July 25, 2023 Mike Myers 1 Comment

The Power of Stories in Learning Experience Design

Written by: Mike Myers, Associate Director, Digital Learning

At EnCompass, we understand that our role as learning experience designers is not to design learning but to design circumstances that enable learning—to craft a process that invites participants to build on their current knowledge and expertise and stretch into new areas of awareness, knowledge, motivation, and skills. Our learning tool belt is filled with methods and technologies that we use to design environments where our participants can surface their expertise, share promising practices and knowledge with fellow participants, engage with new ideas, and then practice, reflect on, and apply their new learning. One of the most powerful tools we use is storytelling.

The power of stories has long been recognized in the field of Learning & Development. Research tells us that the human brain is hardwired to understand story structure, making stories a useful framework for presenting new information. We know that information is more memorable when it is conveyed in the form of a story, making stories a valuable mnemonic device. And we know that our brain reacts to well-told stories as if we were in the situation ourselves, making stories a powerful simulation tool to build empathy and create realistic practice opportunities. The benefits of using stories for learning experience designs are clear, and the practical application of this tool is less mystifying than it may seem. Let’s examine three concrete ways EnCompass uses stories to design more memorable, engaging, and effective learning experiences.

The first step toward unlocking the power of stories for learning experience design is to understand the relationship between the two. It’s not just that stories can enhance your course, but that you might design the course itself as a story. This learning story is one that helps participants build new relationships, challenges them to realize their untappeqr code power of storiesd potential, and changes them in a meaningful way. Scan the QR code in the image to learn more about the relationship between storytelling and learning, and how story structure can be used to design the elements and flow of a course. Then, review three ways that stories can be used to design better learning experiences, as detailed below.

Apply these three tips to tap into the power of stories in your learning design and send your learner, the hero of your story, on an adventure they will never forget.

Conduct a Learning Assessment

In your learning assessment and initial design conversations with subject-matter experts, ask what they want learners to do, or do differently, after the course and, when skills are involved, how the skills you are aiming to develop are applied on the job. When your subject-matter experts say, “We need people to be able to use this terminology correctly,” you could ask them to tell you about a time when someone might need to use this terminology in their work. What kind of task would it be? Who would give them the task? And what might happen if they didn’t use the terminology correctly?

Prompting storytelling in the learning assessment phase will give you a deeper sense of the real-world application of a skill (plot), the barriers that prevent your learners from performing that skill effectively (conflict), the support they need to perform this action (characters and resources), and the consequences of getting it right or wrong (resolution). These story elements become the building blocks for your learning adventure.

Design the Flow

After you conduct your learning assessment and determine the overall goal, learning objectives, practice activities, and need-to-know information, how do you decide the sequencing of your design? Consider mapping the flow of your course to the Hero’s Journey story structure, as explained in the video above. Doing so encourages you to meet your learners where they are and motivate them to cross the learning threshold. It reminds you to design multiple practice opportunities throughout your course, leading up to the climax challenge . . . and reinforces the idea that practice must be followed by reflection to create meaningful change.

Introduce Your Learning Objectives

Consider using a story that can be integrated from the very beginning to the very end of your course, rather than just using anecdotes to introduce or support key points. As participants enter the course, immediately place them into a relatable story that will challenge them to practice their skills in a familiar context. In the Exploring the Universe of Internet Freedom e-learning course, participants follow the story of a new USAID employee who is given a challenging task by her supervisor. After accepting the task, the supervisor hands the character a list of things she will need to do to prepare for the task, which are the learning objectives for the course.

Framing your learning objectives as a story situates the learning within the context of how it can be applied. Weaving in elements of the story across the entire course creates a through line that ties your activities together and engages learners in a fun and memorable way. Of course, choosing the right story is key. If your learners feel like they can’t relate to the story, or can’t see themselves in any of the characters, it will have the opposite effect. That’s why capturing stories and getting to know your audience during your learning assessment is so important.

Learning is a process of making meaning, and we make meaning in life by telling stories.

You can learn more about EnCompass’ Learning and Leadership Development services and projects on our website. If you are interested in working on our learning team, we hope you will look at our open positions and apply if you see something that would be a good fit.

(The augmented reality experience in this blog was developed by Jay Nolte and Mike Myers.)

Mike Myers

Written by

Associate Director, Digital Learning

Mike Myers is EnCompass' Associate Director of Digital Learning with experience designing, developing, and evaluating learning products for U.S. Government-funded programs and nonprofit organizations. He specializes in incorporating appropriate technologies to enhance the learning process and to meet the needs of diverse learners. His experience in designing face-to-face and distance learning tools for domestic and international clients showcases his ability to design custom learning solutions for various contexts. With a Master’s degree in Instructional Design and Technology, Mr. Meyers has a strong foundation in learning theories, best-practices, and cutting-edge educational technologies. As a multi-media developer, he produces high-quality products that keep learners engaged, challenged, and excited to learn.

1 Comment

  • Ann R, Erickson
    August 21, 2023

    Brilliant! As a former art teacher of 40 years, I know the power of story. Dan Pink said the same thing a long time ago. Good teacher intuitively knew the story was one of the best strategies to get and hold students’ attention! This takes it to a new perspective. Will share with teachers still teaching!


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