Instructional Story Design: An Introduction

WHAT is an instructional story? We’ve all sat through sessions intended to convince us that we need to use stories in our learning programs. They try to teach us how to develop a story, wrap training in a story, or how to tell the story effectively. All of these methods for bringing stories into your training program work…except when they don’t.

Wrapping your training in a story, telling a story, and using conversation between characters is SOOO much better than hoping learners will sit through (or click through) a bunch of dry content. But what if the story is a distraction? What if a black and white annotated diagram is more effective than a story?

Is It Effective?

Ruth Clark’s 4th edition of e-Learning and the Science of Instruction co-authored with Richard E. Mayer suggests that the simple diagram is in fact more effective than turning it into a step-by-step eLearning course.

In one finding, the results of people learning from a step-by-step eLearning module or a story-entrenched game, both were equally effective but the game took longer. While the study didn’t ask the participants how much they liked one option over the other, I’m sure all the extra resources put into the game might have been justified if the study showed that people liked the game more and were more likely to participate.

In an overview of three types of cognitive load, Clark discusses extraneous load, which is the worst kind of cognitive load in learning. It’s the kind of cognitive load that becomes a distraction to learning. While stories absolutely do aid the learning process, a good story in the wrong context can render otherwise effective training as cognitive overload.

Patti Shank, columnist for ATD’s Science of Learning Blog, does a great job of summarizing cognitive load here.

To some extent, even people outside of the corporate training profession are subconsciously aware of the potential pitfalls for using stories in training. They find themselves pushing back on the use of stories without really knowing why.

To fight back against this subconscious pushback, we need a process that helps us incorporate story that is effective and not a distraction.

Is There a Process?

Ray Jimenez, PhD, of Vignettes Learning has a great process. It saves a lot of development time too. After one workshop with Mr. Jimenez you’ll be creating amazing stories that instantly draw in your audience and inspire them to learn. His process focuses on the must-learn topics and shows you how to embed real-world “artifacts,” references, and evaluation into the story.

Stories are effective in learning because our brains are designed to receive stories. Instructional stories use the elements of story to provide instruction in a way that appeals best to how we learn. Mr. Jimenez’s hyper story design, as he calls it, comes closer to a process for doing this than I’ve ever seen. With his process, you can target specific learning objectives for hyper-stories that make instant emotional connections and inspire people to “finish” the story by learning the content.

I highly recommend Vignette Learning workshops to everyone who is trying to develop more engaging training, especially for eLearning developers.

Is There Something More?

Prior to meeting Ray, I had been looking for a way to design more engaging training programs. I followed trends in the community and attended sessions on how story is better for learning and how to use them in training. I felt something important was missing.

As an instructional designer and technical writer in the online advertising industry, I learned about the effective use of “transmedia storytelling” for advertising. I saw this trend emerge later in the training and development arena.

I’ve always been fascinated with change management and the idea that effective training results in behavior modification, which is its own mini case for change management. I saw how an effective course could fall flat when the time came to maintain success over the long haul.

I saw that a lot of people were miserable in their jobs, good training or bad. I worked with companies where executive ego overshadowed the amazing accomplishments of their staff. I found that getting out of my cubical and talking to people taught me more in six months than what I learned on my own in the previous six years.

Instructional Story Design

What eventually came together for me over more than a dozen years of finding a way to make a difference was a process—an instructional story design process. Gleaning the best of everything I learned over the years, I’ve developed a process that defines more than training. It takes the formal structure of instructional design and uses the power of story to bring everyone together.

Instructional Story Design is an instructional design process that analyzes the training need along the contour of a story. It offers a process for finding and developing characters. It exposes gaps and establishes connections that create a strong network of support. It oozes throughout an organization and keeps everyone on track over the long haul. It engages people at work and shows its effectiveness in story-laden reports.

The power of story comes with the power to move people and change the world right from where they are at work.

Details Please?

I have officially charted the instructional story design process and have started authoring the first-ever book on the topic. Until then, follow this blog to learn more about the process.

Our first series involves applying transmedia storytelling techniques. I call it “instructional storytelling.” In this series we look at a variety of everyday technologies and offer ideas for using it to tell small segments of your instructional story throughout different phases of the instructional initiative. This is the “oozing through the organization” component of instructional story that I mentioned earlier in this article.

The series kicks off next week with an introduction to instructional storytelling and the first application suggestion for telling the story.

Until then, accept my challenge to tell your six-word story about experiences in workplace learning.

Need a Workshop?

Can’t wait for the book? Contact us about bringing our Instructional Story Design workshop to your team. We can also help you with your next training initiative.

Reach us at: achieve@ + this website’s address


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