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Home Blog Storytelling in Instructional Design: What It Is and Why It Matters 

Storytelling in Instructional Design: What It Is and Why It Matters 

October 20, 2023

Contributing Author: Alley Bardon

9 mins read

When you think of instructional design, storytelling may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, the reality is that storytelling (when used effectively) can be extremely useful when it comes to engaging learners, creating an emotional connection, and making course material easier to understand. 

If you're looking for creative ways to take your instructional design to the next level, it's time to explore the principles of story design. With a better idea of what design storytelling entails, how it can help your target audience, and how to implement some basic principles of storytelling in design, you'll be able to convey information more effectively to your students. 

What Is Storytelling in Instructional Design? 

When do you think of a training class or educational course, what's the first thing that comes to mind? You might envision a large room filled with desks and chairs and an instructor standing at the front of the room, lecturing their audience about a given topic. 

While this may have been the "norm" of instruction historically, the reality is that learning has come a long way in recent years. Today, educators (and instructional designers) understand that people have many different learning styles—and most learners simply don't retain information effectively when they're being lectured to. Instead, they tend to learn better and retain information more readily when they can form an emotional connection to the content. 

Enter instructional story design, a strategy that incorporates elements of storytelling to deliver educational content. 

How Storytelling Works in Instructional Design

So, what exactly is storytelling in design and how does it work? There are many different types of storytelling in instructional design (we'll delve into these later), each with its own unique advantages and outcomes. However, storytelling in instructional design is a strategy that quite literally involves crafting a story with characters, a plot, and an overall message to help people learn more effectively. 

The Importance of Storytelling in Instructional Design

There are many benefits to incorporating elements of storytelling in instructional design for everyone from professors teaching academic courses to corporate trainers handling company education. 

First and foremost, storytelling increases engagement between the material and the target audience. When a learner is presented with a story that contains characters, conflicts, and a compelling plot, they're far more likely to feel connected and engaged to the content than if they were simply being lectured to. This higher level of engagement not only makes the content more interesting for the learner, but it also helps learners more readily retain that information. 

This, in turn, makes the use of storytelling in instructional design an effective way to introduce complex material and make it more accessible to learners. Likewise, learners can better relate to the material being presented because they may feel a more personal connection between themselves and the character(s) in the story. 

With so many improved learning outcomes to reap from thoughtful storytelling, it only makes sense that more course designers and teachers are beginning to incorporate this strategy into their own curriculums and lesson plans. Before you decide to dive into storytelling in the next course you design, there are a couple of key things to consider. 

Target Audience

Perhaps the most important consideration in storytelling with instructional design is your target audience. Once you have a better understanding of who your target audience is, you can more readily produce personas that the learners in your audience will relate to. 

This means going beyond a surface-level understanding of your audience to really understand what makes them unique, not just focusing on basic demographics (such as age and interests). Instead, recognize nuances like their unique learning styles, pain points, and common challenges. From there, you can begin building personas and characters within your own story that your learners will be more likely to connect to. This will likely increase engagement and improve learning outcomes. 

Purpose and Goals

Likewise, instructional designers must carefully consider the purpose and goals of the stories they choose to tell. At the end of the day, you can craft the most interesting and compelling story—but if it doesn't connect to a key lesson or concept, it's not serving its intended purpose. To avoid this common mistake, instructional designers should first consider the purpose and overall goals of the lesson, then craft a story that will help achieve those outcomes.

Elements of Storytelling in Instructional Design

Now that you have a better understanding of what storytelling is and how it can apply to instructional design, you may be wondering what makes up a remarkable story. There are a few elements to creating a solid story, not just in instructional design, but across all contexts. These include a plot, theme, message/symbolism, characters, and text/audio. 

Plot

A plot refers to the series of events that occur in your story and is one of the most essential elements of any story. Without it, there's no rhyme or reason for what happens in the story itself. A quality plot includes an introduction, rising action, and a climax that holds your learners' suspense. From there, the plot typically falls into a resolution of the conflict or problem. 

Theme

Another important element of a story to consider is the theme, which ties to the central topic or subject that the story is about. In some cases, the theme of a story may be obviously connected to the plot itself—but this is not always the case. Likewise, it is possible for a story to have more than one theme. In instructional design, however, it is best to keep things simple and make sure that your theme is easy for your learners to connect to the story. Sticking with just one theme per story can help to keep things simple and avoid confusing your audience. 

Message and Symbolism

It can be powerful to incorporate messages or symbolism into your storytelling in certain situations. Symbolism refers to the use of an object, idea, or concept in a story to represent something else. This can be extremely useful in helping readers understand complex topics or concepts by representing them in a more accessible way. It can be difficult to use messaging and symbolism effectively in design storytelling, however, so it may be worth practicing a bit.

Characters

Another key element to successful storytelling in instructional design is the use of characters. A good story can have just one main character, or it may have many characters who take part in the storyline. When crafting a story for instructional design, the most important thing to keep in mind is that your target audience should connect with your characters. If your audience can relate and connect to your characters on an emotional level, they're much more likely to feel engaged and take something away from your course. Taking the time to carefully develop your characters and personas can go a long way in the success of your storytelling.

Text and Audio

Finally, consider how you may want to present your story in an instructional setting. Will the story be told verbally, or will learners read the story in text form? In some cases, a combination of text and audio may be suitable to cater to different styles of learning. Regardless, it's important to have a solid plan in place for carrying out and telling a story in the medium of your choice. 

Types of Storytelling for Instructional Design

In addition to the key elements of a great story, there are also several approaches you can take when it comes to incorporating storytelling into instructional design. There are four types of story formats that you can choose from, ranging from case-based and narrative-based, to scenario- and problem-based. The format that's right for your story will depend on your audience and goals and the narrative structure you're following. 

1) Case-Based Instruction

In case-based instruction, stories are told using specific examples (or cases) to convey a message or key point. With this format of storytelling, your plot is less likely to follow the typical "conflict" to "resolution" timeline—and is more about providing real-world examples to demonstrate concepts or points. You'll have the most success with this type of instruction in your storytelling if you can choose cases and examples that your learners are likely to connect and engage with. 

2) Narrative-Based Instruction

Another option to consider in your storytelling is to use a narrative-based format. This format is perhaps the most "standard" when telling a story because it essentially follows a main character through the development of a plot, a climax, and resolution. It's likely the type of storytelling format you first think of when you think about writing a story. 

If you decide to use narrative-based instruction in your course, focus on creating strong characters that resonate with your target audience. From there, build a realistic plot that best conveys your message and creates a natural narrative that your learners can easily follow. 

3) Scenario-Based Instruction

With a scenario-based story, learning is achieved by recreating a real-world scenario and telling it in the form of an engaging story. This is a fantastic way to allow your audience to explore their learning environments in a manner that is relatable to them. Moreover, since you can produce your own scenario (real or imagined), you can write the story in a way that is most relatable to your audience. 

4) Problem-Based Instruction 

With problem-based instruction, you are using a story to present a problem to your audience. From there, your learners are tasked with solving the problem and coming up with strategies to overcome the issue at hand. This type of story can be a great way to get people talking and collaborating while coming up with strategies to resolve the conflict at-hand. The biggest challenge with this type of format can be audience participation, but you can encourage participation and engagement by crafting stories that present realistic problem scenarios with relatable characters. 

Explore Lindenwood's Master of Arts in Instructional Design

As you can see, there is absolutely a place for storytelling in instructional design. The challenge is doing it well. With a solid understanding of the design process and how to build a narrative structure that takes your learners through the entire journey, you'll be prepared to work the principles of storytelling and storyboards into your own course material. 

At Lindenwood University, we're proud to offer an online Master of Arts in Instructional Design that could help you take your educational career to the next level. This program focuses on the principles of storytelling in design, as well as other core concepts that include academic theory, design models, and the needs of modern learners. Upon completion of this program, you can be prepared to design curriculums and make a true impact in any education-based setting. 

Ready to learn more about our Master of Arts in Instructional Design? Get in touch to learn more about this program or any of the other online programs offered at Lindenwood University. You can also begin your application online today! 

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