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Guide Evaluate: Educational Story Design

Most educational designers are not writers, at least not in a literary sense. We don’t often write short stories or novels, and yet we often need a good story to aid learning. Learning solutions has published many articles and research on the value and power of stories in eLearning. Stories can engage learners, drive behavior change, enforce learning, and support compliance training. But there is a problem.

Karl Kapp summarized the problem in this way in his research report 2014: Big Answers: Using Stories for Learning:

“When we learn design, we tend to break everything down into pieces. In storytelling, we integrate everything together. In storytelling, we take the time to provide the context and environment in which the story takes place. When learning design, we usually just plop the person in the middle of the content we are learning (we shouldn’t, but most of the time it happens). In storytelling we want to create connections with the audience, while in most training we only tell the learner things he or she needs to know (like policies and procedures and “what not to do”). So the question is, “How do learning designers become better storytellers?”

The good news is, just as ADDIE is a method that creates effective training, Rance Greene has documented a methodical, effective process in Instructional Story Design that mirrors ADDIE for creating stories.

Greene’s book is a detailed guide to story design – the story design model – written for instructional designers. He describes the outcome as “where instructional design and story design meet” and relates the use of stories to talent development tasks, not just to “training”. I found many features in the book that I liked book deals:

  • Worksheets and questionnaires to guide your thoughts and your writing
  • Appendices that expand the parts of the story design model in context
  • Examples and an ongoing “story” that holds it all together
  • Practice the story-drafting sections in each chapter
  • Feedback that gives guidance

Why bother with stories?

Stories are unforgettable. Stories are actionable. Stories are emotional. These are the three reasons stories work and why they have always worked to learn. In addition to these three qualities, stories offer other benefits that aid learning and involve the learner.

First, the story writer can build links to resources in the workplace, just as an eLearning writer can build links into any asynchronous module. A well-written story provides a seamless experience for the learner. A story provides characters and situations that the learner can relate to.

The story design model

The story design model consists of three parts:

  • discovery
  • design
  • delivery

Each of these topics is carefully and extensively covered in its own section of Instructional Story Design. There is one aspect of Greene’s discussion that I find particularly valuable because it presents and builds key competencies that I believe I have never seen in any other book.

ADDIE’s “Analysis” and the story design “Discovery”

Identifying the root problem and business outcome by interviewing stakeholders and subject matter experts is so important, but it is often overlooked when designing instructions because the customer has already decided they want training. This activity involves answering a key question: “Does solving this problem require training to be successful?”

One benefit of starting the discovery process in Instructional Story Design is that the instruction designer learns to gracefully ask the questions required to preserve the story while collecting materials for characters and conflicts that are essential to storytelling . Greene involves discussing the stakeholder conversation and the questions that need to be answered in order to create the conditions for a good instruction and a successful story. These are the PRIMED questions: What should the stakeholders be asked about?

The designer can identify not only the training solutions that lead to necessary changes in knowledge, skills and attitudes, but also other solutions (work environment and processes) that have to be addressed in order to achieve the desired result.

The Discovery section provides sample conversations to help you investigate problems in:

  • Customer service
  • sales
  • New hire onboarding
  • System training

The same section takes the reader through the questions required to create an audience profile. This is another detail that other pieces of advice to writers generally skip.

Why do you need this book?

Instructional story design focuses on connecting a story (about a business outcome that is at stake and a fundamental problem that stands in the way) to an action that the reader can take. To tell the story, you need relatable characters (those that the audience can relate to and care about) and strong conflict (intense enough to cause a significant emotional response). In this book, you’ll learn how to gather and assemble the information you need about these two elements. The result is an act that is tailored to the audience.

Storytelling is a skill and it takes study and practice to master, just like any other skill. Storytelling for education or talent development has specific challenges that mismatch with the challenges a literary writer faces. Instructional Story Design provides the thorough study and practice required for the particular creative location that the Instructional Story is in.


Rance Greene (2020) Instructional Story Design: Develop Stories That Exercise. ATD Press, Alexandria, VA. 307 pages

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