November 5


understanding character (the instructor): the essential elements of storytelling in eLearning

Any piece of content, whether a short microlearning video, a course, or even an entire certificate program asks the learner to take a journey.  The journey needs a guide, someone to help them achieve a certain competency but, more importantly, lead them towards the realization of an implicit or explicit goal.  

In my last post, Understanding Character (The Learner): The Essential Elements of Storytelling, I mentioned how identifying the characters within a course or training is essential to creating an engaging and impactful eLearning or training experience.  Character is one of the five elements of storytelling that make up the narrative of a course, and a consistent and powerful story will deliver more consistent and powerful results.  

The process of character development ensures the learner makes a deeper and more meaningful connection with the content. There are two questions I ask every client when kicking off the development phase of a new project. Both questions directly identify the characters within the content’s narrative:

  • Who can benefit from watching this course or video?

  • Why are you the one to teach this course or video?

The first question is covered in detail in my previous post, and identifies the LEARNER as a key character in the narrative, but the learner is not the only character in this story.  Taking the time to develop the answer to the second question will identify the INSTRUCTOR as the other key character.  

Why is it important to identify the Instructor or the Subject Matter Expert as a character?

I’ve developed content for dozens of different instructors, from authors and academic professors to influencers and engineers.  Each of these unique souls have different personalities, passions, triumphs, failures, fears, and hopes. Each of them has a story that uniquely qualifies them to teach the content. The instructor is primed to create a genuine connection with the learner by weaving their own stories into the content. 

Take the time to answer the following question thoughtfully. Why are you different than others who are already doing this in the market?  While the answers to this might not always be articulated specifically in the content itself, it does help form the narrative and validate the content and the instructor as the one to teach it.  

Let’s take an example from the Google IT Support Professional Certificate which we produced for Grow with Google and Coursera.  The promise of the program is clear and easy to articulate:  empower nontraditional learners with the fundamental skills to qualify for an entry level job in IT support. The learner’s journey includes 5 courses designed to be completed in 8-10 months.  The courses were presented by actual Google employees who all began their career in IT support. We were very intentional about how we included their stories because it was essential for learners to relate to the instructors, to identify with their experiences, and trust their expertise.  The course presenters were the guides, helping the learner push through the content even when it seemed challenging and impossible, and their own personal journeys validated them as the perfect guide. The course presenters shared their own stories, which included their first memories of being introduced to tech, their families and backgrounds, challenges on their path, their first role in IT, how they advanced in their careers, and even self-doubt they might feel even though they’ve been able to achieve success.  These stories were included in the lessons themselves or as vignettes which offered a respite from the lessons. The overall completion rate of the award-winning program is 2.5 x higher than the average on Coursera.  

Once you have identified and developed the instructor as a character, look for opportunities to share their story organically within the content itself. 

Take the time to introduce the instructor as a main character early in the content so the learner starts to build a relationship quickly. Allow the instructor to not only share their story/background as it relates to the topic. Share real world examples or social proof of how they may have utilized this instruction in their own life.  Do not be afraid to tell personal stories within the instruction that offer the learner a practical lens to the content. 

For example, in the course Managing Unconscious Bias at Work created for Paradigm, the instructor Erin teaches the concept of Similarity Bias as it relates to the people we choose to befriend and connect with at work.  What made this lesson particularly powerful is her admission that although she is an expert in the field, she sometimes still has similarity bias in her own workplace.  As a working mom herself, she is more likely to build a connection with other working moms, because she respects the amount of effort and dedication it takes for a woman to be both ambitious and a mother. This admission occurs within a few seconds of an entire course, but it’s a powerful sentiment that humanizes both the content and the instructor.  The subtext suggests that if even the expert in Diversity and Inclusion is not perfect, then nobody is perfect. And if no one is perfect, then everyone could use this lesson and learn to self-reflect and do their part to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce. That is a powerful message and core to the overall narrative of that course. 

Take the time to identify the character of the instructor early in the development process. When it comes time to write the scripts or present the instruction be intentional on how you articulate the character’s story as part of the overall narrative. Remember, at the end of the day we are all human and we connect with others because of the humanity we share.  That is true whether a viewer is passively watching a scripted TV drama series or actively participating in an online eLearning course. How long would it take you to remember some of your favorite TV characters? Five seconds? What about your favorite teacher growing up? Mrs. Marcos was my world literature teacher my junior year of high school. Even all this years later, she’s continues to have a tremendous influence on my journey and I think of her often.  A strong character has the power to resonate with a learner long after they click out of a video or complete a course so remember to take the time to identify, develop, and articulate them. 

Michael Karsh, Co-founder & Executive Producer, Edios Media

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