Story-Based Training and Scenario-Based Training: An Interview with Anna Sabramowicz

Storytelling, Scenarios, and Training Image

Today’s an exciting day because we got superstar-rock star eLearning developer Anna Sabramowicz of eLearner Engaged to sit and talk with us about using storytelling and scenarios to create more engaging, inspiring, motivating learning events.

Many of you already know that Anna is famous for creating the Broken Coworker eLearning course and winning an Articulate Storyline Guru Contest Award for that course.

In this interview, she’s going to tell us how she got started using storytelling and scenarios in training, tell us why we should consider doing the same in some of our own training materials, and give us some tips for creating and telling good stories and setting up good scenarios for learning.

We’d really like to thank Anna for taking the time to talk with us and to share all her expertise in storytelling, scenarios, and training, and for giving all the people who read this article some simple tips for doing the same themselves as well as for inspiring us to do so. We’ve included more information about how to follow Anna at the bottom of this article.

We hope all the readers out there try to add some story-based and scenario-based training into their overall workforce training program as part of a blended learning solution that uses other kind of training, too. Give it a shot–it will be fun.

Here’s a recorded video of the discussion. If you’d rather read, we typed up a transcript and you can see that by clicking the MORE button.


Stories, Scenarios, and Training: Tips from Anna Sabramowicz

Let’s get right to the transcribed script of the interview. We’ve included the full video of our interview/webinar at the bottom of this article if you’d like to look at and listen to that.

Introduction: Who Is Anna Sabramowicz And Why Is She Telling Us about Stories and Scenarios for Training?

Convergence: Alright, hi everybody, I’m here with Anna Sabramowicz. Anna’s famous as a designer of eLearning materials and in particular of story-based eLearning materials that incorporate scenario-based learning. Anna’s done a million very famous works, but I think the most famous is one called Broken Coworker, which is a scenario-based learning course on sexual harassment at the workplace.

And so with that I’d like to say “hello” to Anna and thanks so much, Anna, I appreciate your being here.

Anna: Jeff, thank you for having me, this is an honor. It’s cool to finally see you.

Convergence: Yeah! Well, before we get into the official list of questions, I wonder if we could just ask you to tell everyone about yourself and your work?

Anna: Yeah, sure. So, in the industry I’m called an instructional designer, but I really am hoping I can just transition to storyteller, period.

How that started is I was trained in classical instructional design and then I went to work for a couple of companies. This was about the time when all those cool eLearning tools came about where you could actually start as an individual and develop things that were really cool, and you didn’t have to rely on hard code. I don’t know if anybody remembers these, but I worked with AuthorWare, which was painful, and I got all of these Michael Allen books, who’s like the father of eLearning, he actually built AuthorWare. And I looked at his stuff and I was like “I want to make stuff like this, this is so cool!” And every single place I worked at, they were like “This is cool, but we don’t do that kind of stuff.”

And that made me angry, but it also made me feel like “OK, well, I can’t do anything about that.” And then I got–I’m probably dating myself–I got Articulate Presenter and I thought it was the cat’s meow. And so I went home and “I don’t care, I’m just going to build stuff.” And I started, and it wasn’t obviously as cool as some of the Michael Allen stuff, but I was like “I’m closer,” so this gave me a bit of hope and I began experimenting with that.

And then, basically how I got into Broken Coworker was, I was given this project, and it was to convert these 12-text based modules into 12 online modules, and it was basically the typical page-turner, you know, “click next.” And I was like, “What’s wrong? Why can’t I make this cool and fun?” The graphics were done, we had this guy and he was in these poses, it was narrated with a natural voice, and it was like “Why is this so painful for even me to go through?” And that’s one of the things that I use as a gauge, is if I don’t want to look at it again after I build it, that means it sucks–because I’m invested, right?

So then what happened is this new project comes on, and I start working with my partner Ryan Martin, and he’s from the web development world, and he’s like “What’s this stuff?”, and I’m “It’s Articulate…can you figure it out?” And he digs in and figures it out and he says “Man, this is so painful.” And I say “Yeah, 12 modules of text is painful, what can we do, this is the reality of our world.”

And then Articulate comes out with Storyline. and they put together a contest to show off the features. And I’m like “Wow, this is the chance I have! I can actually build something the way that I WANT to build it, with no constraints. I have this developer who can do whatever I imagine, let’s make it awesome.” So he brings in this thing, he says “I want to make it a comic book because I can,” and I’m like “It can’t just be fun, it has to be activity based,” and he’s like “What is that?”, and then we decide to try it, and that was like…how can I say it? It was scary. I was in it, and I played a sexual harasser (laughs)…but also, with something so left field, I didn’t know how people would react, like would I be laughed at or whatever, but it came back, and I have to tell you, Jeff, the stuff that was coming back…this is from people who DIDN’T HAVE TO TAKE IT, they would be going through Broken Coworker, this scenario-based, story-based learning module, and they’d say “I wish I had seen this when I was working at my last job, because I had a bully.” Or they would say “I went through it 14 times just to see all the different outcomes because I wanted to experience them all.” And I was like “Yes! Yes!” You know, like this is the kind of sexy….

Convergence: No pun on sexy!

Anna: Right! So that the moment when I told myself, “This stuff works. These are people who don’t have to go through it. I’m not making them go through it, they are enjoying it. And so that’s all everybody needs to know, that’s why I’m here: I tried something, it was scary, but it came back and confirmed that this is the path.”

Convergence: That’s great, that’s a great story, thanks for sharing that. I’ll say that one, it’s timely, now in the #metoo generation, and secondly, it’s a great story about learning through experimentation and risking failure and learning from, no doubt, mistakes, which is something I’m really interested in as well. And I’ll also say that in the same way that you were inspired by Michael Allen and by his workers, I was inspired by your early works as well, so thank you for that. I know I’m a member of a large pool on that.

Side notes: Did you see what we did there? We introduced an article that’s largely about using storytelling to create engagement by having Anna tell us a story! How meta, right? Did you notice that hearing her tell her own experience made you care more? Also, keep this in mind as you continue to read, because you’ll see she introduced (1) a character — herself, in this case; (2) a desire–to create better, story-based learning, in this case; (3) and a conflict–the fact that her bosses didn’t want the story-based learning, even though they said it was cool. She’ll discuss these three parts of storytelling below.

Also, note that Anna referenced comic books. To learn more about how to use comic book design tips for more effective learning activities, check our articles on Comic Books and eLearning and Comic Book Design Tips for eLearning.

And so with that introduction down, let’s get into the official question list.

What Is Story-Based Learning?

Convergence: So maybe if you could sum up for us, what would you call story-based learning? What does this mean?

Anna: It’s a way to wrap a lesson into a story that helps somebody transform and believe that lesson is worthwhile learning and maybe give them enough momentum so that once your story is over, they’ll go and pursue building on that skill or that lesson you were trying to teach them.

Convergence: Alright, that’s great. And now that we have a bit of a definition, and you touched on this in your definition, what’s the importance of telling stories during training, why do you do it, and is there any research on its effectiveness?

Anna: Well, OK, so…one of the things we do as people in the learning sphere is that we LOVE learning. Right? Every day I get this “Friday Learning Newsletter” or something, and I subscribe to so many things where it’s “New Learning Thing of the Day,” and I love it, I consume it, it’s awesome. I’ve got to say that those people, people like us, are about 3% of the population, right? The hard thing, I think, to understand is that everybody else is just not interested in learning. The stats on how many people read one book a year is…like 90% of people read one book or less. So what’s happening is we think we can just present learning in facts and details and detail, and everyone’s going to be like “Yes! Thank you! More!”, and it’s not true–it’s not true.

So we design for ourselves. But what happens is when we tell a story, it gives us an opportunity to help someone connect their inner goals, and maybe open themselves up a little bit to thinking “Maybe this is a good idea for me to peruse.” And also, stories have a way of engaging people that facts don’t. There’s that adage–facts tell, stories sell. We’re selling ideas. We’re selling change. We’re selling improvement. And stories are the vehicle for that sale–it’s not the other stuff.

And when people say “Where’s the research?”, I say ‘Hmm…it’s called The Bible, man. All those stories still last. There’s the research. All those stories still persist, all those stories that were written down so long ago, and even before that were still told for thousands of years before someone wrote them down. So they persist and resonate still because stories have a tendency to do that.”

Convergence: Good. So stories are engaging, they make dry facts more interesting and more relevant like you’re saying, they probably involve emotions, and all that stuff taps into how we learn and remember and later transfer.

Anna: Huge, yes. Good addition there, totally.

Convergence: Great, so we’re all kind of hard-wired to be interested in stories. I just watched yet another version of Homer’s Odyssey. You know–I know how it ends. And then I went ahead and bought a new translation of it as well, and am reading that, even though I read it in the original Koine Greek back in college multiple times, so it just shows that we’re inclined to listen to stories, I guess.

Anna: Yeah, totally. It’s kind of funny, they say there are story flows that are typical, but there are several types of journeys that story characters take. There’s the “save the princess from the dragon” story, the “go and find the elixir and bring it back to the people who need it for your sick mom,” those type of story arcs. They say that the type of stories that resonate with you are because you’re working through something. So your Odyssey story may be that you’re on a journey and the story helps you reconnect with it or maintain it, so that’s kind of cool.

Convergence: It’s a good point. I think in my case it may have had a LITTLE bit to do with what was on top of the Netflix queue as well.

Anna: I can’t believe that was on top of the Netflix queue.

Convergence: Well, they’ve obviously been profiling me.

Anna: They TOTALLY have.

Side note: Although I enjoyed talking about being on a journey, I have to confess I mis-spoke and it was the Illiad that I recently saw again, not the Odyssey. Here’s the link to the more about the movie on Netflix and here’s the new translation/adaptation I bought after watching the movie.

Convergence: So that was a good segue, because you talked about story arcs and that’s related to my next question. And I know I’ve seen you addressing this at some point, but I wonder if there are certain elements of good story, and I know I’ve heard you address this in the context of Pixar movies, which would be interesting to hear from you, and I’m kind of curious if you can throw this in, and I apologize for just tossing this at you, but I’m wondering if in light of what you just said, if you’ve ever given some thought along those lines to Joseph Campbell and his theories?

Anna: OK, that’s a loaded question…

Convergence: Let’s start with elements of a good story!

Anna: OK. There are only three: the character, the conflict, and the desire. And they go in this order: you’ve got to set up the character, they have to have a “want,” (the desire), and something has to be in the way (the conflict).

And I feel like one of the things that people are afraid to do in learning stories is there is not enough conflict, like things that get in the way, the obstacles, and also the desire is very shallow, like “They want to be the best!” OK, that’s fine, but that’s also too ambiguous.

So one of the things you can do is make….and I don’t know which storytelling book I got this from….if you want people to resonate with the desire of the character, you have to make it so they can imagine what that is. So one of them is like “John wants to win the Golden Cup!” Can you imagine what a Golden Cup is? Yes. So that’s easier. So that’s the exterior kind of desire that the character has. And then, through their journey, they’re doing some kind of intrinsic work too, which helps people connect on multiple levels.

Convergence: So it’s specific, and you’re talking about concrete details, which I imagine would be important, concrete language, which I imagine would be important in storytelling.

Anna: Yeah, definitely. And it’s kind of funny, because I think you don’t realize the power of story until you start deconstructing things. You know, you mentioned Pixar earlier. The first 11 minutes of every Pixar movie (and it’s funny because even after you know all these facts, you still cry like a baby at every single Pixar movie you watch), but basically what they do in the first 11 minutes is they set up the character, and they set up their mundane world and they set up their desire, right: not to be lonely, to have a better family, you know, and all these other things. And I’ve thought about this actually quite a lot. There are a lot of times when we think our stories need to be heavy on context. And they CAN be, but when you’re watching something like The Infinity War, let’s say. Have you seen it yet?

Convergence: I haven’t yet. I’m a little behind.

Anna: Oh! OK, no spoilers, no spoilers! Those people are in space. They are in alternate universes. But somehow, there’s enough of that character desire and conflict set up that you are actually emotionally responding to the story and you care about those imaginary non-humans. Right? And another one that I thought was really well done and it characterizes this is that one…what’s that one with George Clooney, and it’s in space?

Convergence: Oh, I don’t remember, but I will research that and put it into the transcript later. (Answer: Gravity).

Anna: Anyway, it’s with Sandra Bullock.

Convergence: Yeah. She won an award for that. It was excellent.

Anna: And that one was so awesome, because when I started getting into storytelling, and my partner Ryan is obviously into storytelling as well, because he’s into comic books, we thought of this idea of how Pixar does that whole 11-minute set-up, but then these are fun stories. So when you get into something like space, which is COMPLETELY OUT OF CONTEXT for everyone except maybe 10 people in the world, right, and you’re like “How do I care about someone who is not at all like me in any way, I don’t relate to them in any way, I’m not as smart as them, there’s no way I can connect with this person,” so they take these elements that ARE common to people, like “they love their family,” Sandra Bullock misses her family, George Clooney or one of those other dudes listen to country music and tells silly jokes, and so there’s this banter, which humanizes them, and so that draws you in because you start relating not to the specific situation of that human being, but the human being themselves.

Convergence: They’re like me, they share these human universals. The movie by the way is Gravity.

Anna: Gravity! That’s what it is–or the lack thereof. So that’s the whole character development. So I feel like if we did that a little bit–no, a LOT more–in eLearning, if we focused on that person, and if we’re OK with making that person specific, more specific–there’s this thing where you say “Oh, I want to meet the needs of several different audiences.” And it’s funny how that works in eLearning, because we say “Well, my audience is diverse, so I have to be super general,” but when you go to movies, they hit millions of people, and these guys are getting specific, they’re like “I’m going to fix a widget on a space arm,” that is VERY specific, but people resonate with that, and it has nothing to do with the setting, or what they are doing, it has to do with connecting with that character. So you can get very specific in training, and in fact you should, because that’s when people connect.

Convergence: Good point. So, be really specific in establishing a character using concrete personality traits and details, and then establish a real conflict.

Anna: Yes. The thing is, conflict has to be…I mean, I don’t think conflict has to be “My boss won’t let me” or “My coworker sucks,” it could be “I am not confident.” That’s conflict. So conflict can very much be an interior mindset. You know, we look at the world though our own lens, and it could even be someone’s lack of ability to see a different perspective in different ways, so you can show that by having them see a situation, they’ll observe a situation, and the character will say “Well, that was silly, of course it could have been done this way,” and hopefully the person who is watching will think “Whoa, well, that’s off, that’s why they’re not getting past this, it’s because of the way they perceive things.”

Convergence: Cool. Good answer, thank you. So, we talked about the elements of a good story here and I wonder if you could, to be concrete, give us some concrete examples of how you’ve applied that in anything you’ve done, including maybe Broken Coworker or anything else, like how were you specific in developing a character, and how were you specific in developing a conflict?

Anna: So, Broken Coworker is one example, right? Basically, you have a character who’s not confident. And it’s funny, because the story starts off with this person complaining about the bully, but when you (I’m giving it all away, hopefully people will still go through it!), but we add a lot of specific details: like, there’s a lot at stake; he’ll lose his job; he’ll look like a fool if he goes home and says “Oh, I got bullied at work and I didn’t handle it well,” you know, those things. Also just the pressure of moving to a different city just for a job, knowing that you love it, and then giving up on that. That’s a really big…that’s a terrible thing to give up so easily.

So what happens in Broken Coworker is even though Sam, who’s our hero…what happens is he works through that story, maybe initially believing it is Emma, his bully, that is the cause of his problem, and maybe there is some idea that if you push back enough, then your bully will change. But the lesson is not that, because bullies don’t change. Otherwise, they just would. They just remain bullies, or something happens that makes them realize “I’m a bully!” What happens is that Sam realizes it is his interior response, and how he feels about himself and the things that he does, that will make a difference. So she can be as obnoxious as she wants to be, but it is what he feels inside that affects everything else, and he can’t change her. So I actually got feedback from people that said “Well, don’t you think that half-way through the story, that Emma should start treating Sam nicely?”

Convergence: Right. Wave a magic wand and change Emma, as opposed to changing your response to Emma.

Anna: Exactly. Exactly. And I said, NO, I want…and also, I think in scenarios and storytelling, there’s a little bit of a fuzzy area where people think “Hey, how come this…how can someone harass you seven times in a row and you not like flip out or, how is that allowed?” And my response is that we’re trying to replicate the most condensed version of reality here, so it’s reality-lite, right? Where I’m basically…I know I only have like 10 minutes with you, so I’m going to bombard you with as many scenarios as possible, so you can practice being in that emotional state, so MAYBE when it happens in reality, you’ve had some semblance of what that feeling is like, and you have the guts to maybe start trying to thinking about it differently.

Convergence: That’s good. From an aesthetic viewpoint, no art is a straight reproduction of reality, but a fictionalized representation of reality, and so you are, for reasons, condensing it like you’re talking about makes sense, and from a learning angle, giving me multiple opportunities for me to practice with this difficult thing, and reflect, I know you give feedback and it allows me to reflect on my choices, that’s completely in line with how people learn.

Side note: Check this article about spaced practice in learning for more on this idea.

Anna: Yeah, totally.

Convergence: Cool, alright. I wonder if, so Broken Coworker is a story about sexual harassment, an HR-compliance kind of thing, I wonder if you have any good sources for stories, maybe from your own life experiences, that can be applied in more of a safety or manufacturing environment, or if you’ve ever done any work in those kind of aspects?

Anna: Yeah, totally. So, I think that when people get into eLearning, the part that story does, the ownership that it takes, is to help somebody realize that there is a…to draw them into thinking this is valuable to them somehow.

And I think that, straight up, if you went “Here is something bad! What would you do?” Or, “You’re operating a forklift, what should John do next? This! Oh, John dies.” OK. There’s the “I don’t care about John, I don’t care if he dies, and also, what does this have to do with me?” And so what happens is that when you build out a story about John, he’s got things that are important outside of work, he wants to pay the bills, he’s got a little girl, all those things, you can now imagine why a person is working, not because they want to be good at what they’re doing, not because they don’t want to die, those are things people don’t even think about, I don’t think, necessarily, but there’s a reason why they want to be employed, there’s a reason why they don’t want to lose an arm, because it’s not about not losing the arm, it’s about the consequences later of not being able to support their family, going home and feeling ashamed, those are things that you can really hook people in with.

So when I think of the scenarios I have done, most of it has been customer-service type things, where someone comes in and let’s say someone brings in a return, and the person who types in the return types it in wrong, say it’s a million dollars worth of product and it has not actually been returned and it’s just sitting there, and we’ve lost a million dollars. But you won’t see that, as a person working in that environment, it’s so far removed from you, you won’t even see it, so one of the things that I think scenarios can do is make that problem evident, because we can compress time, right? And so when it talks about things that, even things that are more compliance issues, like you being sloppy and putting a certain screw in here, and six months later someone gets their finger chopped off, because you didn’t put the safety on here, those are places that scenarios can be very helpful.

It’s funny, because I was recently talking this person who manages hydro-line worker, you know those guys who put up poles, the electrical stuff, like you know, life/death.

Convergence: High risk, right.

Anna: And he was like “Why would we do scenarios? We don’t do alternatives. The alternative is death.” And I was like, “That’s great! Your consequences actually mean something! Go with it!” Like, the worst case for someone working with soft skills, a lot of times the worst case is something like emotional amplification. So you’re asking yourself “How can I make this meaningful?” But here, you’ve got DEATH, and if you care about this person and they die, and then you see their family and they can’t pay their mortgage the next month, that’s awesome. That’s like the best consequences ever. I mean, it’s kind of horrible that I’m getting excited about this.

Side note: Some good tips on preventing workplace fatalities here.

Convergence: Well, that’s a good example, and I wonder if I can dig deeper, and it’s OK if you don’t know the answer to this. But in that example, in that situation, I’m going to reserve the use of the word “scenario” for learning, in that context you’re talking about, you can establish a character, doing what you talked about, we have a high consequence, because it’s high-risk worth, you know, death or serious injury; what kind of scenario did you put or did you suggest putting that character into that eLearning course into? What decision-point did you put the character into that would lead to a potentially high consequence if they made a bad choice, do you remember?

Anna: Yeah. So, where it was, there were two things that were tried, and we found one didn’t work. Have you ever seen that video on YouTube, it’s a branching scenario, and it’s “take the knife or don’t take the knife to a party?”

Convergence: I have not, but typically I go to  a party knife-less, personally.

Quick pause-for-the-cause: Here’s the interactive video Anna’s talking about.

Anna: OK, so this was put together by the UK government or something. And basically what it is, is it’s a first-person perspective, and your friends come over, and they’re like “Hey, let’s go to this party,” and the video stops and says “Take the knife to the party or don’t take the knife?” And then basically, based on what you click, you grab the knife. And I thought that was really cool because you can use YouTube to do branching scenarios–how awesome!–and video is very immersive. However, this is a problem with that: Is I thought “This would be great, because let’s say you’re climbing up, and you’re doing something, and you’re making first-person-type stuff, but, no, no. The problem is, it’s not you. So you’re never going to be like, it’s never you, so you’re always going to have this suspension of disbelief thing happening, because you know it’s not you doing that stuff. You know, it’s not real, and you know it’s not real, so the way to do that would be to separate the action you with story, because you resonate more with a character through story than you would with first-person, you know what I mean? Like, it’s weird, I thought there were be more immersion, but it’s not you, so you don’t care.

Convergence: Yeah, it doesn’t seem like a real decision I’d have to make. It does, however, remind me of that Johnny Cash song “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.

Anna: Yeah, so we were talking about how you would make the conflict, so there, the conflict was, not only were you responsible for yourself, but also your friends, your colleagues on the job, were hurt on the job as a result of your actions. But you have to  build that up–it can’t be just “John just got beheaded!” No. It has to be “You just had lunch with John, he’s such a good guy, last week he lent you his tool kit, whatever,” you know, and you personalize him, and you’re like gosh, that’s a great friend, I just beheaded my best friend. “Whoa!” That’s harsh. I’m really grotesque here, right, I am sure it’s not all that bad, but it can be bad.

Scenario-Based Learning

Convergence: OK, so for the next question, if we’ve been mixing our terms a bit, by necessity, if the first half of our conversation was about story and story-based training, we’ve repeatedly mentioned scenarios, and I wonder if you could just tell us what is a scenario and maybe definitionally what is scenario-based learning?

Anna: You know what? I love the fact that you made that distinction, because there can be, and there is. So let me just return to story-based learning, a bit, because you can definitely have story-based training without scenario.

So one of the best examples I’ve seen is the Red Cross tried to raise money and awareness for people who are refugees that become citizens of no country because of displacement. And so what happens is, I think that when you show facts and “Millions of people are homeless…” you don’t feel it. Those kind of things don’t resonate with us, we don’t feel them and put them in context, right?

So what they did, this is so amazing, and everyone can access this online as well, the story is of one person, it’s a real person’s story, but what they did was tell the story through a comic book, it’s very dark and blue, and it shares some very graphic things that probably would not be digest-able to a lot of people, but through the story they’ve made it palatable enough and graphic enough for you to feel that, and at the very end, they actually introduce that person, and it’s kind of cool because you don’t realize you’re hearing the story of a real person, and at the very end they actually introduce that person, and it’s kind of cool because as you’re going through that you don’t realize you’re hearing the story of a real person, and I think that’s what the big impact is, because you feel “I can’t believe he actually went through that, and that’s a real guy,” and boom!

And we’ve heard that, commercials do this, right, World Vision, one kid, focus on one child, because we can focus on one person, en masse there’s a dispersal and we don’t care, right?

So there’s story-based learning, and to me that’s like Aesop’s Fables and things like that, and through the story things get revealed to you, and you’re like “Ahh…” It’s really about having an “A-ha” moment, it’s really’s one of the things they say fiction has done for humanity, it’s that now we’re able to read different perspectives, so we’re able to have different perspectives, from a different point of view, and that’s what you’re trying to do with story, is show a glimpse of something else. There are still filters, but what is awesome is that now I”m able to have you look through the view of someone else, and make decisions from the perspective of someone else, which is awesome.

Convergence: If I can jump in just a moment before you go on to scenarios, much of what you’re saying about stories, multiple times now, instead of just presenting data and facts, and information, but instead tell stories, engage me, draw in my emotions, tap into the fact that I’m hardwired to care about stories, all of these things come up in a book called Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers–are you familiar with that book?

Anna: Yes.

Convergence: Telling stories not data. And the other thing you said, focus on one person, not the universe or masses of people, and I liked how at the end you talked about how there’s that element of surprise, this is a real person, and the Heath Brothers talk about ALL of those things as being things that help people remember. So I apologize for interrupting.

Anna: No. I love that book. I think everyone should read it.

Convergence: I love it too. If that’s Made to Stick, I always confuse it with the more nerdy learning book Make it Stick, which I also like.

Anna: Yes, that one is also fantastic. The Heath Brothers book, that one is wonderful. I almost feel like that one and maybe Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, was one of those pivotal psychology books for me.  That book is more analytical, but there are a lot of awesome mind tricks that he tells you about that we CAN hack, we’re not hacking enough of that stuff. I think there is definitely Marketing people that are really gaming us, and gaming our engagement, you know, and their benefit is all those numbers. So if we can just leverage their findings, and the kinds of hacks that Facebook uses, if we can get that incorporated with stories, with with scenarios, we can go to the next level.

Side note: In addition to the Kahneman book Anna recommended, you may also want to check out the similar author Daniel Ariely.

Convergence: Agreed. OK, I apologize for interrupting. I think you were just about to get to your way to scenario-based learning and to scenarios.

Anna: Yeah. So here’s what I’m thinking. Whenever I share scenario-design strategies in workshops, and for me let’s just pre-amble what a scenario is to me, which is: (1) a set-up; (2) options; (3) consequences; and (4) feedback. Sometimes no feedback, sometimes the consequence is enough, OK, you’re dead. Right, enough, no need to go on.

So what always comes up, when I give people the choices, like here’s the situation, here’s what Jim does, people are always like “Yeah, but what if my learner would do something different?” And I used to be, like, “Yeah, well, maybe what you can do is have an email, and if they wanted to tell you what other things they would do, then they can email you. And then I was like–no, no, no, no!

Here’s the point: If you pre-amble your story, you’re working with someone with the mindset they have, with a preconception they have, so all those options have to deal with that person’s mental blocks and false assumptions. So there are not infinite options in a scenario, there are only the three you’re trying to control or address. So I feel like what story does is it sets it up, so that now when you get those options, you’re like “Of course that’s what Jim thinks, because he doesn’t follow procedures, he’s never read them, that’s why he’s going to say ‘Yeah, just try it out until it works.'” So what the story does is it sets it up to a nice segue with your scenario, and your scenario….by itself, you can have this “Jim’s doing this, what are his options?”, but you’re probably not going to understand them in the same context unless you know why Jim is thinking that, and hopefully you’ll ask yourself, “Hmm, I wonder if I make those same assumptions?”

So, it adds depth and a better lesson.

Convergence: And reflection. So you’re using story to set it up, to engage my interest, to teach me about Jim so I’ll see his assumptions. Maybe I’ll go so far as to say “Am I like Jim?” At some point, I’ll hit a scenario, I have a range of options, I have to make a decision, and I love the point you made, I thought it was very insightful (because I make it too), about feedback and consequences, I think that consequence is a sub-set of feedback, and I get your point that sometimes the consequence is all I need to present. If Jim died, I may not need a textbox coming up saying “Jim died, and you made a poor choice.” So I would say that consequence is, in fact, feedback.

Anna: True. True, although–and it’s kind of funny–sometimes it really depends on how blatant you want it to be. Because, let’s say for example, sometimes I’ll have to make a decision whether I feel like my target audience is at this lesson reflective enough to get the lesson, because if they’re not, I might want them to maybe get good feedback, or if I really want them to get the lesson, maybe I’ll make them go back and do it again, because I don’t think they’ve got it yet if they’re making these decisions. So there’s a madness in there.

Side note: Since we’re talking about feedback here, this No Feedback, No Learning article by Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neelan seems appropriate, as does this Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning book by Patti Shank.

Convergence: So, for a trainer that wants to be like you, and do the kind of interesting—

Anna: Polish?

Convergence: I didn’t know you’re Polish, I’m Lithuanian, so of course you know, we’re probably the same country, probably cousins, that must be why I like you. But back to the question–are there key elements, and maybe you’ve already defined them, that one needs to set up a good scenario for scenario-based learning, and secondarily, are there tips you have for how people can find those scenarios to apply to meaningful workplace training?

Anna: Good question. Great question. So, I think key elements–one is testing. I think that to believe you can put out a good story on the first try, I’m sorry. Stephen King doesn’t do that. He has his wife review everything before he publishes it. So it’s almost the way the marketers send out the same email with 20 different headlines until they find the one that sticks, and then they’ll use that one. And they won’t know.

There are best practices, obviously, like we talked about character, desire, and conflict, but in order for you to actually know what resonates with people is you have to test it on people, and be OK with the feedback, whatever it is. And then the other thing is I think that…I try never to be an expert in the subject matter that I’m working on, ever. Because what that does is it makes me assume a lot of things, I stop asking dumb questions, I have no ego when I go into situations, and then I”ll still, with the wonder of a child, ask “Hey, can you tell me a story about when this happened? Oh yeah, why what that hard?” So it’s really about just being interested, but also a lot of people ask me “How do I get good stuff from the subject matter expert, they’re never giving me the good stuff?” And I say “It’s because you’re asking them questions that don’t give you the good stuff.” Ask them questions like “Can you tell me a story about that?” They’ll have one–they’ll have one! Just let it sit for a while. Let them think about that for a while.

Convergence: That’s a great point, pointing out another use of stories in human communication. Not that your eLearning course has to, or could, use stories, but stories will help you develop that course. And I like what you said, too–essentially you’re saying beta test, build it in small scale and roll it out. That’s a big thing in design thinking. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Australian learning professional Arun Pradhan, the Australian learning professional? He’s big into that idea.

Anna: Yes. I’ve watched several of his workshop videos on line–it would be kind of cool to meet him one day. That whole idea that we’re no longer designing things for ourselves, we’re designing things with the user in mind, right? Learner-centered design.

I think people often forget–like I said in the very beginning–we’re not our learners. So whatever you like, your people may not resonate with, because it’s missing something, right? Like sometimes you’ll leave a movie–you’re like “I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s well produced, it’s beautiful, but you don’t care for it, because there’s an element missing.” And other people can tell you that, you know–“Do you want to go through it more than once?” “Not really.” “OK, something’s missing, what is that?” And then start asking questions.

Side note: Once when training a group of new customers who had recently adopted our LMS, and while explaining that there was more than one way to perform the same basic procedure, I stupidly blurted out that “it’s just like free jazz and existential philosophy–there’s no single right way to do it.” This went over, predictably, like a lead zeppelin, and I’ve avoided using that particular phrasing in future trainings ever since. 🙂

Know your learners.

I think the other thing that sometimes kills us a little bit is that we over-produce up front, and what happens is when you invest a lot of time and your own ideas, you get so invested in that piece, it’s hard to let it go. So, my advice is to go quick, dirty, ugly, nothing. Just–“Here’s a story. Do you like this story? Do you care about this person? Is this fun? Do you want to learn more?” “Yes.” “OK, I’ll work on that.” “No?” “OK, I’ll back to the drawing board, let’s try something new.” But that’s OK, because I only spent an hour on that, you know what I mean? So feel like it’s OK to iterate, and I feel like design thinking is that–OK, here’s a problem, what do people want to solve, what do they care about, let’s see if they want to solve this, oh they do, ok, let’s do that, what’s wrong with that?

Convergence: OK, I’ve got one last question, but I feel we covered it. So I’ll ask it, answer it if you want to, and if not, I’ve got an alternate question. So this question originally was going to be “What’s the connection between story-based learning and scenario-based learning?” I feel like we’ve hammered that, that you’ve made it clear. Do you agree?

Anna: Yep.

Convergence: Cool. Alternate question then. This is something I’ve thought about a lot, I bet you do as well, in fact I’ve talked to you about it in the past, and I recently read Patti Shank writing about this in the context of direct learning v. inquiry-based learning, but in the context of a blended learning solution and using this kind of scenario, which is arguably a form of inquiry-based learning, how do YOU see the best way to present scenario-based learning within a blended learning solution, and in particular alongside direct learning, possibly to set the learner up to make better decisions in the scenario-based part.

Anna: OK, so, here’s what I think about that. That’s a great question. I think most of the people that come into our training already think they know everything we have to tell them. They come in with the assumption that they’re not going to learn anything new.

So, the scenario for me is what you start with. You start with a scenario in which they think they are going to make the right decision. And then you use the scenario to potentially identify their gaps. That’s all it is–it’s supposed to be “Oh–oh.” Or, what I love to use scenarios for is to create questions in the person’s mind. So you create a scenario that says “Jim’s doing this. And then he gets asked to volunteer at this event, and what should he do?” It posits these ambiguous, your options are gray, gray areas. They’re not necessarily black and white answers. You don’t show consequences. The consequences are discussed. What you thought was the right consequence, you can have learners come up with that during the blended session, right?

So it’s almost like–you know in math, they do fading? Kind of like that. So you are probably familiar with the work of Ray Jimenez? So Ray does this where he uses stories, these little short stories, to provoke. And then bring really strong feelings about how you’d address that. And then when you show up in a live session, you’ve got really strong ideas, and you’re showing up because you want to be told that you’re right. Because a lot of times when we make a decision, and that’s why I feel like if the only thing you’re doing is asking a lot of questions in learning, even without incorporating scenarios, people will be like “Am I right? Was I right? I was right. No, I wasn’t.” So you basically pre-set the engagement, because any times you ask a question, people want to have an answer, so you can game that almost, because any time you get them to show up, they’re ready.

Convergence: That’s insight and clever. So it applies to adult learning principles in that everyone has prior knowledge and experience, so you’re tapping into that. And in more nerdy talk, we all have these mental models and schemas which constantly need to relearn, and you’re using the scenario when I come in and think I know everything about topics X, Y, and Z, to catch me by surprise (a storytelling moment), and make me realize I have a gap in my knowledge, and give me an opportunity to reflect on knowledge gap and improve over time.

OK, well, that’s great, thank you so much. For those who want to know more about you and your work, where should I send them, what websites should they go to?

Anna: should work, and also just look that up on iTunes, I have a podcast and I talk more there about this kind of stuff.

Convergence:  Cool. And for everyone watching, thanks for watching and hanging in, and I totally recommend everything Anna does.

Final side note: You can read more about scenario-based job training here.

Conclusion: Training, Stories, and Scenarios Go Hand-in-Hand

We hope you enjoyed reading Anna talk about storytelling, scenarios, and training as much as we enjoyed talking with her about it. Remember, you can use storytelling in all training delivery methods (instructor-led, field-based, social, eLearning, etc.), not just in eLearning, even if that’s what we focused on here.

For more from Anna on storytelling and persuasion, check out this interview with Anna and her eLearning development partner-in-crime, Ryan Martin.

For those of you who would rather watch and/or listen to Anna and I have our discussion, we’ve included a recording below.

As you’d imagine, we were pretty excited to get a chance to have Anna at the Convergence Training blog. She joins a list of eLearning/learning & development/instructional design rock stars who’ve appeared here, including:

Watch for more coming soon: hint–we’ve got someone lined up to discuss visuals in training with us soon!

Since writing is related to this article, you may also enjoy:

A Little More About Anna Sabramowicz Before We Go

Anna has spent her entire career solving learning problems and fixing courses. She has worked with adidas, Harvard, ABB Group, Sony, Rubbermaid and Michelin and designed a course called, “Designing eLearning Scenarios”.
Anna has an uncanny ability to increase training engagement, retention, and ROI. She maximizes (and multiplies) subject matter expertise, optimizes resources, and leverages elearning. This skill set allows her to create a context where working adults can become more skillful, and, most importantly, stay motivated.
Anna founded a boutique eLearning agency and is an Invited Expert to The Elearning Guild conferences. She’s also well known for being the instructional designer behind the foundational Articulate Storyline project, ‘Broken Co-worker.’ Articulate dubbed her work “Scintillating.”

And here’s Anna!

Have a great day! As a present for reading all the way to the bottom here, feel free to download our free guide on learning objectives below.


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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

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