Using storytelling to design learning solutions

Written by guest writer: Jamie Dixon

Storytelling has become a bit of a buzz word in recent years, a word that is somewhat misleading.

When we see this word, we tend to think of people telling stories, or novels, or movies. But there’s actually much more to storytelling than just telling stories.


Story is a fundamental part of how we exist. We have stories about our role in society, stories about how society works, stories about our work, about the people we work with, about the world we live in. They are the maps that help us navigate the world.


A big part of learning involves creating new stories or updating existing stories. Through learning, we gain new stories about how to navigate all the complicated situations we find ourselves in, such as how to work from home, how to run our businesses entirely online, or how to communicate with that difficult coworker!


In my recent book “The Story Habit - How Leaders Shape Stories That Drive Action”, I introduced my “Relate, Challenge, Resolve "framework, and in this article I’m going to walk you through how to use this framework to help people learn.


So what do I mean by “Relate, Challenge, Resolve”?

Any story you ever read, watch or hear will do 3 things:

1.                 It will present a character you can relate to, in a situation you can relate to

2.                 It will then present that character with a challenge

3.                 It will then show how the character resolves that challenge (or at least attempts to resolve it)


To give an example, recently I finished reading the book "Stranger in the Shogun’s City” by Amy Stanley. It’s a painstakingly researched historical account of a woman named Tsuneno from rural Japan in the mid-1800swho escaped her overbearing family and cultural traditions to seek a life of freedom and excitement in Tokyo (“Edo” at the time).


Straight away you can probably imagine all of the constraints a woman of that time-period in rural Japan must have faced. I’m sure as you imagine those constraints, you are reminded of how constrained you have felt at times in your life, be it from a job you didn’t like, having to wake up early every morning to catch a train to work, or all the extra chores having young children brings. As you imagine those, you can amplify the feelings to the scale Tsuneno must have felt. You can empathise with her.


The goal of the beginning of a story is to immerse you in it, and that is achieved by making you empathise with the character. Now you empathise with them, you’re on their side, you want to see them get what they want! And in “Stranger in the Shogun’s City”, Tsuneno seeks to escape all of these pressures in her life and seek her freedom in the city of Edo.


But Edo doesn’t turn out the way she expected. In fact, her life becomes a lot worse as she is all on her own, fighting for survival, in an over-crowded and alien place. I won’t ruin the rest of the story for you here, but you feel for her as you read about the challenges she faces, and you want her to find a way of resolving those challenges.


And that’s what the rest of the story is about, her finding a way of resolving those Challenges. And does she or does she not? Again, I won’t ruin the story for you.


Let’s Come Back to Learning

Over the last few years of training people on my “Relate, Challenge, Resolve” framework, I’ve found it has a lot more applications than just telling stories. So, let’s see how we can apply this to learning.


In short:

1.                 Whatever learning solution you have, it must start by Relating to the people it is designed to serve

2.                 Then, it must Challenge them

3.                 Finally, it must help them Resolve those challenges


Let’s go through this step by step.



If you’re a facilitator, you’ve probably faced this situation:


You turn up to the training room, and it’s full of people who don’t want to be there!


Straight away it’s off to a bad start. You try to raise the energy levels, but it just doesn’t work.


Rule number of 1 of learning is that people will only learn when they care. If the learning solution doesn’t help them either solve a problem they care about, or achieve a goal they care about, then they won’t care about it.


So, what do they care about?


Ironically, one of the best skills you can learn to be a good storyteller, is to shut up and listen more. By listening, you learn what motivations they have, what beliefs they have, and what experiences they have had. By understanding those, you can relate to them.


Learning what they care about should be the very first step of any learning intervention.


But there’s also a second part; any information you present should be presented in a way they can relate to. Here, the classic storytelling principle of “Show, Don’t Tell” is key.


The basic idea of “Show, Don’t Tell” is to speak to the senses, not the intellect! This is what novels do to keep you engaged. Rather than tell you “the man was angry” they show you by describing “he slammed his laptop on the table sending shards of plastic flying across the room”. You don’t need to be told he was angry; you can picture it!


But when it comes to learning, I find the most literal interpretation of “Show, Don’t Tell” to be most effective. Don’t tell them anything, let them experience it for themselves!


For example, a part of your management skills training involves introducing the use of positive feedback to motivate employees. Originally, you’d planned to quote several academic papers and summarise some components of self-determination theory. But when you attempt to show instead of telling, you discover a far more effective way of relating this idea.


You ask your participants to commit to a week-long experiment. Over the next week, they are to give at least 10 pieces of positive feedback to others per day, be it work related peers, friends or family members. They are to keep a journal of what specifically they said, when they said it and the impact, if any, that it had.


Then, after a week everyone comes together to share their findings.


When you focus on letting people experience things for themselves, be prepared for far richer and deeper discussions, and to learn a thing or two yourself! The personal experience people will gain from this approach will cause them to see, hear and feel for themselves the importance of whatever it was that they were doing. They will become much more aware of the nuance involved in applying theories. And they will be fascinated to discover how their peers discovered exactly the same things, or even discovered completely the opposite!



If you have children who play video games, then you’ve probably noticed that they really, really, really love playing video games. Infact, if you’re honest, you enjoy a game or two yourself when no one else is looking!


This is no coincidence; this is entirely by design.


Play is the essence of learning. We try new things, we explore new territory, we gain new skills and we take on challenges we couldn’t take on before.


But there is a similar principle at play (ha, see what I did there!) when it comes to storytelling.


Any story is about change! Something in the character’s world changes, and they are forced into a situation where they have no choice but to play (even if the play is extremely unpleasant for them!).


In “Stranger in the Shogun’s City”, Tsuneno leaves her family and her rural home that she’s spent her entire life in, and moves to the city, which for her is completely unknown. She forces herself into a situation where she has no choice but to try new things, explore new territory, gain new skills and take on new challenges she couldn’t take on before.


To get really meta about storytelling for a second, stories are ultimately about the stories within the story! It’s change that introduces the character to a situation they don’t have a story for. The very best stories help the audience understand the stories the character uses to navigate their world, before placing them in a new world that their stories can’t help them navigate anymore.


This is the essence of challenge; placing people in a situation they don’t have a story for. And it’s what makes a story really interesting; watching the character struggle as they learn new stories to help them navigate new worlds.


In learning, if you want your learning solution to be engaging, it should expose learners to situations they don’t have stories for.


Give them a challenging task, simulate an experience they’ve never experienced before, put them under familiar circumstances but with new pressures.


But don’t do this just for the sake of learning. It’s much better if your learning solution comes at a time when your learners have been disrupted by change or are well aware that they’re about to be disrupted by change.


For example, you run a careers service at a University, and you’re quite concerned by how passive students are about brushing up their CVs in preparation for finding work. You’ve tried telling them what they need to do and why, but it doesn’t help.


So, you run a workshop, but invite an HR Manager from a major corporation that many of these graduates dream of working for. You ask the students to bring their CVs to the workshop, and the HR Manager will simulate job interviews with each of the students.


Watch as they start to sweat. Rub your hands in glee as the HR Manager absolutely destroys them in the interviews. Make sure you bring abox of tissues to mop up those tears.


THEN tell them what to do and why! In that moment, when they’ve already been disrupted by change, they will care a lot more about brushing up their CVs and increasing their employability.



It wouldn’t be very fair to challenge people to tears and then call it a day!


Learning is about being able to navigate these new worlds.


In any story, we follow with curiosity as the character tries new ways of adapting to the world, and finds out through painful feedback what doesn’t work, until they eventually find what does work.


But this is why we have learning solutions; so we can reduce the pain of doing things that don’t work. We want to present what does work.


Ironically, in my 10 years of training, I’ve found a lot of training providers don’t do a very good job of this. At most, they’ll provide a model, a theoretical construct or a concept, and then leave learners to figure out the “how” by themselves.


In my opinion, this is lazy design. We should be striving to provide people with tools they can follow to quickly learn how to effectively do whatever it is our learning solution is designed to enable people to do.


Give people a checklist, a template, a process, or whatever physical (or digital) document they can take away and follow once your learning solution is over. This greatly increases the chances that people will actually DO what you learning solution was designed to help them DO, at the time they need to DO it!


Note how I haven’t said “know”. In a world where Google has replaced our need to “know” pretty much anything, I am just amazed when learning providers insist on providing solutions that help people “know” stuff. Know is merely a pre-requisite for DO and is something that can easily be achieved for free these days.


For example, you are training customer service teams on how to conduct customer conversations. Now, your learning solution could go to two opposite ends of the scale here. Either it could go Universal by sticking to concepts such as “treat customers with respect!”, or it could go Prescriptive by giving them an exact script of what to say and when to say it.


I propose that we meet somewhere in the middle. We want to avoid being Universal and Prescriptive, and you know the best way of doing that?


By telling stories!


Go around the department, collecting stories of times when people successfully treated customers with respect, and times when they didn’t. Then share these stories, through videos, written case studies, live demonstrations, or even group sharing. Watch as people take notes.


Then let the people play. Simulate customer calls and encourage them to try things they haven’t tried before. Then again, come back and get them to share their new stories, and watch as again people take notes!


Relate, Challenge, Resolve

I hope through this article I have related to you, challenged some of you a bit, and presented some resolutions to the challenges. If there’s only one thing you take away from this article, then make it 3things, those 3 words: Relate, Challenge, Resolve.


Thanks for reading and have a lovely day!

Author: Jamie Dixon

Jamie's book, The Story Habit:

The Story Habit: How Leaders Shape Stories That Drive Action: Dixon, Jamie: 9781739610609: Books

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