Redwood Performance Group

Looking to Make Your Learning Stick? Start With a Story!

When consulting with prospective or new clients, one of the most common criticisms I hear about their previous eLearning programs is that learners were not interested or engaged in the course material. Poor engagement, as everyone knows, delivers poor results. Given suboptimal outcomes, is it any wonder why some decision-makers are of mixed minds regarding their eLearning programs?

When consulting with new clients who express such feedback, the first thing we do at Redwood is to review previous eLearning programs. Often, the problem is readily identifiable within the first few minutes of a course – the course content is there, it’s usually well thought out and organized; the production values are up to standard; and the platforms and tools used to present courses are modern and engaging. So, what is the problem? In our experience, courses that fail to engage almost always lack the one thing guaranteed to drive learner engagement: a compelling story!


From the beginning, stories have been a fundamental part of the human experience. Through stories, we make strong emotional connections. We invest in good and bad characters and are compelled to know what happens next. Many studies have shown a notable change in brain chemistry when our interest and curiosity are aroused. If you’re like most, chances are you’ve binge-watched a series or two over the past few years. Quite possibly, you’ve thought you could be doing something more productive, but the urge to find out “what happens next” is too strong to resist.

But a Netflix series is one thing; an eLearning program is another. So how do you design courses that reflect the most interesting aspects of storytelling while still meeting your learning objectives? The first thing to know is that you don’t have to be a Hollywood screenwriter to engage learners. You need only follow these five fundamental principles:

Principle 1: Keep it simple

Most of the time, a simple story is all it takes to hook learners. Edit out unnecessary details and complexity. Instead, focus on the lesson’s essence and structure it with a beginning, a middle, and an end. More complex subjects may be more suitable for longer and more involved scenarios – but try to avoid unnecessary complexity that learners may find distracting. Instead, simplify things by breaking complex learning down into quickly understood bites of information.

Principle 2: Introduce relatable characters

If you think back to the stories you’ve found most engaging, I’d be willing to bet they were the stories with the most compelling characters. It’s no different with eLearning. Learners want to engage with characters they can identify with, whose mission they understand, and whose pain points they feel.

For example, Redwood recently produced a course for a national food chain teaching employees how to bake artisanal bread. To ensure the character representing our aspiring baker was believable, we met and interviewed senior bakers at the store level, ensuring learners would identify with our fictional baker.

Principle 3: Set the scene

Shakespeare famously said, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” The good news is that you can set the stage (the environment you place your characters within) and choose the players. With that done, the next step is to create the scene. At Redwood, we usually approach this step by building a scenario around no more than one defined learning objective. Going back to our baking example, one client objective was to have learners understand best practices when storing and thawing bread in preparation for baking.

To achieve this, we created a scenario that focused on these two critical steps, complete with an explanation of best practices and an interactive scenario in which learners could store and thaw various bread types in preparation for baking. The design incorporated several decision points, and learners received feedback based on the quality of their choices. The client’s feedback and learner engagement were both very positive.

Principle 4: Raise the stakes

The beauty of scenarios is that you get to create your unique world and determine the characters and events learners will encounter within your simulated environment. This gives designers free reign to raise the stakes. The more a character stands to gain or lose, the greater the emotional involvement of the learner. And nothing makes learning stick more than having an emotional stake in the story’s outcome.

Principle 5: It’s the journey, not the destination

When we sit down to design eLearning, we first assess needs and set learning objectives. We then design the learning path to help people achieve the defined goals. Here again, storytelling has advantages – beginning with keeping people engaged. Learning in the form of a story often doesn’t feel like learning at all. This is especially important when dealing with longer or more complex subjects or processes.

Think of a film that has gripped you. Chances are, it was because you became intellectually and emotionally invested in the characters. As defined in the mythological hero’s journey, people are gradually transformed over their pursuit of something they believe to be of exceptional value. eLearning is similar. Design every part of the learning journey to elicit maximum learner engagement, and ensure a deeper understanding and greater retention of the learning objectives as they are mastered over the arc of your eLearning course!


Interactive storytelling is one of the most exciting aspects of using stories to enhance the eLearning experience. Redwood has recently produced a series of interactive eLearning modules targeting young adult learners just starting their careers. The objective is to “fill in the gaps” not covered in formal education, such as leadership skills, working on teams, and making a presentation. So far, feedback has been exceptional, and we are very excited to offer this type of immersive learning experience to an increasing number of clients. 

Stay tuned for more as our story unfolds on this blog!