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.


“I Don’t Have Time To Storyboard!”

Storyboard house 1

This guy is really happy with his new home. He hired an architect, who designed it just as he envisioned. Apparently, this dude likes symmetry.

Storyboard house 2

His neighbor is not so happy. The builders just showed up and started building. The builders have a lot of re-work to do.

When a homeowner decides to build, they hire an architect, who designs something according to their wishes. The architect passes that design on to the contractor, who hires subcontractors. The house is built according to design and the homeowner is happy.

Similarly, the stakeholder in a training intervention hires an instructional designer to design a course according to their specifications. The instructional designer passes their design to the developer and the support team to create the course accordingly. The stakeholder is happy and the learning intervention is successful.

Storyboard Compare 2
Thanks to Kevin Thorn of Nuggethead Studioz for the house / course analogy.

What do the architect and the instructional designer have in common? The architect produces a blueprint. Likewise, the instructional designer creates a STORYBOARD!

The storyboard is like a blueprint for course-building. Without it, the stakeholder does not have a clear picture of what the final will look like and the likelihood of changes in the development phase increases.

A storyboard helps the designer spot problems before development begins and decreases the likelihood of an irate stakeholder who is asking you to rebuild their house.

Yet even with all of the benefits of storyboarding, few instructional designers actually do it. “I’m the designer and the developer.” “I don’t really know how.” And, of course, “I don’t have time.”

Storyboarding is a skill–a fairly simple one–that, if mastered, will save you a load of time. And it really doesn’t take that long to create a storyboard. Even if you are a one-person training department, resist the urge to put on your developer hat before the design is complete. It will save you countless hours of needless work.

I’ll share more on storyboarding techniques, but I’d like to hear some of your best practices, or frustrations, with storyboarding. Let me know in the comments!


Define: Micro learning

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Touted as the learning mode for Millennials, micro learning is all the rage. It is often packaged as a series of videos, 3-10 minutes in length, that learners can consume at their discretion. Most companies who produce micro learning bill their products as the solution to the problem that humans, especially young people, have an attention span of 90 seconds.

But don’t be fooled by this limiting view.

Micro learning is learning in short segments. Plain and simple.

It’s a fantastic way of learning and it can take any form: podcast, poster (like the picture above), job aid, live interaction, virtual session, song, jingle, meme, text and, of course, video (see the video for the above poster here and brush up your parallax knowledge–you’ll really learn something–and it’s kind of funny).

Concerning our attention span, if we start seeing a mass exodus of millennials from movie cinemas after the previews, we should start worrying. Otherwise, we should be careful that our design solutions aren’t boring the audience. Rather, our designs should reflect the real needs of our learners and speak to them in a personal way, like we know them. Click here to read more on how to get to know your learners.

Set yourself free from the narrow definitions of micro learning and start using it in wonderfully creative ways that meet your learners’ needs.


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.

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.

High-Flying Constraints: Design Constraints For Learners


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We’ve talked about designing WITHIN constraints, but let’s talk about designing FOR constraints. And I’d like to start with the story behind the above picture. It’s a model plane that my 9-year-old son built. When my wife bought it for him, she thought it was going to be relatively easy to put together. Imagine her surprise when they opened up the box and found these instructions…and strips of raw of balsa wood in the box. Picture 6-10 240 Small

Tiny, almost cryptic, words written by someone who struggled with the English language. Despite the diagram, I couldn’t decipher the steps I needed to take to build the airplane. I recognized some wheels, a propeller, and a cockpit, but not much else in the box resembled a plane. My son, however, studied the instructions, cut the pieces out of balsa wood, cemented the strips together in a frame shaped like a plane and covered the frame with tissue. He used this stuff called “dope” to make the tissue stick to the frame and spritzed the tissue with water; when the water dried, it made the tissue taut and durable. Even more amazing than the fact that he waded through the sea of unclear instructions, is that the plane actually flies!

As designers of learning, clarity is on our minds a lot. Is my language clear? Do the visuals clearly support the content? Does the learner know what to do next? Is the screen cluttered? That’s why it’s important to construct constraints for the learner from the beginning.

In his blog, “Creativity: How Constraints Drive Genius“, David Stuart quotes renowned architect, Frank Gehry: “It’s better to have some problem to work on. I think we turn those constraints into action.”

Matthew May closes his blog, “How Intelligent Constraints Drive Creativity“, with this conclusion: “An intelligent constraint informs creative action by outlining the “sandbox” within which people can play and guides that action not just by pointing out what to pursue but perhaps more importantly what to ignore.” He also outlines a study on constraints you may find interesting.

When Stuart talks of constraints “driving genius” and May concludes that constraints “drive creativity”, they are really talking about critical thinking. And both lead to action. Isn’t that what we are trying to achieve through our design of learning? Performance objectives are actions the learner must be able to do to perform their job well.

Are we making it too easy for learners? What do you think? There’s something to be said for the cryptic instructions inside my son’s model airplane box. He may not end up being an aeronautical engineer, but the critical thinking involved is invaluable.

Here’s some ideas for your next project:

  • Leave some information out so the learner is confronted with what they do not know, and provide ways in which they can figure it out on their own.
  • Add a puzzle element to the learning.
  • Introduce mystery into the course.

Designing for constraints may not be natural for designers of learning, but its adoption may be the very thing our learners need to really soar.

DESIGN within constraints

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 Within Constraints

DESIGN within constraints

This principle–designing within constraints–has two prongs. One for the designer and one for the learner. Let’s start with design.

At The Ohio State University, where I studied choreography, Vera (Vicki) Blaine, the chair of the department, taught the first class in dance composition for all incoming graduate students. It was a tough class. Vicki set such specific perameters around our movement quality and composition that, at first, it seemed unreasonable. I had to work for hours to master the kind of movement quality she was looking for. But it set the creative stage for an incredibly fulfilling education in choreography.

What does this have to do with learning? Everything actually. Vicki Blaine was teaching students how to set constraints for themselves in such a way that forced a creative response. Recently, I attended a workshop with Kevin Thorn (NuggetHead Stuidoz), an amazing artist and designer who landed in the Learning Development field (lucky for us). He gave similar advice concerning constraints. “Design something with only 3 colors. Design a course without audio.” In other words, design within constraints.

But how do you come up with constraints without them seeming contrived? You may not have to look very far to find your constraints. Client only wants you to use PowerPoint for eLearning? Stakeholders want to throw the kitchen sink in along with the rest of their content? Legal won’t budge on modifying language? Management wants to cut down on the time you have to present training? We’ll talk about that in another blog. Suffice it to say that some constraints are out of your control. But even these barriers should be viewed as constraints not hinderances to design, because constraints force a creative response. Beyond the outside constraints or setting your own restrictions on the project, how do you define the constraints from project to project? Ask yourself these questions to narrow down your constraints:

  • What design skills do I want to deepen? Story-telling, authoring tool skills, dialogue, audio editing?
  • Where am I challenged the most in the design process? Developing the script, getting to know the learners, choosing color schemes and fonts, creating visuals,?
  • How can I tailor this experience to fit the specific needs of the learners? Language level, case studies, training environment? 

Need to deepen your story-telling skills? The constraint may be to include an element of story-telling in every subtopic of learning. Challenged most by script development? The constraint may be to present a portion of the script using audio only, such as a podcast, instead of relying on your strengths in visual design to help propel the script development forward. Need to cut out legalese and make the course more readable? The constraint may be to reach a determined Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Constraints force a creative response…for both the design process and for learning. I’ll talk more about constraints for learners in a future blog.

In the mean time, I’d like to hear how you place constraints on your design.

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.

Design Experience Traditional Training 3

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.