What Kevin Spacey Just Told Us About Elearning

I wrote our first top tip in June 2008 with the title ‘Learning Starts with a Story’. Over 100 tips (and lots more) has come and gone since then in learning technology. But – spoiler alert – nothing has really changed around storytelling. It predates our little learning technology world and will outlive us all.

This Halloween we’ll try and scare our kids – and maybe hope to scare ourselves – with ghost stories. They’ve bonded people together since the first fires were lit, a long time before the first iPad was fired up. The urge to share and hear stories is part of our DNA.

Storytelling, The Spacey Way

The narrative around storytelling – if you’ll step with me into the hall of mirrors – has grown to occupy many domains. It’s not just learning. Content marketing also starts with a story.

I recently listened to Kevin Spacey say so, brilliantly, at the Content Marketing Institute speech. Companies, whether 10 minutes or 120 years old, tell their stories to each other, to the press, and of course, to themselves. We’re going through a fascinating exercise as part of the City & Guilds Group to tell and re-tell our group story – there’s no better way of reminding yourself of who you are, and what you’ve done, and what you want the next chapter to be.

So what makes us embrace a story with telling, sharing, and taking into your heart – or at least your mind?

Let’s take Kevin’s three elements of what makes a great story. If you can spare the time, it’s worth watching the video. Caution: F-bombs aplenty (and a William Shatner impression).

I doubt Kevin Spacey has ever given deep thought to elearning. But he’s been around a few stories in his time. So let’s count ourselves as part of his audience. His message is simple:

Story is everything. It’s our jobs to tell better stories.

There are three things that make a story great.

1. Conflict

Spacey said: "Conflict creates tension and keeps people engaged in your story. The best stories are filled with characters who take risks”. He used his own story in moving from Hollywood to run the Old Vic Theatre in London as an example. “Our stories become far more interesting when they go against the settled order of things.

In our learning designs, how often do we talk about conflict? It’s there all the time. Arguably if there wasn’t an inherent conflict, there wouldn’t be a training need. So where is it, and how can we use it to help our teams learn?

  • Compliance: Some people want other people to do something. Those people don’t care because they don’t think it’s important. But there’s a huge risk and it’s going to hit someone unless they act now. How are we going to get the vital message to the right people before the bomb goes off? That’s probably a better pitch than your average learning objective.
  • Onboarding: Joe joins the organisation. He wants to do really well, fit in, commit. But the organisation seems to want to cram his head full of compliance values and strategy nonsense in the first 24 hours. He’s choking on poorly structured information. How are we going to stop him pushing the eject button and going to his plan B employer?
  • Sales: Maria was top of the sales tree last year. This year, it’s a different story. Her competitors are killing her. It’s like they’ve all learned a new language and she missed the class. It’s spiralling out of control and she’s losing sleep. How are we going to help her unlock the secret and win again?

There's no reason why our learning experiences can’t follow through on these trailers. Boring things get in the way. We shy away from the reality of the story because it’s a bit too raw. We lose people along the way – which is Kevin’s second point:

2. Authenticity

“I think it's absolutely essential to keep in mind ‘what is it that makes something feel absolutely genuine to an audience’," he added. "We turn off when something doesn't feel authentic."

Turn off = click away. Do we need to recalibrate our B.S. radars in elearning? Yep.

We allow way too much corporate speak to drown out the genuine stories. It’s easy to blame overzealous Subject Matter Experts forcing us to cram more content in and dilute the story. But learning designers – we are the writers. We need to own the story. So (in the spirit of productive conflict): Fight back. Be the champion of the downtrodden learner. Make it genuine.

Of course your SME can be your best friend, as we’ve written many times here. Get them sharing their stories, good and bad, without a script, straight to camera. Tell the story of your greatest mistakes, the fails, the moments that build character and help us fail better next time. A story where the hero makes a mess of things – nothing’s more endearing than that, we root for them all the more. Don’t be afraid of sharing the imperfections in your story. It makes you more real.

3. Audience

If you tell a story in the woods, and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

For woods , swap in ‘unloved LMS’. There’s no point telling a great story unless it has an audience. To get to that audience, you need to use the right channels. That’s all about marketing. You need to sell your story. It’s a multi-channel world – use all the channels to get the message out.

As Spacey says: “People crave stories. The only reason that Game of Thrones is the most pirated TV show in the world is that people were so addicted, they could not get it fast enough, they could not wait a week.” Do people feel like that about your elearning? Put the story in places where they hang out – all devices, all the time, on demand. Learners want control. Scheduled TV is dead, long live Netflix. We can learn from the new breed of TV execs on how to get a story out to the masses, on their terms.

Your audience can also create the next chapters. Witness the rise of fan fiction and home-made parodies – as Spacey says “anyone with an internet connection and an idea can develop an audience”. From that to user-generated content isn’t that far a journey. Are you giving your audience the means of production and the channels for sharing?

What Are Your Best Stories?

Share them with us and 7000 of your peers in our LinkedIn Elearning Professionals group. We'd love to tell you some of ours too.


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