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What’s Your Story? Applying Storytelling to Online Training

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Tom Bishop on February 21, 2013 - 11:00 am in Custom Content

I don’t know where you are this President’s Day, but I’m waking up at Disney World for the Training 2013 Conference. It’s 70 degrees and sunny. Sorry.

It’s a fascinating place. Within sight of the Coronado Springs resort is a huge replica of Mt. Everest in one direction, a haunted 14-story hotel in another, and the giant EPCOT golf ball poking above the trees.

I got here a little ahead of schedule and sauntered over to that Everest replica, which is actually a roller coaster in the Animal Kingdom park, where you pursue the legendary Yeti.

(Doesn’t the Yeti belong with the dwarves, pirates and fairies in the Magic Kingdom? Maybe I’m overthinking this.)

Anyway, it’s said the rides at the Disney theme parks aren’t all that thrilling, but the stories they wrap around everything, from roller coasters to the soap in your hotel room, are the real magic.

Here, you don’t just stand in line for hours with other sweaty tourists (did I mention it’s President’s Day week?); you journey through a historic tribute to the legends of forgotten kingdoms. Your breakfast doesn’t just get plopped on your table by a waiter; it’s generously presented as the bounty of a faraway land by a cast member.

Disney is the master of the story, so its Orlando resort is an appropriate place for the Training 2013 Conference. We should all be telling stories.

In training, it’s very common to teach through case studies, particularly in business and law. The topic of history reads like a giant, incredibly complicated soap opera. Other topics like statistics and math don’t lend themselves to storytelling, but we still humanize them by using word problems.

“Jack left at noon and climbed 1,400 feet. He ran into the Yeti at 2PM. How many Sherpas were needed to carry his body down?”

Corporate training uses stories such as role playing and videos for lessons ranging from equipment safety to interpersonal behavior.

In marketing, we tell a lot of stories: The story of our brand’s founding, the story of how customers use our products, the story of why we believe in pursuing high quality services.

Anything can be a story. It’s possible to bring online training alive by using several storytelling techniques and tips below.

Define An Arc: Every story has a protagonist and an obstacle to overcome. In most stories, the protagonist is someone the viewer can identify with, so the real message is: What would YOU do to solve this situation? Sure, it’s formulaic, but Hollywood seems to be doing fine telling the same story over and over. So you can usually do well making your story about the trainee, and portraying them fixing a common problem.

A great example of this is Cisco, who use their new site “The Network” to tell stories about how technology helps with many situations, as in this story about improving education, called Reaching The Unreachable.

Build The User Experience: Make the entire experience immersive, including the framework for your training website. If your online learning platform is customizable for courses, you should create an entire design that inspires the viewer to get involved in the story, using complementary graphics, headings and text areas that support the “magical realm” you’re teaching about.

You can build a site that includes an online avatar who greets your viewers and assists them through the course. At the extreme end is an online world like “Second Life”.

Create Rich Media: For online training using case studies, go beyond short videos of people re-enacting events and situations. Create a library of media on business concepts such as negotiation, hiring, sales, and human resources (we’ve all seen the “$20 on the counter” videos). Chained videos allow the viewer to choose their own path, enhancing the story even further.

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Beyond videos and other presentation files that go one-way, teacher to student, you can use a platform that allows viewers to make their own webcasts and share them with the group.

Maximize Materials: Every training will include some materials to download, view online, and share. A good story should inspire viewers to get more involved and learn more by reading and linking to supplemental materials. Naturally, the materials themselves should match the immersive experience of the site, library, and media.

An excellent example of this is an infographic that tells the story from start to finish, or is limited to the single lesson. It may include diagrams and links to extra materials.

Encourage Feedback: No course will work well without a way to allow feedback. Any learning platform should have a chat capability for open discussions as well as private ones. Open discussion enhances a story by enabling role-playing and audience participation. Not only that, but voting and polls can also deliver added value to the storyline.

Google+ Hangouts are a fine way to create live discussions that involve video discussions, letting a limited number of students involve each other face to face.

Anything can be a story. Whether you need to teach students statistics, teach new employees how to file their TPS reports, or show new customers how your products can help them, a story puts them into the situation and helps them go beyond learning your message; they internalize it.

As I witness all the neat training ideas and technologies here at the Coronado, I’ll be thinking of my ride on the roller coaster, how [SPOILER ALERT] we finally found that Yeti, and how mastery of the story isn’t something confined to Orlando. We can all achieve it, you know, if you just wish upon a…

Tom Bishop is Director of Marketing and Communications at KnowledgeVision Systems in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He is an experienced Marketing Professional focused on brand strategy, content marketing, social media, campaign management, market segmentation, research and data analysis, and business development. He brings a great deal of experience in start up companies that are positioned for rapid growth. He received his MBA from Boston University in 2002.

 

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