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That's Instructional Story Design!

Story designer, author, and speaker, Rance Greene joins me to talk about instructional story design. Whether you are brand new to story design, or whether you've been doing it a while, Rance shares his tips for using stories to engage learners. He also shares reasons why stories are so engaging, and answers the question, in what learning situation would story design not be a good option?

Rance is launching the Instructional Story Design Roundtable where people can meet and discuss their questions and experiences with instructional story design. You can find out more at


The following transcript was auto-generated and may contain typos or spelling errors.

Leslie Early 0:00

Okay, today I am super excited because I have story designer, author and speaker Rance Greene here with me today. Thanks for joining me Rance.

Rance Greene 0:10

Thank you, Leslie. It's great to be here.

Leslie Early 0:12

Yeah. So I'm excited. Because I mean, I know that a lot of people are fans of yours, I'm a fan of yours, because you are basically an expert on how to use stories to sort of think about using stories in the instructional design process, because it's a great way to basically motivate people to get involved with your training and what you're trying to say. So that was like a very eloquent way of describing what you are an expert in. So I don't know if you want to take a moment or two to sort of introduce yourself and talk about how you got interested in helping other people use stories in this way.

Rance Greene 0:53

Sure, Leslie. think you did a fine job, you know, I struggle sometimes to like, help people understand. So I think you did just a fine job there. But yeah. And I think that the first time I realized, like, when the lights came on, that people wanted help. with creating stories for training, I was giving a presentation, I was asked to come and talk to a group of people who were part of my local chapter of ATD, in Dallas. And they just wanted me to start sharing some of my work with them. And so I did, I showed some stories that I had created for training. Some of them were very complex, some of them very simple. Some of them developed, you know, with full out animations, some of them just stories on a screen. And afterwards, people came up to me, and they were like, hey, rants, you know, this is great. And I want to learn how to do this. And I was like, well just write the story, you know, and then pair it with the training and kind of got some blank stares. Like, I don't know how to do that. So I come with to the instructional design field and the talent development field with a background in theater. And so a lot of directing a lot of acting and choreography. And so like being around and creating stories, was part of who I was. And so when I came to the instructional design role, that's just I made story based training. That's just what I did.

Leslie Early 2:33

Yeah, it's like second nature for you already, right when you get here.

Rance Greene 2:38

That's right. So being able to translate that then it helped other people to gain that same skill was kind of like my mission after that. And that is how I got started helping others I did my first workshop. And from that workshop, people went on to transform their training programs into story based programs. And, you know, fast forward a few years, and I'm like, hey, maybe I should document this and write a book about it. And add press showed a great interest. So I published with them, and the book came out in April. So now I'm thrilled that more and more people can start applying can applying story design principles in their training to help relieve our, our burdens learners.

Leslie Early 3:29

Right, right. I mean, it's a win win for everybody. I think it's more fun to write story based training. And it's also more fun to learn that way. I'm sure because humans just like stories, right. Yeah. So this kind of leads into kind of my next question, though, is, in your words, why do you think that stories are so effective? for instructional design or learning experience design? Why is it such a good way to go about it?

Rance Greene 4:01

Well, literally, let me answer your question with a question. And I'd like for you to just think for a moment about the stories that you like. Why do you think you like those stories so much? What about them, makes them so appealing? What attracts you to them?

Leslie Early 4:19

Well, I mean, they're entertaining, first of all, yeah, it's absolutely entertaining. And it's kind of you know, there's whenever you're listening to a good story, you sort of lose track of where you are, what you're doing. You know, it kind of takes you out of, I don't know, your present circumstance for a minute, and you kind of just sort of get lost in that experience for a minute.

Rance Greene 4:44

That's right. And the experience that you just described is similar to like a flight simulator. Like when you're in a flight simulator, you all the neurons are firing that would be firing in a normal circumstance like in a real world situation. A very similar thing happens with stories you lean in. That's why you crease your brow. When you're when the character is puzzled. That's why you're on the edge of your seat when there is danger. It's why you cry when there's something emotional, and you're really taking on that story for yourself and kind of like living it out. Like it's your own reality. So if we could take that experience, and, and create that experience for training. Doesn't that sound pretty appealing?

Leslie Early 5:35

Yeah. And why wouldn't we, if we want people to? If we really want people to practice something, I guess it would make most sense to have them feel like they're going through it themselves? Hmm.

Rance Greene 5:48

Yeah, yeah. So it makes the training itself more actionable, if you will. Another reason why people use stories in training is because stories are very memorable. I have a beautiful example of this. In my own experience, where, where they wanted us to come in and do some training. And they wanted us to kind of it was basically compliance related things where people were misbehaving on the team, it was just kind of a general, bad culture on the team. And they just the the management was saying, Hey, will you come in and slap their hands for us? And I'm like, No, but we will, we will create a story. And we'll let them figure out the best way through. And so by by creating the story, and then just asking some open ended questions, the group was able to really hone in on those things that would help the people in the story. Subconsciously helping themselves, and then not so subconsciously training them on those skills that they've identified by watching the story, and then telling us what those improvements could be. So months later, the managers call us and say, Hey, the whole culture has changed on our team. Whenever we start slipping back, we just say, Hey, remember that story? Remember that story that they told us? Because the story itself contain all of the everything that was needed for behavior change?

Leslie Early 7:19

Yeah. And this was not one of our prepared questions. But listening to you talk made me think about it, is that there are some people I've heard a little bit of discourse about? Should when you're trying to use stories, when you're setting up like a scenario or something like that? Do you think there's any benefit over using like a third person? Like, what would Susan do versus like, putting it in putting the learner in, in the first person and saying, what would you do? Like? Do you think there's any pros or cons to either of those? Or really, story? Trump's them both?

Rance Greene 7:56

Yeah, I think that as long as the story is well designed, it doesn't matter, I don't see a disadvantage of putting the learner in the place of an observer, there's really no disadvantage to that. Putting them in the seat of the learner is actually more challenging because it can't be gender specific. It can't be ethnic Pacific specific. It's got to be pretty general. And so that it limits you in some ways. Yeah. On, on what you can, how much you can develop the main character, which is the person sitting in that scene?

Leslie Early 8:36

Oh, that's true. I hadn't thought of it that way. So in some ways, even though like the idea is to, like you're trying to get on, you're trying to get subconsciously, to have the learner think about what they themselves would do. But by saying you now you've, you've sort of written yourself into a corner of having a very, very generalized scenario that would apply to everybody equally. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Rance Greene 9:01

That's very possible, it can be done very effectively. I'm not gonna say it can't be I've done it myself. But I would say, have putting that learner in the in the seat of the observer is definitely not going to hinder the learning.

Leslie Early 9:16

Yeah. And it's sort of I mean, we've been learning that way, since time immemorial. So I think, yeah, you make a very good point. Okay. Okay. So I guess my next question then is we're trying to get into some practical tips for people. So if this is something new, like if someone has never tried storytelling in their design process yet, what do you think would be the first thing that they should think about or look out for?

Rance Greene 9:44

I would say that probably 100% of your audience is training humans. So the people pay attention to who you are training and Create an audience profile for every new audience that you're training. Each one of those people that you're training is listening to viewing, consuming and telling stories every day several times a day, and at night when they go to bed. Many times they're dreaming and stories and their brain is trying to figure things out. So it is in the best interest of the instruction. And certainly in the best interest of the story, if you know who is going to be taking that training. And I encourage, like answer four questions. Answer about if you can answer these four questions about your audience, then you're on your way to creating some pretty good instruction and also some great characters for your story. The four questions off the top of my head that I would choose as, like primary questions to ask is, what is your audience value the most? What are their current circumstances? How are they reacting to those circumstances? And what do they fear? If you can answer those four questions, you know, with with a fair amount of confidence, you can't you need to find out the the answers to those questions, talk with people who know the audience, the learning audience, and find those out. If you can answer them, then you're going to be in a much better position to design effective instruction and to incorporate a story that is really going to relate to them.

Leslie Early 11:45

I'm most intrigued by the last question you brought up, which is, know what they fear. So what what, what is the benefit to knowing what your audience fears in this type of situation.

Rance Greene 11:57

So we're speaking in terms of what do they fear in the actual situation in their work situation, right? Because a lot of times the fears themselves, will provide information that you are going to incorporate into the story into the plies in some way, perhaps they fear that they're going to let their customer down. Because there's a new set of processes, and you're training them on this new set of processes, and they're worried that they're going to let their customer down, because they're spending all this time trying to make sure that they know how the system works now, and it's slowing them down. And so they don't want to adopt that new way. They want to they, they want to they value customer service. Right. And so that that fear is trumping them actually taking action on your training. So that needs to be in the story. You know, because you the story can help the can bring that fear right up to the front and highlight it and address it. And and also help the training can help actually calm some of those fears. Right away. So that's, you'll get a lot of information from from answering that question. That needs to be part of your story.

Leslie Early 13:19

Yeah. Yeah. Especially because story has such a powerful way of accessing people's like subconscious. And like, by answering that question, like you said, You said it perfectly, you're addressing something that maybe the learner does isn't even fully aware that they have this competing, like, like, commitment to doing it the old way. So by bringing that to light and then addressing it, that's very smart. Good job. Yeah. You must be an expert on this, you must have written a book about it.

Rance Greene 13:56

Leslie actually liked the way you put that, because I feel like a lot of the thing, a lot of the things that you gain from the audience profile that make it into the story, you know, it brings the story into the concrete world of reality. And instructional designers are a bit notorious for it's an ideal world, right? And everything is working just like clockwork, well, that ain't reality. That is not how the world out there is running. And people are, there's a lot of gray. There's a lot of in you know, it's a complex situation. Usually, it's not just a black and white thing. And so those little details help to bring the learner right into reality and really respect them for where they where they're living right now.

Leslie Early 14:42

Yeah. So I guess so that's kind of the advice for the beginner, but there might be some people who have sort of been dabbling or been working with this for you know, some time. So on the flip side of the beginner question then is what do you think? Experience storytellers or designers might still be able to improve upon, like, what would be the advanced tip?

Rance Greene 15:11

Sure, this this sounds like it's not an advanced tip. But I think in every workshop that I've conducted, the most seasoned instructional designers still struggle with performance objectives. And I would say, you have to have a logical sequence of performance objectives. And they need to be observable actions. If your performance objective starts with the word understand, you gotta go a little deeper. What does the learner do as a result of understanding ABC. And so that, that that action needs to turn into an actual observable action, because you're definitely not going to be able to create stories without those actionable actions in your in your performance objectives, because that is where your conflict lies. And that is how the story, I think a lot of people who have tried out story, they've gotten the story a little wrong, because it's not totally connected to the performance objectives that you're training on. It's like when you go here as Speaker, and they're telling this story. A lot of people tell stories when they speak. Yes. And at the end, you're like, What on earth was that? Why did you tell me that story? What was the point of it? Because it didn't circle it back around and connect it to the message. So it's the same with training, and it's got to connect to those performance objectives. And I think that even seasoned, even seasoned people struggle with that. But if they get it right, man, the story comes pretty easily.

Leslie Early 16:46

Yeah, yeah. You have to do the action verbs, no passive verbs here. Yeah. Right. Okay. Well, let me see here. I guess. So my last question here is sort of because I'm interested, I mean, I've read the book, and I am lucky enough to have a chance to chat with you. And but what is something that people ask you? Like? What's a common question that people ask you about this? I mean, I'm assuming you're doing some PR, and going around and talking about it quite a lot. But you know, what, what are people care most curious about?

Rance Greene 17:22

Leslie, I do talk to a lot of people about this. And strangely, the thing that a lot of people ask me is, what kind of situations would you not use a story and for training? And I always am a little, it's a little bit of a head scratcher for me, because I feel like I should be saying something really philosophical. And you know, deep. Usually, my answer is, well, there really isn't any situation in a training scenario, where you shouldn't be using stories. And they're like, yeah, yeah, but what about, you know, systems training or something that I'm like, yep. I've seen some beautiful examples of stories that were used for systems training or technical training. So I can't if you are, if you are training someone to do something different than what they are already doing, there's a story there. And so I would say any situation, any kind of training situation, in my opinion, deserves a story.

Leslie Early 18:21

Yeah. Or at least the, like, at least consider it right. Like, don't just don't just assume because it is something pretty dry that that you couldn't create a story around it.

Rance Greene 18:35

That's right. Usually that dry material is like, really, like ripe. For for a story.

Leslie Early 18:42

Yeah. Well, yeah. So I actually I'm thinking of one specific project at work where I was like, I was not thinking about a story for that. But now let's just say it and maybe have to put my thinking, Kevin, but um, yeah. So again, thank you so much, Rance for joining me. And I know you have so much more to say about this topic. This was just a little bite sized conversation about it. So if people wanted to connect with you, or reach out to you, what would be the best way to do that?

Rance Greene 19:15

I guess the easiest way is either through my website, need a And you can click on the Contact tab and get in touch with me in that way. Or you can just send me an invitation on LinkedIn. I'm blessed to have we are blessed to have a very engaged community on LinkedIn in this industry, with lots of great articles and videos being shared. So you know, I'd love to connect in that way. I do have a instructional story design Roundtable. And my first one is going to be February 16 2021. And I am thinking that This might be this will be my first one. And so I'm thinking that it might continue on. But it's just going to be a community of people who are interested in story design. And either they have read the book and they have some successes to share or they have some struggles to share. Or they're brand new to this idea and want to just connect with others who are doing it and form a community, some extremely excited to just to connect with people is totally free. And you can find out how to register at need a

Leslie Early 20:30

sounds great. Yeah. I love that. I've been thinking a lot about communities of practice myself these days. And I think that's, that's awesome that you're, you're creating a space for that. So very cool. All right. Well, I think that's it for us today. So thanks again, so much rants and I will talk to you soon.

Rance Greene 20:48

Thank you Leslie. Thanks so much for having me.

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