I love this Woody Allen quote,“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

I think there’s a lesson to be learnt from this about elearning. So often we hear that a module has to be short, condensed and concise. 50-80 words on the screen. People don’t like reading. All noble, all in my opinion sometimes true, but also sometimes wrong, and here’s why.

People like stories

Stories are great and of course they’ve been used in learning since the year dot. I think one of the main powers of storytelling is that you get involved. There are characters you can relate to, situations that you could imagine yourself in, and you ask questions – not aloud – but to yourself, ‘Are they going to make it?’ ‘Will they end up together?’ ‘How will they get out of this?’. In order for a story to work though, the situation and characters have to be developed, otherwise we have ‘a story that, like Woody Allen’s War and Peace, involves ‘data protection’, or ‘health and safety’ and doesn’t really go any further.

And the moral of the story is…

Often, when stories are used as learning vehicles, they have one main point. Here’s one of my favourites. I came across this years ago, and always remember the story and the message behind it.

A traveller came upon an old farmer hoeing in his field beside the road. Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the countryman, who seemed happy enough to straighten his back and talk for a moment.
“What sort of people live in the next town?” asked the stranger.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer, answering the question with another question.
“They were a bad lot. Troublemakers all, and lazy too. The most selfish people in the world, and not a one of them to be trusted. I’m happy to be leaving the scoundrels.”
“Is that so?” replied the old farmer. “Well, I’m afraid that you’ll find the same sort in the next town.

Disappointed, the traveller trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.
Sometime later another stranger, coming from the same direction, hailed the farmer, and they stopped to talk.

“What sort of people live in the next town?” he asked.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer once again.
“They were the best people in the world. Hardworking, honest, and friendly. I’m sorry to be leaving them.”
“Fear not,” said the farmer. “You’ll find the same sort in the next town.”
You could easily condense this into about a third of the text, but I don’t think it would be nearly as powerful.

Stories can be detached

How relevant is the story above to your work situation? I think you could answer it two ways. Either, not at all, I’m not a farmer or a traveller, or it’s very similar. The message is about how you view people and how they view you. So although it might not appear, on the surface, to be a story relevant to work, I think the detachment makes it easier to bring points out and explore the real message.

Coat stand for memory

Stories provide a framework to hang things one. It’s amazing how much we can remember from stories, but the way it works is that we have an outline (schema) which we use to associate other pieces of information with, much like a mind map. There are the main strands, or themes, and once we start recalling these, it’s much easier to recall the information associated with them.

Not all text is the same

One of the arguments mentioned above was that text needs to be short, and people don’t want to read a lot of text on screen. Have a look at these two examples, the first is what constitutes a bribe from the Bribery Act:

A person (“P”) is guilty of an offence if P offers, promises or gives a financial or other advantage to another person, and P intends the advantage: to induce a person to perform improperly a relevant function or activity, or to reward a person for the improper performance of such a function or activity.

This is a short extract (only one sentence!), which has been edited down a bit, but sometimes there are pages and pages of text like this which are meant for reference and not for learning. Not an easy read.

The extract below, which you saw before, has a similar number of words, but is much easier to read.
A traveller came upon an old farmer hoeing in his field beside the road. Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the countryman, who seemed happy enough to straighten his back and talk for a moment.
“What sort of people live in the next town?” asked the stranger.
So, it’s not the amount of text that’s important, it’s how well and easily it reads and informs.

How long is too long?

Artist nails his scrotum to the ground in Red Square
This article in The Guardian is 291 words long, and would need about 4 screens of elearning. Interestingly, the story – what actually happened, is in the penultimate paragraph. I assume this was because the heading just about says it all, and the question most people would be asking is, why?
This was used as an example of the lengths of articles in newspapers and was given as an example of a short one. I’ve just done an unscientific count of words from The Sun online and two headline stories had about 350 – 400 words.

Stories in videos

We hear similar things about the need for videos to be short. The argument is often that interest will fade after about 3 minutes. (Strange then that millions watch half hour soaps daily and most films are over an hour and a half.) That’s not really a fair comparison as the production budgets and content are different. But it makes the point that it’s not the length in and of itself.
We’ve just finished making out latest video: Social Media and Work. It’s about 5.30 minutes long, much longer than we thought it would be, but it does have four stories, based on real events, which are used to illustrate some of the key points, and they need some explaining and setting up.

I’d like to see more stories in elearning, but when they are used, they do need some time to develop the situations and characters otherwise they will just be stories that involve…