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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”