer for Damien: unexciting and easy to design. Earlier that week, his boss asked him to meet with a director in Compliance regarding the course.

“Easy assignment,” his boss assured him. “It’s Compliance. They just need to check their boxes. You’ll crank this one out in three weeks.”

The meeting with the director, Susan, was straightforward. Yes, they needed to cover certain topics to fulfill requirements and it needed to be rolled out to all employees within three months. They wanted an eLearning course loaded to the LMS. No biggie. Susan was an attorney and used some legalese he didn’t quite follow but he got the gist. She talked through a list of topics on a page in front of her. He took notes and started formulating a design for the course in his mind. His boss was right. This was going to be a lot of content: policies, regulations, that sort of thing. He was thinking of how to organize the content visually, perhaps syncing audio to graphics. That’s when she asked him the question.  “Do you think you could make all of this legal stuff…engaging?”

Master the art of storytelling from analysis to delivery with Story Design.

Engaging Stories

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 11.24.30 AM

I’ve shown The Girl Effect video to several audiences. The reaction is always emotional. Though the goal of this video is not necessarily instruction, it is a masterpiece of storytelling. Relatable character. Strong conflict. And it is directly linked to the action it’s audience should take.

After you view the video, post your observations in the comments below. What was your response emotionally? Who is the relatable character? Why is she relatable? What is the conflict? What action is the audience supposed to take?

Watch the video again with an eye for detail. What makes this video so engaging? Take note of elements of the video that are surprising, mysterious and build curiosity. It builds credibility and breaks down an enormous problem into a small possible solution. It fits into the category of communication and marketing, but we can learn from this.

Building a Case For Stories In Learning

Story Stakeholders

The value of storytelling for training may be difficult to quantify, but if stakeholders or management balk at story design, it’s necessary for instructional designers and other learning professionals to be able to defend the position of story design with evidence. So let’s work together to gather that evidence.

Here are two articles to get the conversation started:

Why You Need To Use Storytelling For Learning, by Connie Malamud

Why Is Story Telling So Powerful In Learning, And How Can You Learn The Skills, The Training and Development World

Post your thoughts on these articles and add links to other research you’ve done or personal experiences you’ve had that build the case for stories in learning in the comments below.

Story Design Master Class Series


Join ATD Dallas and Rance Greene for Story Design, an engaging, online Master Class Series. In this 3-session workshop, you are equipped with the tools to discover, design and deliver stories for training and communications. In-session practice and short assignments strengthen your skills to create relatable characters in strong conflict and move your audience to action. All three sessions (May 8, 11, 15) are only $195.

Story Design Poster

The Ideal Solution

Attend this free webinar on March 23, 11-12 (CT). Register here.

How can you be sure that your solution is the aligned with the business outcome? What is the business outcome?  Furthermore, what is the root problem that is preventing the business outcome from being achieved?

There is a way to find out. When stakeholders come to you requesting training, like the characters in this video, use the PRIMED framework to ask questions that will reveal the business outcome and the root problem.


For instance, when a stakeholder requests customer service training, avoid asking a question that focuses on the assumed solution, “What kind of training do you want?” Rather, ask something like, “What first brought this need to your attention?” (Initial Indicator) Help the stakeholder think about the why behind the training. “Can you tell me a story that’s happening in the call center that illustrates the need for training?” (Real Stories), or “Is there anything in the workplace that could be distracting them from giving good customer service?” (Distractions)

As you listen to their answers, look for a measurable business outcome (customer satisfaction scores, increase in sales) and the root problem (staff is so overwhelmed by paperwork that they can’t focus on giving good customer service, sales people lack business acumen). Once these are identified, take the information the stakeholder gives you and use your KSA filter to determine the ideal solution.

KSA Filter.png

If the root problem is a work environment or process issue (like staff being so overwhelmed by paperwork that they cannot deliver quality customer service), then the solution is to fix the process (repair broken systems, streamline processes, eliminate inefficiencies). Training is not the solution for these root problems. If, however, the issue lies on the right side of the filter, then the stakeholder who is asking for training is correct…training can affect the problem.

It’s important to identify what kind of training solution is needed: Knowledge, Skills or Attitudes, or a combination of these three.

Can the learner perform the desired behavior successfully if they are given a little guidance? If so, it’s probably a KNOWLEDGE solution. Often a job aid or visual guide accompanying the training will help learners change their behaviors without too much trouble.

Is it reasonable to think that learners can perform the required action without practice? If not, you’re dealing with a SKILL. Your training solution needs to include practice doing the skills learners are expected to do on the job.

Are learners asking “Why do we need to change the way we are doing this? The other way was easier!” Do they feel like their performance has no impact on the entire process? This is an ATTITUDE solution, which should explain the importance of the new actions they are being asked to do, the benefits to the learner, and an understanding of how they fit into the bigger picture.

Pump your stakeholder for answers that reveal the business outcome and root problem. Use your KSA filter. Offer them a solution that will actually work!

Making Stories Real Through Audio


Knowing that stories are a rock solid strategy for learning is not enough. Writing terrific stories with relateable characters in conflict is not enough either. Those stories have to be transformed into tangible delivery vehicles. In other words, the story has to actually reach the learner. Video and animation often come to mind as development options. But there is another tool that is more accessible and easier to edit: audio.

Audio relies on voice-over talent, sound effects and music.There are audio editing tools available that are fairly easy to master, including Audacity, which is a free (and robust) audio editing tool. When I was asked to speak at ATD Dallas’ Technology Special Interest Group about creating audio tracks, I decided to do an experiment.

I wrote a script for a short 25 second story followed by a 35 second monologue. During the session, I cast the characters from the participants in the session, coached them, recorded them and edited the audio on the spot. I added musical underscore and exported the audio as an MP3. All in less than an hour. We had time to talk about equipment and some other tricks of the audio trade as well. I ended the session with a discussion on what we could do with that MP3. How do we get this story to learner? I got some great responses:

  • Publish as a podcast
  • Pair with animated characters
  • Upload the audio to Captivate and play it across slides with related content
  • Play the audio as is for a live or virtual audience

As an example, I created the short PowerPoint above that matched the content of the audio. Simple visuals that are synced to the audio. So if you’ve decided to make story the centerpiece of your training, or even a small part of it, consider audio and its endless possibilities.

Design and Learn