Storytelling and Instructional Design

Story telling and instructional design have a lot in common and perhaps they are not thought of as having any overlap but they do. In e-learning we have instructional strategies, in a story we have a plot. In e-learning we have objectives, in a story we have a morale or an underlying theme or symbolism (good ones anyway, i.e. the Christ references in the original Matrix). In storytelling we have characters, in e-learning we are teaching people to perform certain roles (order entry clerk, salesperson).

But there are differences which impact the ability to include storytelling in learning.

In ID we break everything down into compent pieces, in storytelling, we integrate everything together. In storytelling we take the time to provide the context and environmnent in which the story takes place, in ID we usually just plop the person in the middle of the content to be learned (we are not supposed to but…that happens more often than not). In storytelling we aim to create connections to the audience, in most e-learning…we just tell the learner stuff he/she needs to know (like policies and procedures).

So the question might be asked, how do we help instructional designers become storytellers. Here is one idea, have the designer create a lesson entirely in pictures using PowerPoint or some other slide media and force them to “tell the story” to an audience complete with characters, plot and setting–no words on the slides…none. It really forces the analytical side of a designer over to the “story telling side” and requires some real thinking about stories and e-learning.

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Posted in: Design

Leave a Comment (4) ↓


  1. Karl Kapp September 27, 2009


    Good luck! And thanks for dropping by and leaving a note, let us know how it goes!

  2. Newman October 17, 2008

    Cliff Atkinson talks about story as a key to making a good powerpoint presentation. And by good, I mean: memorable, impactful, and facilitates a change in knowledge, attitude, or skill.

    The ‘presentation zen’ guy also has a great google talk about story in presentation.

    Glad someone is thinking about storytelling and ISD.

    Thanks for the inspiration,

  3. Rupa October 17, 2008

    Hi Prof Karl Kapp,

    Great post!

    I always make it a point to create lots of visuals in my storyboard.

    I like to use visuals because it improves my creative skills.

    I like your idea of using just pictures in elearning. Its a bit challenging too.

    Thanks for this post again!

  4. Bart October 16, 2008

    I never put the pieces together like you have here, comparing certain aspects of both. This post brought to mind two things:

    1. Context. After designing my first 2 online courses after graduating the IIT, it quickly became apparent that, as you say, just dropping the learners into the content DOES NOT WORK. I started to chunk things to where I could put together bite-sized piece of content, followed by a contextualized story of how someone (fictional) could put this content to use in a specific setting. The best method I found was to break things up into small chunks of content>story>content>story etc. but the story is all tied together, following the same character and context through each chunk. The next step is to try and make the story part interactive, giving the learning the ability to make decisions for the character. We're looking at a piece of software called Inform to do this.

    2. Keynotes – I saw Lawrence Lessig keynote a conference over the summer, and I also watch a lot of online videos from TED, GDC and other conferences. I definitely see a trend of big-name people using 60-50% pictures on their slides and only 40-50% text. The presenter tends to go through slides rapidly, moving from image to image while telling a story, then stopping on text-based slides to either connect the dots or recap info. I'm starting to prefer this style and experimenting with putting my own class slides together this way.

Karl Kapp
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