Better E-learning – The Pixar Way

When it comes to strong narrative and characters, combined with technology – sorry, e-learning market but Pixar knocks us all into a Spacemen’s helmet. They’ve shared their 22 tips for great storytelling. How many of them can help us make our e-learning better? Less than infinity. But not much less...



Ever since Steve Jobs decided that founding Apple wasn’t ambitious enough, and took a left turn into animation, we’ve watched Pixar’s rise and rise. The use of technology is great, of course – but if you’ve seen a dud from another studio, you know that the technology is only the enabler. The content has to be great – or more precisely, the story has to work. Otherwise it’s eye candy with no lasting impact.

Remind you of anything?

When we read the 22 rules of storytelling according to Pixar, compiled by Emma Coats, a former Pixar animator, the parallels to e-learning struck us like (Buzz) Lightning. Here are just five that cross over like a fast lane-changing car from, well, Cars. We’ve written a lot about narrative, characters and themes in e-learning – and this was a great call back to arms.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

In e-learning: Too often the storyline in an e-learning scenario will resemble an overblown movie with too many characters, too many learning objectives squeezed into too short a timeframe.  See – the people making actual movies don’t want to do that.  Why do you?

Here’s how you can make it all killer, no filler.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.

In e-learning: We’ve said for years that e-learning designs are harder to describe than to do.  Rapid e-learning and prototyping allow us to move on from our ‘perfect ideas’ to what’s real, get it in front of Subject Matter Experts, find out what’s wrong, and let the real work start.

More on rapid techniques here.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off? That's the heart of it.

In e-learning: too right – this is about scope again. There are many stories you can tell, journeys you can take learners on. But time is short and budgets small. What problem are we really trying to solve here? Is that the problem that will make the biggest difference to our performance? That’s what we have to know and go towards. You might call it TNA, or scoping, or performance consulting – it’s all about getting to the heart of what story you need to tell.

Here’s more on why the scope’s the thing.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.

In e-learning: Ditto. Stop being nice. Give your coach attitude. Let your characters get in the learner’s face. We’re trying to make it real, and not everyone is as nice and helpful.  Doing a scenario about customer service? You better have some downright nasty customers in there to deal with. Otherwise you’re not really helping people practise the hard stuff.

More on characters in e-learning here.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?

In e-learning: Too often it’s done and onto the next one. If these tips (and our resources in general) are about anything, it’s making small but noticeable improvements every time we design. That can start with a critique of what didn’t work – in your own work, or in others.

Here’s a list of things that people hate in e-learning. Learn them – and don’t add to them!

So that’s 5 out of 22. We could have done them all. But maybe you smart people can fill in the rest?

Join us in the Elearning Professionals Group to share your ideas...