Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Visual Storytelling: Lessons from Slide:ology

By Shelley A. Gable

In a recent post on this blog, I provided A Formula for Storytelling in eLearning. This post focuses on telling a story through a better use of visuals.

I tend to be a very text-oriented person. When an article offers a graphic to illustrate a concept, I'll glance at the graphic but focus on the text.

However, I also understand that a graphic is a preferred focal point for many people. So with that in mind, I try to illustrate concepts, relationships, processes, etc. within eLearning projects whenever possible. But for me, representing these things visually requires a concerted effort.

That said, when a colleague recommended the book Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte as a source of visual design ideas, I was quick to check it out.

And I'm glad I did.

First of all, Duarte practices what she preaches. The book is a package of eye candy that inspires and informs. In just flipping through its glossy pages, I spotted several slide examples with ideas I went on to borrow for my own projects.

But amid the dazzling images is practical design principles and good advice. Here are my top four learnings from the book...

  1. Diagrams. There is a diagram out there for just about any type of message you need to convey. Enclosed clusters, influence, inner workings...whatever it is, chapter 3 of the book has a diagram type to illustrate it. I've dipped into a few of these since getting my hands on the book.

  2. People proximity. Chapter 6 touches on the concept of space proximity in design, and a page is dedicated specifically to the placement of people on a slide. For example, if you have two people on a slide, the one closer to the edge of the slide may be perceived as weaker than the one closer to the center. The page offers potential interpretations for seven different people arrangements.

  3. Whitespace is critical. I think that this is one of those things that most of us know, but that many of us often forget. Also addressed in chapter 6, Duarte offers some factors to consider when trying to figure out how to declutter a slide.

  4. Visual storytelling. I confess, I stole this clever label from the book. Duarte talks about visual storytelling in the book's introduction, and then she does it throughout the book. Every major principle in the book is demonstrated through simple illustrations and case studies. You can get the basic gist of the book's major principles just by paging through the images.

Admittedly, many of these are not earth-shattering ideas. My graphic designer friends would probably tell me that these ideas are as basic as they get. But for someone like me, the basics are exactly what I need.

I should probably clarify that this book is about presentations (not eLearning specifically), and it assumes that they'll be delivered by a person. That said, there is advice in the book that wouldn't be as productive for eLearning, and might not even be cost-effective in some situations. For instance...

  1. For the sake of being realistic, most of the case study slides in the book are beyond what I would produce. I lack the technical expertise (and let's admit it - time) to produce the stunning images showcased in the book. For certain profile projects, I would need to work with a graphic designer to produce images like that; most typical projects sprout from a simpler template.

  2. A recurring theme throughout the book is minimalism. This makes perfect sense if your slide is a backdrop for an in-person presentation. While the minimalist principle may be useful for certain effects within eLearning, it seems to me like we should generally put more content on a slide than what's typically demonstrated in the book.

In raving about how this book helped inspire visual design in my eLearning, I realize that I should be sharing my own newly developed masterpieces. Unfortunately, I don't have any that I can share (the downside of working with proprietary content and non-disclosure agreements!).

But I'm guessing that some of you reading this already employ these design principles. So if you have something you can share, please leave a comment with a brief explanation and a link. Maybe your good work will inspire visual storytelling in others!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Formula for Storytelling in eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

One of the things I love about instructional design is that it engages me both analytically and creatively.

The up-front analysis and the evaluation components allow me to flex my analytical muscles. The challenge of applying evidence-based practices to a defined set of performance requirements prompts me to stretch creatively.

Speaking of creativity, it seems that one of the hot topics in the field is storytelling. The field generally views storytelling as an effective way to engage learners (who doesn't like a good story?), present content in context, and increase learning retention.

How can we use stories in eLearning?
Here are a few ideas that come to my mind...

  • Capture interest, build excitement, or gain buy-in. A while back, I designed training for a new product after it went through a year of testing. The training included a story about a customer whose life was improved by the product.

  • Illustrate a concept. Last year, I was involved in developing training for work-at-home employees. The training included a story about an employee who went from working in an office to working the same job from home. The story followed the employee through a typical day, so future work-at-home employees could clearly imagine their job at home (including routine job tasks, perks of working at home, challenges of working at home, and how to overcome those challenges).

  • Relay tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge, unlike facts or procedures, is a type of knowledge that is often difficult to explain. When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who would often answer student questions about consulting with a story. It was a very effective way to share knowledge that was intuitive for him and may have been challenging to clearly explain in a more generic way.

  • Serve as the foundation for problem-centered or discovery learning. When a client asked our team to develop a sales skills enhancement course, we opted to base the training on the methods of the most successful sales person in the department. We included her stories to demonstrate key skills, and we used her stories as the foundation for a few problem-centered lessons. It worked like a charm.
What makes a good story?
The anatomy of a good story is the same, regardless of whether you're writing short stories for entertainment or training purposes. According to most sources, the basic elements a story should include are:
  1. Setting
  2. Characters
  3. Event
  4. Development (actions and consequences)
  5. Climax (lesson learned or problem solved)
  6. Ending

For a very short example of this formula in action, revisit the Pointing to the Five Moments of Learning Need post on this blog, which starts with a story that captures interest and illustrates a concept.

So what's your story?
If you use stories in training another way, please share! Or, if you have an example of how you used a story in training, we'd love to hear that too.