Storytelling as An Instructional Design Tool

Most of us are very familiar with the concept of storytelling.  We were told stories as children, we tell stories to our children, and we use stories to interact with one another as adults.  I will describe how this concept may be used as a tool in the design of instruction.

What are Four Uses of Storytelling in Instructional Design?

Throughout my career, I have attended training courses that were full of terminology, not interactive, and very dull.  Some years ago, I decided rather than following this model of design, I created my own process using stories.  That process includes four elements:

HR-OD Analytics Storytelling Model

HR-OD Analytics Storytelling Model

Connecting with the Learner

The learner is the most important factor in the instructional design process.  When we develop content or course activities we need to consider how the learner will react to it.  Here is where storytelling helps.  When starting this process, a designer would select an aspect of a concept or concepts that may be expanded upon with a story.  Let’s say we are writing content on the concept of inappropriate behavior or inappropriate manager/employee communication.  We have all experienced this at some point in our careers, therefore, most of us would be able to relate to this subject. The story is what connects us to the concept.  Let’s see an example of this here:

Story:  Helen’s Request

Manager: Helen         Employee: Shane

“Shane, where have you been the past six weeks? The team and I have been meeting for drinks at BarBases.  Is that wife of yours stopping you from having a little fun after work?”

“Helen, my wife has nothing to do with meeting for drinks.  As I have stated before, I don’t drink and I do not find bars fun.”

“Wow.  You may need to visit the Employee Assistance Program Counselor next week.  You don’t believe bars are fun?  You need to loosen up.”

The instructional designer will follow this story up with some discussion questions to get the learners involved with the content. 

Discussion Questions:

  • What went wrong in this story?
  • What could potentially happen to this manager-employee relationship?

This is how we start to connect our learners to the material.  Find something we may all have in common.  No one wants to be berated at work for not drinking or having a good relationship with his or her spouse.  Try something similar in your next design.

Situational Learning

Storytelling is also beneficial in communicating or learning in different environments--marketing, supply chain, and oil & gas. For example, working in the oil & gas industry, the concept of safety is extremely important.  An instructional designer may design and develop a story using the elements of a real-world case study.  For instance, most of us are familiar with the ‘Deep Water Horizon’ case.  When developing a course on Safety Leadership, a designer may include small portions of this case with concepts or terms about leading safety integrated throughout the story. This story may be written to provide tips and techniques to individuals working in high-risk situations, on how to avoid or minimize unsafe behavior practices.  I have used this technique to develop similar courses in the oil and gas industry. 

Let’s say an instructional designer receives a request to develop a marketing and sales course for addressing customer concerns and handling customer complaints.  The course may be developed using stories on consumer or customer behavior.  Let’s look at the following story about selling coffee.

Story:  Sally’s Coffee Experience

Sally is a busy woman, always on the move.  She never starts her day without a cup of coffee from her favorite café.  In addition to being a busy woman, she is a germaphobe. 

One day upon entering the café, she notices a barista sneezing onto the blending equipment.  Sally decides not to purchase a coffee, but she also notifies the manager on duty about why she is not purchasing.  Instead of the manager saying he will address the issue, his behavior is nonchalant and he ignores her concerns.

Sally never returns to the café.  She also tells everyone she knows about the incident.

Discussion Questions:

  • What went wrong?
  • What could have been done to save this customer relationship?
  • What should this manager do in the future?

This story helps to show that consumer concerns should be taken seriously to avoid losing business.  An instructional designer could use similar stories to increase learner participation and gather learner ideas about future courses on similar topics. 

Communicating News

Stories are also beneficial in communicating news in your organization.  For example, an organization may tell a story to its members about why there are work shortages and/or why there is an impending layoff.  In addition, a manager may tell his or her staff a story about why a policy is in place or why a specific change is being implemented.

An instructional designer may use the same stories to design training for employees to help prepare them for the change or the new policy.  I find this strategy to be effective in course development, specifically for change management.

Transferring Knowledge

One reason some organizations have been successful over the years are their knowledge transfer techniques.  The instructional designer would use stories to transfer knowledge or information to employees in the form of scenarios, cases, or journaling activities.  For example, employees may be provided with a story about the use of a specific software program or business strategy. The activities developed in the course would provide learners with an opportunity to practice the new skill and potentially share that information with others in the organization. 

As you develop your courses, attempt to connect your concepts, processes, terms, or behavior to stories.  It could make for a better learning experience.

Adrienne Captain, CEO & Founder, HR-OD Analytics. Real Talk from a Real Consultant:  ID, OD, and Change Management.  Visit her company page: and sign-up for one of her courses.