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How clever storytelling boosts learning outcomes in eLearning


Once upon a time, there was a dedicated and highly talented eLearning author, but no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t motivate some of her employees to learn. Time and again, there had been serious cases of eLearning courses not being completed. So she worked day and night, trying to find a new suitable motivational method that she had not yet tried—and suddenly, when she had almost given up, she found the long-awaited magic tool!

Storytelling is not only an effective marketing tool, but also an unbeatable means of conveying learning content more effectively in eLearning—especially in situations where learners find it particularly difficult to stay on task. In this article, you’ll read how you can easily make dry eLearning courses more exciting, and how you can boost learning outcomes with simple storytelling tricks.


Storytelling: The brain-friendly way to communicate

Our brains love stories! It might sound a bit trite at first, but its biological origins lie in our amygdala—the part of the brain that evaluates emotional stimuli. In a way, she is a diva, spoiled by the exciting tales from our evolution about fleeing from the saber-toothed tiger, hunting, pure survival. The stuff of Hollywood. It is directly connected to the hippocampus, which in turn plays a central role in long-term memory formation. So if you want to reach the hippocampus with new knowledge, you first have to convince the amygdala. And what better way to do that than with a new, exciting story, like the ones she is so addicted to? (See what we did there? We gave the amygdala human characteristics and told a little story with it.)

What we’re trying to say here is that stories trigger our emotions and are therefore remembered longer than knowledge that is conveyed without that kind of context. In fact, our penchant for stories extends so far that in one experiment, $129 worth of nearly worthless junk was once sold on eBay for $8,000—just because each item had an emotional story attached to it.


Benefits of storytelling in eLearning

Low inhibition threshold

Storytelling makes it easier to get into dry or particularly complex eLearning courses, which people are usually reluctant to take. Even if personal interest—and therefore intrinsic motivation—is not particularly high for some topics, the emotional connection makes the topic accessible.

Improved motivation

Storytelling provides an opportunity to help learners identify with the learning material and to clarify the relevance of the topics being covered—especially when the personal benefits associated with the knowledge are not obvious at first glance. As we know: The more relevant the learning content is to the individual, the greater their motivation to learn. 

Contextualization of new knowledge

Storytelling is not a one-way street. When we are told stories, our emotions and imaginations are stimulated. At the same time, it encourages mental participation; learners find it easier to recognize situations in which the theoretical knowledge they have learned can be applied.

Improve learning outcomes

Each of the points above ultimately ensures better learning outcomes—be it by making the topic more accessible, boosting identification, making application scenarios recognizable, or due to the higher motivation that results from the emotional connection and the more easily recognizable relevance of the learning content. The better learning outcomes manifest, for example, as shorter learning times, higher completion rates, and better test results, as well as the long-term application of the knowledge.

Nadine Pedro
[Translate to English:] Nadine Pedro, chemmedia AG

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How storytelling can be implemented in eLearning

1. The right structure

Good stories (almost) always follow the same structure: Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution—as simple as it is effective. To prove the effectiveness of this structure, a marketing professor once analyzed 108 Super Bowl halftime commercials. The result? The most popular ads followed this classic five-act pattern. The undisputed winner was Budweiser’s Lost Dog, in which the fluffy Golden Retriever became a selling point that simply could not be ignored.


2. Authenticity and relevance

When telling stories, always make sure you choose a plot that your learners can really identify with. The more learners recognize themselves, the higher they will rate the relevance of the learning content, which in turn leads to higher motivation and better learning outcomes. Also bear in mind that your workforce is more than likely non-homogeneous, so you should always address those who are in the minority, too (keyword: diversity).


3. Characters

Everyone in Germany knows the mouse and elephant from “Die Sendung mit der Maus”. Year after year, the mouse tells new factual and funny stories every day, so memorable that most Germans can probably still recall at least one episode from their childhood. The broadcaster WDR has created a recurring character that has made the show more successful than any other on German children’s television. You are also likely familiar with the principle of fictional characters from other learning contexts. So why not take advantage of this recipe for success and create a character to guide your learners through your learning content? Ideally, you should choose a character that appeals to the emotions and/or with whom the learners can identify.
Just imagine if a puppy like the one in the Budweiser commercial appeared wagging its tail each time learners successfully complete a chapter?


How storytelling can be implemented in eLearning

As we have already established, storytelling can be used almost anywhere with enough creativity. However, some parts of eLearning courses are particularly suitable for stories:


The introduction

The introduction is the moment that decides whether you capture your learners’ attention or not. You should therefore be particularly mindful of the first few lines. It is worth telling a story here using the above-mentioned structure, the conflict at the center of which should correspond to the learners’ pain points, where possible. In this way, you not only build up suspense, but also show your employees the solution that awaits them at the end of the course. 

Examples, case studies, problem solving

Giving an example is the ideal opportunity to tell a new story. Depending on the content, the stories can build on each other and involve the same characters, or you can invent new protagonists each time in the spirit of diversity. It is best to make this decision based on how many different pieces of eLearning content you offer in total. If you have a large number of courses, you can stick to the same characters every time—this creates a stronger emotional bond.

Software tip: Scenario-based learning

Could you simulate customer meetings using virtual coaching software? This lets learners enter into a realistic dialog with a virtual conversation partner. The coach’s reactions depend on the learner’s choice of action and message, which provides immediate feedback—just like in real-life situations. This creates realistic conversations that, in turn, work like a story. Even better, the learners become part of the action and have an active influence—the optimum foundation for lasting learning impact.


3 specific tips for implementing storytelling

1. Consider the target group

A virtual runaway puppy that gets closer to its master with each completed chapter may appeal to our emotions, but it may not be the right choice for complex leadership training. For casual training for small teams on the other hand… 

What we’re trying to say: When creating the story, pay attention to your target group and adapt the stories, examples and characters accordingly so that the participants feel taken seriously enough without losing the emotional connection, and at the same time identify as strongly as possible with the characters and content.


2. Select suitable media and formats

Text, video, audio file, animation, gif… While every story can theoretically be told in any format with a bit of effort, there is usually one that is the most suitable. So first consider how your story can be told in the easiest and most memorable way. Ideally, you should use different formats to take different learning preferences into account.


3. Feedback

When you’re first introducing storytelling—perhaps even integrating it into existing eLearning content—learner feedback is worth its weight in gold! Form a small test group or, if there is not enough time, ask your employees how they felt about the learning experience after your first attempts. With specifically formulated questions and a short guide to constructive feedback, you are sure to receive valuable tips on how you can optimize your storytelling in the future. 


Best practice: 2 successful examples of storytelling in eLearning

Social engineering—manipulating human vulnerabilities: an eLearning course

The eLearning course “Social engineering—manipulating human vulnerabilities” is an excellent example of storytelling. Although social engineering is quite abstract and difficult to distinguish from traditional hacking, the story at the beginning not only helps learners to understand what it is actually about, but also ensures that the employees recognize themselves and thus the relevance of the topic. You know from experience that these factors ensure higher motivation and consequently better learning outcomes. Try out the course for yourself!


Scenario-based learning: Talking to customers in wholesale

Scenario-based learning in Knowledgeworker Coach provides your employees with targeted training in soft skills such as communication and negotiation. In the coaching scenario “Talking to customers in wholesale”, your employees put themselves in the role of a wholesaler who wants to win back a long-standing customer. The images and dialog create an immersive story that helps learners empathize with the situation and react emphatically to the virtual customer. Try it out and see the practical storytelling behind this coaching program for yourself. 


Try it out

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The digital coach for scenario-based learning

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Train learners to handle conversations and conflict situations, promote social skills, and enhance soft skills. Realistic. Authentic. Sustainable.


The bottom line.

Storytelling is the most natural form of human communication, but unfortunately often gets pushed into the background in the interest of conveying facts quickly and efficiently. What may work for particularly interesting and obviously relevant topics, however, quickly fails when knowledge becomes drier or more complex. Even simple examples learners can identify with are sometimes enough to capture and motivate employees. The closer you get to the popular five-act play format, the greater and more lasting the learning outcomes! chemmedia AG would love to support you in developing strong learning content with storytelling elements.

Magda Lehnert | Blogger
Magda Lehnert

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