Take a moment and reflect upon an earlier learning experience. What do you remember? Do you recall the facts and figures that were presented? Or, do you remember stories the instructor told to illustrate concepts? Crafting a robust story is an essential part of creating an effective simulation. A well-written storyline enhances learner engagement and increases comprehension.

Yet, so often we’re afraid to tell a story. That blank computer screen can be pretty intimidating! You don’t have to be the next John Grisham to write compelling stories. There are simple techniques that even a novice simulation author can employ to enhance their scenarios.

Set the stage. Create enough context so your learners become engrossed in the story. Begin by answering this question: When and where is the story happening? Include elements from your learners’ workplace. This will not only engage your learners, but will also decrease the amount of context you have to write; learners will naturally fill in “gaps.” This can be as simple as opening your simulation with a photo of the main character, and writing something like, “Welcome to World Headquarters. You arrive at work fifteen minutes late because of traffic and the first thing you see when you open your email is a request to conduct several screening interviews that day. You think to yourself, ‘I do not have time for this today!’”

Develop the characters. Identify each key character in your story and provide a name, role and photo. This may include a mentor, patient, family/friends, and colleagues. Decide who your learner is, and what role he or she will play in the simulation. Now, make sure your characters have character! Provide background information and give them personalities. Avoid talking about the characters, telling us what they are experiencing, such as “The patient complains of chest pain.” Instead, write dialogue from the characters’ viewpoint. “I was working out at the gym when I got this stabbing pain in my chest.” You can even record an audio track of you--or a talented friend--acting out this dialogue. Then put the audio track under a photo of the patient. This brings the characters to life and encourages your audience to care about them.

Create different learning paths. One of the strengths of simulation is its experiential nature. We often learn more from failure than from success. Rather than informing learners that their decision was right or wrong, you can allow them to experience consequences and form their own insights. Do this by providing paths through your simulation that are less than optimal. Allow learners to make decisions that mimic messy or dire consequences that would occur in real life. Then provide them with the opportunity to “clean up” the mess or, perhaps make decisions that make it even worse. Rather than leaving the simulation on a grim note, give them the opportunity to try again. After all, the goal is to enhance decision making not to destroy the learner’s confidence.

While writing a strong storyline may seem to be a daunting task, it will pay off in terms of learner engagement, retention of knowledge and effectiveness of decision making.

To learn more, see Spero, Ken. (2012). Scenario-Based E-Learning. American Society for Training and Development Infoline, 29(1210), 1-17.