The Battle of Stories – Instructional Design Approach

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For stories to really be effective and serve their purposes, of imparting lessons that the learners need to learn, we also need to identify the strongest ideas or stories that we want to change or “battle” with. Finding the impact stories and slogans is a great starting point in gathering what we need to know regarding the ideas that we want to change. And from there, we can “gear up” with the right stories and win the “Battle of Stories”.

How to Use it to Improve your eLearning Program

How do you find high-impact stories for your eLearning program? What right, appropriate and engaging stories become the basis for your design and development of a lesson?

Designing and delivering eLearning is like winning the “Battle of Stories.” The more powerful and well-designed the story is, the more that the lesson within that story will win the minds and hearts of the learners. Many of the ideas I discuss here were triggered after I read “Re:Imagining Change” by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning . It showed me a lot of parallelism in the work we do in eLearning especially with story impacts.

Here are examples of battle cries we hear in our organizations.

On Ethics
It is OK to cheat, for profit’s sake
Small, harmless cheating leads to monstrous problems

On performance
“I work as hard as I can when my boss is around or inspires me”
“I am driven by my passion”

For every idea, there is a story that promotes it. We are constantly battling using different stories to help learners “un-learn” things.

Instructional design question

Our instructional design and development of lessons should start with identifying the strongest idea and story we want to change in relation to the content we want to teach.
So we ask basic design questions:

• What are the stories that promote a particular idea?
• What are the new ideas and what stories can promote these new ideas?

Finding the right stories to battle with, as the saying goes, is a key design consideration. Failure to find the right stories diminishes our efforts and investments in helping learners learn. Finding the right idea to battle with is just the first step; how to use them is the second step. We need to develop a counter idea or an idea we wish to promote and build the stories to support it.

Let me focus on how to find the stories that are most important to battle with.

The first part is to ask “What are impact stories on performance?” and the second part is learning “how to find impact stories”.

Impact Stories – those that affect performance

What are the characteristics of these stories?

Stories that impact performance are powerful stories that carry the ideas and the beliefs with them. They are “memes” that are handed down by work and group practices. Often times, these stories are unquestioned, and are accepted as truths.

Impact stories are experiences that control people’s or learners’ behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs. We can also refer to them as high-impact stories or stories that impact performance. Different organizations and each work aspect have their own impact stories.

Impact stories have slogans

It is easy to detect impact stories because they have slogans attached to them.
These are good examples of impact stories (notice the slogans) worth having a battle with:

• Ethics: Cut corners, do not get caught
• Sales: Customers always complain
• Performance: It is OK to fail, befriend your boss
• Safety: It is a Cover Your Ass thing (CYA
• Software: Let the user figure it out: trial and error

The examples above seem to sound pessimistic or show the negative aspects of our workplace. The point is that these types of stories are what we battle with everyday in a learning situation. They don’t have to be negative stories, but they are stories that can erode or weaken the positive content you wish to teach.

These are good examples of impact stories (notice the slogans) which we hope to win the battle for:

• Ethics: This is a very ethical organization
• Sales: Customers tell us how to be better
• Performance: We adhere to the highest performance standards
• Safety: It saves lives, families and makes good business sense
• Software: We should make it easy to use
• Brand new content

However, one might ask: How about ideas that are completely new? There might not be stories associated with them yet. This is a good question since many of us design courses with new content. For example, the content might be a new data entry system that is being added into a software database – a brand new software and brand new method. Even in this case, there is an impact story. The learner’s current skill, past experiences, and inclination to technology carries some stories that often control behaviors and thoughts. These impact stories are so ingrained, we often think that they don’t exist.

Finding the impact stories

If we want to wage a battle, we better identify the right ideas to support. This sounds very familiar since we often see a lot of issues surrounding our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am reminded of an interview by NPR on the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. The researcher for the Pentagon Papers was asked, why the war continued even with all the protests and body counts. He answered: “Our leaders truly believed that losing a war and allowing North Vietnam to occupy South Vietnam would cause a domino effect. And that communism, belief systems of Russia and China, would continue to drive more occupation to other countries”. This is their story. So strong is the story in the minds of our leaders that the stories of the protestors could not win the battle of stories.

There are scientific and formal ways, as well as informal ways, to find the stories to battle with.

Click here to play the exercise.

Mapping impact stories

Mapping stories means capturing the stories and organizing them so we can identify and prioritize which ones to battle with.

The most common method is conducting interviews with subject matter experts, people on the job and customers (internal or external) who are affected by the topic area.

Conduct a survey, interview and ask these questions:

• What are the beliefs, practices, and methods that help achieve results?
• What are stumbling blocks, and challenges that stop the results?
• What are real and verifiable facts?
• What are the moving stories, experiences, success cases and incidents?

The key to obtaining good impact stories is to direct the questions to specific “delivery points” or “contact points” where the stories are experienced at the highest level. For example:

• Sales: at points where there is contact with customers
• Safety: where accidents are most likely to occur or dangerous areas
• And/or records that show the above

Slogan mapping – “Slogan Jam Sessions”

Slogans are the ultimate expressions of strong beliefs and engrained knowledge in people. These are instinctive and instantaneous. Slogans are used by people to express their views, and emotions regarding a subject. If one needs to know what the deep seated feeling of a group of people is, one can ask the question: what slogan do you say to express your view on a subject?

These are examples of slogans. Try to fill blanks after each phrase with the beliefs and knowledge that drive the slogans.

“Let’s kick ass” ______________________

“Innovation is collaboration” __________________

“Super-charged team” ___________________

“We are a green organization” ________________

Capturing slogans is a good way to find stories and identify the idea that you want to battle with. You can do this by interviewing people or conducting “Slogan Jam Sessions”.


To win this “Battle of Stories”, we need to use the right “gears”. We can do this by examining the impact stories and slogans that have brought about the ideas and stories that the learners need to “un-learn”. Once we are able to gather this, it will be much easier to battle with the ideas, and create and design stories that we can use to successfully teach to the learners.

Ray Jimenez, PhD3Minute Worlds – Learning Community Social Learning, Work and Performance3Minute eLearning Games“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”

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