Discover the Secrets that Make the Story-Based Lesson Tick – Tip #55

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Are you cutting your teeth for a compelling and effective story-based e-learning approach? The story-based approach is not black art that’s hidden from the uninitiated and available only to the gurus. There is a structure and a step-by-step process that is sure to deliver the desired results. View the video “The Compliment” to discover the secrets of effective story-based e-learning.

Real-life Experiences Trigger Emotions, Tensions and Curiosity

The idea is to start with a real-life experience that your target audience can connect with, like the clip above which shows a typical office situation. When Tim says, “Hey, I like that sweater you’re wearing” with a mischievous demeanor, this triggered some resentment from Roxanne. This creates a conflict which we all can relate to emotionally since this is a pretty common experience. Conflicts induce emotions and learners respond to them.

The tension escalates when Tim failed to see Roxanne’s concerned look and pushes further. He said, “I don’t understand. I was just enjoying your shirt.” Roxanne raises her voice and says “Do you realize that each time you gave me a compliment, etc. Hey, look up. This is me here.” Tim, adds more insult by saying “Really I haven’t noticed.” At this point, you have already successfully captured your viewers’ curiosity as they begin to identify with the characters and are now anticipating what’s going to happen next! The learners are now thinking, “What will happen next?” “What will Roxanne say?” Some learners might say “Roxanne is overly sensitive,” while others might say “Tim is a dork, I will slap his face instantly.”

In the Characters’ Shoes

By identifying with the characters and feeling their situations, or being in the characters’ shoes, we helped the learners travel through time.

According to Bridget Murray in her article “What Makes Mental Time Travel Possible?,” “Memory allows us to mentally travel backward in time as well as into the future. Over time, people discovered that recalling past events helped them learn what to avoid and how to behave in the future.”

According to experts Roger Schank and Michael Corballis‘ in their books “Tell Me a Story,” and “Recursive Mind” respectively, identifying with the characters in a story is a natural response because we tend to make our own versions of it and insert ourselves in it. Talk about being in a person’s shoes, stories accomplish that automatically! 

Characters with Different Wants

In a story structure, emotions and tensions stem from the characters’ having different wants. According to Christopher Vogler and David McKenna in their book “Memo From the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character.” “It is the opposing wants of different characters that raise the stakes and consequences in a story. From the start to the end of the lesson, this has to be the tie and glue that leads the learners to engagement. If you break this dynamics of opposing wants, you remove the essence of a good story lesson. Use the opposing wants from the story-based learning objectives to the application of ideas in the story.”

Do you recall the argument they had in the clip? 

Tim said “All I said is that I like your sweater.” Roxanne fired back, “Look I just don’t like it. How about not saying anything about what I am wearing?”

Escalating Emotions

This conflict has raised the stress and tension and both characters are now emotional. We have led the conversation and by a matter of a few seconds, we shifted the roles of the learner from being an observer to taking an active role in the lesson. We escalated the emotions, tensions and conflicts. You can sense that at this point, you know something has got to give. What else should happen?

Two techniques are key in escalating emotions and shifting roles from the start to the end of the lesson.

First, you allow the viewers to fill in the gap and interpret the story on their own. I encourage designers and developers to avoid giving away the impact of the story by narrating it. Your viewers have seen the story, let them digest it.

The second technique is to “let the characters do the talking.” Use the voice of the characters and instantly connect with your viewers. It’s a common mistake among designers, trainers and developers to narrate the story in their own voice and create a block between them and their viewers. This slows down the shifting of roles and travelling backward in time.

The story of Tim and Roxanne ends at a point where they have to resolve their conflict.  We brought the learner to a point where they want to know what the decisions are, the choices that were made and the consequences. At this point, since the viewers are already in the story, we are actually making them decide on the questions thrown to Roxanne.

Story Questions Draw in the Learners

To encourage the learners to respond, another technique that I use is “story questions.” These are questions which drag the learner deeper into the story. Ordinarily, in an academic and non-story-based approach, these come as questions answerable by right and wrong choices. In this approach they would ask, “What would Roxanne do?” But this is not the character talking! By doing this, you abruptly cut the learners’ emotional experience and connections with the story resulting in a sudden loss of interest. This must be avoided at all cost.

Instead, heighten the experience by continuing with how the questions are asked and the responses are given in the story. Do not tell the viewers the “right” or “wrong” feedback, let them discover it by themselves. Let them make their own conclusions.

These are the four questions.

Allow Learners to Bring Their Own Stories

If your Learning Management System or Social Learning System allows you to post comments, you can add to the questions given above. This is crucial because by asking learners to comment, we are helping them to insert further into the story. Check below for samples to comments or click here.

Click here to view more samples of comments like those shown above.
The Lesson Content is Embedded in the Story

By now you are asking the question, “where is the lesson?” The lesson has been embedded in the story

What lessons do we want to teach in this content? Sensitivity and compliance with the law. But was there a point in time that we mentioned both in the content? Not a bit. Sensitivity and compliance to the laws are our academic goals and mostly the trainer’s learning objectives. The learners don’t care about our goals and even more, they don’t instantly understand what they mean. Learners only understand sensitivity and compliance in the context of an experience in a real-life situation. So embedding a lesson in a story simply means making it an experience. Move the content into the world of real-life events to help the learners learn.

Build Your Skills

As an ongoing skill development, make it a habit to look for small contents or ideas and try to find out how these are manifested or are missing. By doing so, you build your skill to detect and create the structure, tools and techniques in story-based lesson design. 

Do you want to discover the secrets of story-based e-learning? We invite you to sign up for the workshop now!


Robert C. Schank. Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence. Northwestern University Press, 1995

Michael C. Corballis. The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization. Princeton University Press. 2011

Christopher Vogler and David McKenna. Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character. Amazon.Web. July 1, 2011

Ray Jimenez, PhD

Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”