Wednesday, June 15, 2011

5 Ways to Tell Stories in eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

We’ve talked about the value of storytelling for conveying tacit knowledge in eLearning and a formula for telling stories.

So once we’ve assembled an instructional story, how can we include it within an eLearning lesson?

Here are a few ideas to explore.

Comic Strip

Who doesn’t enjoy a quick comic strip? They’re a relatively quick read, an effective method for displaying dialog, and visually engaging.

If the rest of an eLearning lesson follows a standard, templated look, using fun images can contribute to the story’s attention-grabbing effect. It also opens the door to a more informal writing style...even a bit humor.

Interactive Timeline

If you’re telling a story from a single perspective (i.e., not including dialog), then a timeline format may be an effective way to communicate a sequence of events and consequences. An interactive timeline (perhaps built with Flash) can also help capture attention with appealing visuals and by offering learners the ability to move the story forward.

Though I’m not able to share stories I’ve set up this way (proprietary content), I recently drew inspiration from the Black History Timeline I found on the site.

Social Media

If a story is short, you might use a text-based narrative to inspire a discussion thread. Depending on the purpose of your story, you might encourage learners to share their own similar stories to personalize your point or analyze the story provided to draw out key content and tacit knowledge.

Audio Narrative

A story is often best told by those who had the experience firsthand or who are especially passionate about its message. With this in mind, an audio narration may be the way to go. Narration conveys expression and emphasis, which can make the message particularly memorable.

If you opt for audio, you’ll also need to decide what visual stimulus to include on the screen. While it’s appropriate to offer an optional transcript, experts seem to agree that including narration that reads verbatim text from a slide can actually be counterproductive for learning.

Instead, consider including an image of the storyteller or images and diagrams that supplement the story. You could also use audio to supplement any of the other suggestions above. Or, if you have the technology available, you might even consider having an animated avatar tell the story (think along the lines of CodeBaby).


Of course, you can potentially take the benefits of audio up a notch by using a video. A video of the storyteller also allows learners to benefit from nonverbal expressions – a human touch they might especially appreciate if completing large amounts of eLearning.

That said, videos don’t have to be limited to showing the storyteller. You could also use the storyteller as a voice over narrator while the video shows related action, such as scenes from the workplace.

How do you tell stories in eLearning?

If you’ve used the techniques above, please share your experience. We’d love to hear what worked well and what drawbacks you encountered. Or, if you’ve conveyed stories in eLearning in other ways, please describe what you did!


  1. Great topic! I'm sure you've heard this one before but I try to have learners play the main character in the story using a branching simulation. It will start with them being faced with a challenge then they will determine how the story unfolds by making choices along the way. Takes more work to be creative and build the choices into the storyline but goes a long way for effectiveness.

  2. Hi Joe! I agree, branching scenarios can be very impactful. And talk about timing - the last couple of weeks, I've been focused on searching for examples of it on the web to get new ideas for best practices, visual design, etc. for branching scenarios. Not only effective for learning, but fun to design, too!

  3. wow! great source of information... it's very helpful.

  4. I agree that an interactive timeline may be useful when telling a story or teaching information from a single perspective, but what happens when the learner fails to keep up with the sequence of events? I'll use your example with the comic strip. Have you ever read a comic book or strip but failed to understand one part of it or something appeared to be missing? When this happens, the reader seems to get stuck on that one section and fails to understand the remaining parts. In order for this type of learning to be successful, the information has to be designed in a way that it is easily interpreted and offers both visual images and text that makes sense to most. Too many people write books or jokes from their point of view instead of writing it from the learner’s perspective. Would you agree?

  5. Hi Andrea! You make great points - I absolutely agree with them. In fact, the learner's perspective is something we need to keep in mind anytime we're relaying instructional information - whether it's in the context of a story, a scenario, or a basic informational slide.

    Your point makes me think of the trap that's easy to slip into when we write training on a subject we're already a SME on. When a process becomes almost intuitive to us, it's easy to miss stating a step or a helpful hint. When feasible, this is where a pilot can really help.


Thank you for your comments.