We tell stories – that’s what we do. Studies have shown that toddlers understand the demands of storytelling and that 5-year-olds can craft elaborate narratives rife with characters and conflict. Test subjects watching a simple animation of geometric shapes moving on a screen will imbue those shapes with character and motivation. From a campfire in some forest primeval to binging on Netflix we process and understand our world and ourselves through the narratives we tell and consume. All of which are elements that explain how we naturally gravitated toward storytelling as a vital tool in learning.

We often stumble when making the leap from Game of Thrones to software training. It must also be said that a story is not always the best fit in every training event. We should, however, use every appropriate opportunity to engage the end user in a compelling story. So what can we learn from the great story tellers, Hollywood, novels, plays? More than we can go into here, certainly, but let’s take a closer look at three essential nuggets: Structure, Empathy and Imagination.

Structure

By structure I’m not just referring to beginning, middle, and end, though in truth that wouldn’t be a bad place to start. More broadly, I’m referring to our minds’ ability to see patterns and create connections with almost anything. Ever seen a movie and thought it was predictable? There’s a reason for that; all the movies that you’ve seen that are similar have provided you with a basis for comparison, and if you’ve seen many films, you’re likely to predict certain outcomes.

Have you ever heard it said that there are only five stories? Many great thinkers have looked at the grand sweep of storytelling throughout the ages and have come up with as few as three (Foster-Harris’ 1959 assertion of three basic plot patterns: happy ending, unhappy ending, tragedy) and as many as 20 basic stories. The University of Vermont put 1,722 English stories through an analytical computer program and determined six basic story trajectories:

  • Rags to riches (a story that follows a rise in happiness)
  • Tragedy, or riches to rags (one that follows a fall in happiness)
  • Man in a hole (fall-rise)
  • Icarus (rise-fall)
  • Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)
  • Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)

The point here is not to say there are only x amount of stories, as that would be patently false. There are an infinite number of stories, but almost all emerge from these basic structures. If you’ve seen one movie about a hero’s journey, I bet you’ve seen a hundred. And how many times, staring at a blank laptop screen, has your brain generated the depressing thought that every story has already been told?

How can this inform our creation of compelling learning? First of all, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. One of the simplest storytelling structures I can think of is Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner; the basic story is always the same, but there are a million variations within. You provide a familiar scenario, then play with it and delight your audience by inserting unexpected twists, perhaps though the use of conventions such as Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots.

Set the stakes, give them a ring and charge them with throwing it into a volcano to save the world. Along the way challenge them. Don’t waste their precious energy on intuiting the structure. It’s just a conduit toward acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to do their jobs. When done right the structure will maintain interest but remain comforting in its familiarity, making for effortless knowledge acquisition.

Empathy

How many times have you been told to appeal to the learners’ emotions to keep them engaged and enhance retention? I’m betting quite a few. Instead of an abstract emotional appeal it might be more effective to have them connect with a character in the story you’re creating. In movies and books we often identify with characters we empathize with. If you don’t like a book, movie, or game inevitably you aren’t empathizing with the character. Take our friend Wile E. Coyote – a classic antihero. While he seems to be the villain we can’t help but “feel his pain”, as we live in a world that constantly throws obstacles in our way. And talk about an example of persistence!

Imagination

The best stories and the best learning harness our ability to create entire worlds and characters from the most basic information and structure. Our imaginations are what gives us the prized “aha” moment where all the information presented up to that point crystallizes. And if the “aha” is self-generated (you’ve understood all the clues and arrived at the correct conclusion on your own), you’re not likely to forget it. So the trick is to build space in your narrative for the learners’ brains to enrich the story and make the final leap on their own. In our cartoon example, I imagine Wile E. Coyote taking classes in running aided by a rocket, or perhaps scenic painting to trick the eye into thinking there is a tunnel. Perhaps he missed out on the training for the key software that would finally have allowed him to catch that darn Road Runner?

So there you have it: all you have to do is create a super compelling narrative based on universal structure with a relatable character, while allowing learners to enrich the story with their own imagination while simultaneously ticking all the curriculum boxes. So easy even a cartoon coyote could do it.

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