What Storytellers Can Teach Instructional Designers

People love to hear stories and think in terms of the traditional beginning, middle, and end structure we all associate with a classic yarn. It’s a reality that many of have suggested putting to good use in a business context, from improving your presentations by making them follow the essential pattern of campfire tales, to perfecting your personal elevator pitch and developing a compelling personal brand. Could storytelling also have something to offer the field of instructional design?That’s what blogger Brent Schlenker pondered recently on his Corporate eLearning Strategies and Development blog. Schlenker has a unique background, starting his career as a producer of TV news, before shifting to become an L&D pro. This unusual combination of professional experience has allowed him to see parallels between two types of work most of us would never think to compare – crafting news stories and crafting learning materials.

Courses as stories

“As an instructional designer I would spend six weeks to six months crafting the story and in broadcast news we would tell many compelling stories every day crafting them a few hours before they were broadcast,’” he writes. “I see very little difference between what ‘we’ do and what other related creative industries do.”

Creating training materials is just another form of storytelling, Schlenker argues. “The storyteller is the puppet master. He manipulates what you see, and what you don’t see. He is defining your experience. He decides ahead of time how you will feel, and what you will believe after experiencing the story. The instructional designer is also the puppet master. He manipulates what you see, and what you don’t see. He is defining your experience,” he writes.

Challenge to designers

But Schlenker acknowledges that very few instructional designers think of themselves this way. “We never talk about telling a great learning story,” he notes. Instead, training pros spend lots of time arguing for or against one learning medium or another – that videos are not instructionally sound, for instance. Instead of focusing narrowly on what media to use, Schlenker seems to be suggesting that instructional designers look to storytelling artists of all types for inspiration, putting as much energy into what they do with their materials as you they put into choosing which ones to work with in the first place:

“People laugh at the idea of comic books as an effective learning medium, but I would argue that instead of looking that comic book itself, the artwork, and the physical format, we should instead be studying the craft of telling a story in the comic form and understanding why it’s compelling to so many. That doesn’t mean we should all go out and start hiring comic artists and creating printed comic books as learning manuals…although the thought is compelling.  I am simply saying that the authors, the puppet masters, of those stories have a unique perspective into the art of engaging readers through the craft of storytelling.  They have something to teach us.

“The same goes for the theater, the opera, the movies, the novel, the song, and the campfire.  Why can’t the elements of instructional design be embedded into a story?  Maybe they are already and we just don’t use the same lexicon to describe the structure.  They say theme, we say objectives.  They say chapters, we say modules.  They say character development, we say scaffolding and laddering. Are the goals of storytellers really THAT different from instructional designers? At the very least instructional designers could certainly only get better at what they did if only they studied and applied some of the techniques used by master storytellers.”

Ideas from unusual sources

This is a lesson Trina Rimmer came to in her own unique way on the Midflash blog last year. Her storytelling inspiration of choice? Seinfeld. By taking a look back at her favorite sitcom, Rimmer, like Schenker, was inspired to think outside the usual, narrow concerns of instructional design, coming to a similar conclusion that training pros need to apply more creativity and thought to working with their tools, and that other artists (or comedians) can provide ideas. “It’s not always easy to think creatively,” Rimmer admits, but take the hilarity Seinfeld created out of nothing as an inspiration, and “next time you’re in a pinch, don’t settle for bullet points, stale templates, or distracting images.”

Do you try and tell a story with your training materials? Should you?

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for Inc.com, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist.
Image via LAGtheNoggin

MoreTraining Lessons from Seinfeld: Embrace Your Creativity.