Category Archives: Design an Experience

Engaging Stories

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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.

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Define: ENGAGE

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ENGAGE: Possibly the most ubiquitous word in marketing, learning and development and training circles. Recently, I was speaking to the Girl Scouts Volunteer Empowerment team in Dallas on the topic of connecting stories to engagement. I wanted to bring more clarity to this often-used term.

After watching The Girl Effect video together, we identified the elements of the story that we felt were “engaging”–and there were many–watch the video for yourself and try doing the same (you’ll be writing for a long time).  Then we compared our descriptions with thesaurus synonyms:

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Suddenly, the word “engage” took on a new, more powerful meaning. It’s all about strong actions now. Grip! Capture! Arrest! So, when we say that training and communications must be engaging, remember what we’re aiming for: a call to strong action!

How Stories Connect To Learning

StoryLearning 04If you read the quotes from What People Say About Stories or you’ve done any amount of research on brain science and learning, it is evident that stories are a powerful tool for learning, but most research materials are still vague about how it works. How can stories be constructed to best connect to learning? It’s actually very simple, but often these story design elements are omitted or weak.

There are two basic elements to a story that connects strongly to learning:

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Characters + Conflict. The elements are simple. And though stories can be complex and daunting to write, with these two elements, a story can be created that supports learning. But do all stories with characters and conflict connect with learning? You may have encountered something like this in a training course: “Carissa wanted to apply for a second job with a company that does business with her company. What should she do?” Carissa has a conflict (in this case, literally, a conflict of interest). Do I care about Carissa? Not really. At this point, Carissa is just a name, not a character. Is the conflict strong? Mm, probably not strong enough to make me want to know more. Let’s take the principle one level deeper:

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Relatable characters & strong conflict that produces a desire in the learner for resolution.

Ah! Relatable characters! Characters I care about! That’s the first step in creating a stronger connection to learning. What if I knew that Carissa was a top-performer in her department and frequently asked for more work? What if I knew that she had some school loans to pay off and could use the extra income? And what if, as in real life, it wasn’t quite so clear cut that the duties she would perform for the second company would be in conflict with her current company? The more I know about her and the more plausible her circumstances are, the more I care about what happens to her.

Conflict. Conflict should be strong enough to make me want to know what happens next. Well-developed characters need strong conflict. Conflict produces the desire for resolution. And that is exactly where the door opens to training. I want resolution. I want to know what Carissa should do. You can teach me what she should do by connecting my desire for resolution to the learning content. This solidifies a strong connection between the story and what I’ve just learned. The stronger the conflict, the stronger the story’s connection to learning.StoryLearningResolution

 

Perhaps, if Carissa’s story stopped right there and asked, “What should Carissa do next?” it would be enough to make me want to know more. But what if the stakes were raised? Carissa applies for and gets the second job and the story reveals that her judgement is compromised because she knows insider information. Suddenly she realizes that she’s made a grave error–one that might cost her job and reputation. With more at risk, and because I have some empathy for Carissa, my desire for resolution is stronger and the connection to story and learning will be long-lasting.

What People Say About Stories

Where learning is concerned, you may be hard pressed to find a better context-builder than stories. The power of stories to increase learning retention are outlined by almost every person who writes on the subject of brain science and learning. Below are a sampling of quotes from 5 authorities on learning/motivating for change.

“We like stories. We learn a lot from stories, and we seem to have a particularly good memory for them. A really well-told story can stick with us for years, even if we’ve only heard it once.”  (Design For How People Learn, Julie Dirksen)

“Stories have been told for thousands of years in order to transfer cultural lore and values. When a great story is told, we lean forward, and our hearts race as the story unfolds.”  (Resonate, Nancy Duarte)

“A story is powerful because it provides the context missing from abstract prose…putting knowledge into a framework that is more lifelike, more true to our day-to-day existence. More like a flight simulator. Being the audience for a story isn’t so passive, after all. inside, we’re getting ready to act.” (Made To Stick, Chip Heath & Dan Heath)

“In context of ethics and values, stories help make abstract issues concrete and accessible, especially when we can sympathize or identify with one of the characters.” (Modeling the Message: Communicating Compliance through Organizational Value and Culture, Scott Killingsworth, Social Science Research Network, Oct 1, 2012)

“The best way to unite an idea with an emotion is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy… If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.” (Storytelling That Moves People, Harvard Business Review, June 1, 2003)

I have yet to meet anyone in the training field who has said, “Stories just don’t work for learning.” Though the evidence is abundant both in the context of learning and in everyday life, that stories are incredibly powerful and effective, it is surprising that they are somewhat underused in training. At least in my interactions with other learning professionals, stories seem to be forgotten or inserted as an afterthought or so watered down that they lose their punch. But why not craft a training experience with story as the centerpiece? More on that to come.

What has been your experience with stories in training, both as a trainer and as someone who takes training? Is there a particularly memorable training experience when the story really worked? Are there aspects of story-telling that are problematic for you when it comes to putting it into practice? Please share your thoughts and comments then check out How Stories Connect To Learning.

Three Design Principles

Design With the Learner In Mind  DESIGN an experience  DESIGN within constraints

If you would like to get a feel for my BIG PICTURE view of design and learning, check out these three basic design principles. Most of the topics discussed in this blog will relate to one of these three principles.

Design an Experience

DESIGN an experience

Now that I know who my learner is, I can begin designing with them in mind. But what am I designing? Instruction? A course? Learning? All of those things, yes, but consider this.

What is it that you want to gain when you approach learning for yourself? An exercise in reading? A knowledge check? Though it may involve reading and knowledge checks, most of us are wanting to simply learn something. So, what needs to happen for us to do that? We need to have an experience with new knowledge that enables us, propels us, convinces us, to change behavior or gain a new skill. How does that happen? Well, I’ll be expounding more upon specific methodology within this blog, but for now, let’s look at it from a bird’s eye view.

How can you approach your course design as a learning experience? Think about the following comparisons between traditional training and a learning experience.

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There is a difference here, however slight, that shifts the designer away from the norm, or traditional, into the realm of excellent design that encompasses the learners’ senses and fully engages them with the content.

To think of training as a learning experience, consider the theatre–the process that takes place to produce a play or a musical. Or, if you are designing eLearning, a movie. Talented individuals, artists and technicians, come together for a common purpose: to give the onlooker an experience that they will feel, relate to, and possibly act upon.

You are the director, bringing together SMEs and stakeholders and studying your audience. It does not mean that you need to entertain your audience (although that certainly may be part of the design), but you do have to move them to action. That will happen profoundly when your design moves away from soley providing information and focuses on emersing the learner in an experience that they will remember…and do.