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Learning & Development Blog


The Magic of the Hero’s Journey in Learning Engagement

by Shane Lueck

Training needs to be engaging. What else is new? At this point, that concept is exhausted. It’s been the topic du jour of articles, webinars, conference break-out sessions, office meetings, and any other resource you can name. But increasing learning engagement is easier said than done, especially when your content isn’t exactly a page turner. Creating excitement around compliance training or updating to a new software system is no small feat. In fact, it can be downright daunting.

As instructional designers and eLearning developers, it’s easy to get stuck in the weeds of our daily routine. Planning learning objectives, how to measure ROI, and talking to SMEs are all integral tasks, but how often do we view the bigger picture – stop and smell the roses, if you will. It can be hard to remind ourselves to step away from the computer and focus our attention on creating a narrative that learners can relate to in order to push the needle to the end goal: behavior change.

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Take Them On A Journey

Let’s consider new hire orientation. There are two ways to go about creating it.

An obvious tactic is for the instructional designers to outline necessary content: company history, policies, benefits, job role information, etc. It won’t take long before desks are piled high with boring information and the team moves on to development.

Or there’s option B, which begins the same way but takes into account the big picture. There’s always a story, if you look hard enough, and even your company's brand can tell one. There’s no better way to make new hires fall in love with the company than turning their orientation into a full-fledged, lively and interactive story. Tell them about the janitor who worked his way up to vice president, present them with real-life scenarios to familiarize them with the complexities of their role, and ask them to share their own story up to the present day. By the end, new hires will feel invested in and loyal to the company.

The use of storytelling is nothing new. Humans are, by nature, social beings. We crave connection to our coworkers and our company, and emotions help form those relationships. If we use a compelling story, the likelihood of employees remembering content that drives performance increases dramatically. And relatable storytelling answers the “What’s in it for me?” question before it’s asked.

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The Hero’s Journey as a Learning Structure

It’s a tale as old as time. The hero’s journey, as a narrative structure, has been repeated over and over again. You can recognize it even if you can’t name it: the protagonist leaves the comfort and safety of everyday life to overcome some great obstacle, returning home victorious having learned a big life lesson and received a reward. Another call to adventure is inevitable (which leaves room for more training in the future that can use the same hero).

It’s a trope that’s been played out in everything from books to movies, from as long ago as classical myths right up into our modern stories. It’s a predictable pattern where the viewer inevitably identifies with the protagonist. The hero’s journey narrative is recycled time and time again because it’s meaningful and relatable. Do we root for Mad Men’s Don Draper because he’s lovable and we agree with everything he does? No. We root for him because he’s relatable and we love seeing the protagonist overcome challenges while working toward a goal.

When we’re brainstorming how to motivate and engage employees, mapping out a “hero’s journey” for them to follow is a great place to start.

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All stories have a beginning, middle, and end, each with something to keep in mind when adapting the hero’s journey for your training program.

1. Beginning: Pique Their Curiosity
Don’t turn off the lightbulb in the learner’s mind by starting your course with a list of objectives and lackluster introductory information. Instead, grab attention by starting with a challenge or goal.

2. Middle: Personalize
Unnecessary content that’s irrelevant to the learner will result in disengagement faster than you can bat an eyelash. Present the right content at the right time throughout the course by personalizing it to their job role and staggering the flow of information. Again, it’s all about relevancy to the learner with the constant question, “What’s in it for me?”

3. End: To Be Continued
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Hercules fought many battles before gaining access to the heavens. Why limit your hero’s journey to a single course? Spread the hero’s journey throughout a curriculum, enticing the learner to return to a recognizable storyline. Continuing learning beyond a one-and-done event battles the temptation to cover everything in one sitting, reducing the learner’s cognitive load and increasing their capacity to remember and learn as they’re able to practice concepts multiple times.

Debunking the Myth of Creative Storytelling

Society loves to put writing and storytelling on a pedestal. We call it an “artform” and a “craft.” We start to believe it’s unattainable. Erase that notion from your head. In mathematics, there may be only ONE way to solve a problem, one right answer. But with storytelling, your options are endless. All you need is a spark of inspiration to begin.

The most common (and easiest) way to add storytelling into your training is to consider situations that the learner has either already experienced or is likely to encounter. Then, let the learner make decisions and playout the consequences of those choices, allowing them to learn from mistakes in the safety of a training environment. Failure doesn’t halt the learning process but pushes it to new heights.

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Once the scenarios are established, your story could be as simplistic as two characters: a protagonist and someone else to stir the pot a little bit. Throw in some realistic dialogue (if you wouldn’t say it, why would your hero?), and you’ve got the ingredients to create a spellbinding narrative. Now all you have to do is add some tension and scenarios from real life to entice your learners.

Call center training could be dry. Or you could stress that they aren’t just customer service representatives for the bank, they’re the team of superheros that helps a mother of three make sure her bills are paid on time or helps a refugee send money back home to his family. And just like that, you’ve already got your training’s protagonist: a superhero.

The hero’s journey also has a distinct beginning, middle, and end, which makes it an easy narrative to write: the main character accepts a call to adventure, goes outside of his comfort zone to overcome an obstacle (or more), and emerges as the hero with gained knowledge or rewards. There is a built-in structure that takes some of the pressure off instructional desingers fleshing out their story.

If you’re willing to put in the effort, you’ll find the hero’s journey story structure is relatable and familiar to learners, allowing them to engage in the material and walk away with a renewed investment in their journey.

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