Category Archives: Stories and Learning

Visual Storytelling Is More Than Pretty Slides

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You have a message that you want your audience to take action on. A new direction for your organization, a change in processes, a new way of doing things. Leaders, facilitators, sales people, instructional designers, presenters of all kinds face the same challenge.

Your audience may passively hear what you say and choose to ignore the call to action. They may walk away wondering what you were talking about. Or they may be on the edge of their seat, soaking in every word and leave the experience convinced that they can and will make a change. The way you communicate your ideas will make the difference.

Visual storytelling illustrates for your audience what they can do to implement your ideas. It makes your message crystal clear and leaves less room for misinterpretation. And in a world of content overload, there is still a differentiator that will stop people in their tracks: a good story.

You may use PowerPoint, Articulate Storyline, Prezi or flip charts, but visual storytelling is a set of principles that transcends an application or authoring tool. Let’s take a quick look at the four principles.

Visual storytelling starts and ends with action.

Discover the Action

Your message is for a specific audience. Spend some time describing who that audience is and what you are asking them to do. Likely, you already have a load of great content. You want to get that content out of bullet point format and display the action. What exactly are you asking the audience to do? Write it down. If you have a new direction for your company, what should employees do to implement that change? If a process is changing, what are the new steps you are asking them to take? No action, no story. No story, no action. It begins with you identifying the action you want your audience to take and ends with them taking action on your message.

Storyboard–it’s not that difficult.

Storyboarding is not a mystery. Simply take the key characters and actions from the discovery phase and place them in the first column in a table. In the second table, describe how those key elements may be repStoryboardresented, especially the action. For instance, if I ask leaders to promote a culture of coaching and mentorship by setting up a bi-weekly meeting with each of their direct reports, what are the key elements of that action? The leader, their staff and scheduling a bi-weekly meeting. How will each of these elements be represented visually? List each separately and describe how you would represent each one. How do those key elements interact with one another? In this case, The leader is sending something to the employee. As a result, a new relationship between the leader and the employee is being formed. Can you visualize what that might look like on a screen as you deliver your message? Write that down too.

Build objects–an achievable skill

Now you have a storyboard with all of the key elements andBuild Objects their relationships to one another. It’s time to build those visuals. If you are a graphic artist, no problem. For the rest of us, there’s PowerPoint. Using shapes, one can create simple flat design objects (like the ones that appear in this article) that successfully represent the key elements in the story. Look at your second column. Is the action to send an email? What would that look like? Hint: go to a search engine and type “send email icon” and peruse the images for inspiration. I don’t recommend using the image in your presentation, but you can definitely copy it, insert it into PowerPoint and use it as a template for your own creation.

Tell your story–it’s your content…supercharged

Before, your audience was reading bullet points and only halfway listening to you. Now you have the objects that can take the place of all the text on your slide so your audience can listen intently to your story while it is being reinforced visually. Speaking of which, let’s talk about the story. It’s fine to simply describe a new way of doing things using objects, but you can take it to the next level by telling a story that places relatable Tell Your Storycharacters into strong conflict. Let’s take the example from above. If you are asking leaders to schedule a bi-weekly meeting with their employees for coaching purposes, you may want to use a case study of a manager who didn’t coach her employees or introduce a fictitious story of a manager who failed to schedule the bi-weekly meeting and the negative results of that action. Following the story, you may ask the audience what the manager could have done differently. If well-told, the story will solicit responses that align with the actions you will be asking them to take throughout the presentation, which will motivate and stir your audience to make the change, because you will have mastered the steps of visual storytelling.

The steps are simple, and you can do it. It requires practice to master. You can receive deliberate practice and immediate feedback from me by registering for an online Visual Storytelling master class. You will be presenting ideas for a long time. You won’t regret the investment. Hope to see you there!


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


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

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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.

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.

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.

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:

StoryLearning 02

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:

StoryLearning 03

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.