I was manning the Digitec booth at the Society of Pharma and Bio-Tech Trainer’s (SPBT) Conference in Orlando last week and had the opportunity to sit in on an excellent session by Doug Stevenson on Story Theatre. Being a theatre guy, his booth caught my eye, and I ducked into his session. He has a really interesting approach to creating dramatic and memorable learning. While his session was directed more to trainers and stand-up instruction, I think eLearning designers can apply these nine steps to create really effective eLearning.

Doug reinforced, though, that you need to choose a story with one very specific educational point in mind. We’ve all sat in on classroom training, and probably suffered through long-winded stories that didn’t seem to have a point. Doug’s advice is to make sure that your stories have a single focused point. Next, a good story will be personal, and it is set at a moment of crisis. Visualize a crisis you faced in the past, one that illustrates some instructional point. Okay, got a story? Now, follow these steps to make it memorable:

• Set the scene. Establish a sense of place and dig deep for the details to bring that scene to life. Establish the exact time, specifics on the place, the emotion. Now, paint that picture. Use video, audio, whatever, but use details.

• Focus on a main character. The most memorable stories I’ve ever heard were confessional. Think about how powerful it is to confess your own personal blunder. But they don’t have to be personal to be memorable. Your story should focus on a main character facing a crisis.

• Begin the journey. Here, you want to focus on action. What is the main character doing, specifically when the crisis occurs? Action is the heart of drama, so choose a story where the main character is doing something meaningful.

• Encounter the obstacle. This should be the climax of the story. Who does the main character confront? What happens? Doug acted out the scene onstage, which worked really effectively. For eLearning, consider using video with professional onscreen talent to achieve this. I know it’s expensive, but you get what you pay for, and the minute your audience sees Joan from HR trying to act, you’ll lose the suspension of disbelief that a story conveys.

• Overcome the obstacle. While Doug didn’t suggest this, an eLearning technique to achieve this may be to leave the story hanging at that crisis. Then you can introduce your instruction while you’ve got the learner’s attention. Hopefully, you’ve established a sense of urgency and anticipation that will keep them engaged. You can then come back to the crisis to look at how the main character dealt with the obstacle. Here’s where incorporating short video segments into your eLearning will help convey the story more effectively than words.

• Resolve the story. Pretty obvious, here. Remember, use poetic license as necessary to make sure the resolution reinforces your one single point. Lie, whenever necessary. Remember Blanche DuBois’ famous line in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire: “I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.”

• Make the point. Doug describes this as “sticking the landing.” Like a gymnast doing a dismount, make your point, then salute. Don’t ramble or stumble. For eLearning, make sure this point is made clearly. Doug’s suggestion was to even frame the message with: “What that experience taught me was….” This approach ensures clarity of message, and I completely agree.

• Ask the question. Here, you are trying to evoke personal reflection. Has this ever happened to you? The irony is that a story is really memorable when it’s personal and universal. The learner must relate! For eLearning, consider posting the question to a forum. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how strong the responses are, and it creates a great sense of community among the learners, too.

• Restate the point. Pretty obvious. It’s that “rule of three” I learned writing for theatre. If you want the audience to remember something, you need to mention it three times.

So those are the 9 steps. My thanks to Doug Stevenson for this session. While attendance at the conference was disappointingly low, this session made the event worthwhile.

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