Tell me a story: Storytelling in eLearning

Tell me a story: Storytelling in eLearning

A friend of mine once went on a workshop about negotiation skills. He told me about a story that delegates had been told on the course. It went something like this; you may have heard it or a version of it before.

Two explorers in the Arctic kill an elk. They divide the elk in half and start to make for their next camp on separate sleighs drawn by huskies. A pack of wolves smell the blood of the elk and start to pursue the explorers. The first explorer hears the baying of the wolves and decides to gee up his dogs to outrun the pack. After a somewhat tense pursuit, the wolves fall back and instead turn their attention to the second explorer. Explorer Number Two decides on a different course of action. He cuts off an elk steak and throws it to the wolves to divert them. However, although this seems to work initially, it only has the effect of making the pack more determined in pursuit. They catch him, devouring both the unfortunate explorer and the elk.1

In the negotiation workshop my friend attended, this had been used as an analogy about negotiations: i.e. if you give up something too easily, then the other side will only pursue you for more concessions. A catchphrase in the course was “Don’t give the other side an elk steak”.

I thought of this story the other day when I was trying to find a way to convey a new concept to a diverse audience and was considering whether I could use a story or more particularly an analogy to do this.

So, what is an analogy? The dictionary definition is a ‘comparison between things that have similar features, often used to help explain a principle or idea.’

Using analogies is a very old tradition dating back to at least the ancient Greeks. Professor Edith Hall in her book Aristotle’s Way explains how much the ancient philosopher Aristotle respected them. According to Hall, Aristotle highly valued the skill of drawing analogies and believed they offered an opportunity for ‘accelerated learning’.

Today, telling stories can still be very compelling in eLearning. If you are a learning designer, you will probably already use a range of storytelling techniques in your projects. You might for example, tell the story of a company’s history, create scenarios where learners use their judgement on what decisions to take or create a narrative about a customer’s journey. Using analogies can also be very useful but they must be deployed with care. Here are some pointers. Analogies need to be:

  • used sparingly. You can probably only use one per course, otherwise the course becomes overloaded with ideas and difficult for learners to retain
  • genuinely reflective of the principle you want to get across. For example, the elk steak analogy would not work very well if it the workshop had been about relationship building
  • cross-cultural if you are delivering to a global audience – some stories may not translate very well to international learners
  • appropriate for the audience and non-patronising – something that is too simplistic turns learners off.

Analogies can be very powerful and live long in the memory. Take the elk steak story. I never even attended the workshop but years later I still remember the story.


1Some initial internet research suggests that this story may have originated in Everything is Negotiable by Gary Kennedy first published 1984 but in common with most analogies it is likely to be older than this.