7 ways to make dialog sound natural

“Upon examining the data,” your scenario character says, “I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the proposal, specifically its requirement that we induce wombats to fly.”

Who talks like that? No one in the real world. However, you might find your scenario characters talking like that in your first drafts. Here’s how to fix it.

Droid turns into a human

1. Make sure you’ve actually written dialog. Show, don’t tell.

Not this: Barbara says she is concerned about the delay in processing TPS reports.

Instead: “It takes too long to process TPS reports,” Barbara says.

Let the readers draw conclusions like they do in the real world.

Not: Peter doesn’t want to talk about what happened at his previous job.

Instead:

“Peter, what happened at your last job?” Louise asks.

“Who wants coffee?” Peter says. “I’m going for a refill.”

2. Start late. You might be tempted to write the small talk that starts a conversation, so it sounds realistic. Instead, fast-forward to the meat for more impact. Imagine how a movie would show it.

Not:

Jason goes to Emma’s office.

“Good morning, Jason,” Emma says. “Thank you for coming in. I know it’s a long trip for you.”

“I’m happy to help,” Jason says. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, the auditors called me yesterday, and…”

Instead:

Jason goes to Emma’s office.

“I need to cancel our account,” Emma says. “The auditors found problems.”

3. Use contractions: “She is our best chainsaw juggler” becomes “She’s our best…” Not allowed to use contractions? Fight back with the tips in this post.

4. Don’t stuff the dialog with story. If they wouldn’t say it in real life, don’t make them say it in your scenario.

Not: “Diane, I’d like to hear your opinion about how to handle cultural differences on the new Zeko project, since you have been with the firm for eight years and have worked on numerous projects with companies in Zekostan.”

Instead: Bob calls Diane, who has eight years’ experience on Zeko projects. “How should we handle cultural differences on the new project?” he asks.

5. Choose informal words. “Wish” becomes “want,” “assist” becomes “help.” Find simple alternatives in The A to Z of Alternative Words (PDF) from the Plain English Campaign.

6. Break sentences into fragments of different types. It varies the rhythm, makes people sound more human, and gives them character.

Not: “If you want to play the banjo, you will need to go outside.”

Instead: “You want to play the banjo? Go outside.”

7. Use “said” and “asked.” Avoid having people “growl,” “smile,” “snarl,” or “laugh” their lines, which gets distracting and over-dramatic.

Often, you don’t even need “said.”

Example:

“How much are you willing to invest?” Jorge asks.

“Ninety bajillion dollars.” Andrea opens her briefcase. “I have it right here.”

Scenario design workshop: A few seats are still available

Want to improve your scenario design skills? There are some seats available in the scenario design workshop that starts on November 8. You’ll apply what you’re learning to a real-life project from your job. We’ll meet in the afternoon in Europe and mornings in the Americas.

Scenario-based training headquarters

I’ve gathered a lot of ideas about scenario design in one spot. You’ll find example scenarios, design tips, research summaries, and more.

I hope to see you at Learning Pool Live

I’m joining Learning Pool Live in London this Thursday, October 20, to give a keynote and short workshop. I hope to see you there!

Scenario example: Chainsaw training!

What’s the best way to teach people to cut down a tree? Probably the best way isn’t the approach recommended in this scenario. However, the scenario isn’t supposed to be realistic. I wrote it to make a point.

Try the scenario below. Do you agree with my point?

(The scenario is embedded in the blog post. If you’re reading this in email or a feed reader and don’t see a clickable interaction, go to the blog post to play it.)


Photo by Stewart Black cc. Scenario was developed in Twine.

Spoiler alert! Play the scenario before you read on.

If you’re familiar with action mapping, you probably saw what I was trying to do. The best ending to the scenario required you to do some (extremely quick) analysis of why it’s hard to cut down a tree without squashing your house or car.

The analysis asks, “What decisions do people have to make? Why are those decisions tricky? How can we help people practice making the decisions in a safe place?”

Then your design focused on helping people practice the tricky things that would directly support the goal of reduced property damage. You didn’t push information into their heads and then see if they could recognize it on a test.

Of course, it’s important for customers to know the obvious stuff, like how to hold the saw when you’re cutting into a tree. We’d certainly cover that in the videos. Unfortunately, it’s tempting to focus only on that obvious stuff. The result would be “How to Use a Chainsaw” and not what we really need, which is “How to Use a Chainsaw without Destroying Your House.”

I learned to cut down trees the way most people probably should: A more experienced person went into my woods with me. He helped me analyze each tree, set up the winch and rope, plan the cut, and adjust when things began to veer horribly out of control. But if that weren’t possible, I’d look for training that let me practice the decisions in a safe place.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

More scenario examples

I’ve set up a scenario design headquarters on my site. In that section, you’ll find more scenario examples, along with a research summary, a link to all scenario posts, and some tips on using Twine, the free editor I used to create the scenario in this post.

Related posts

For more on letting people learn from their mistakes, you might check out these posts:

Scenario mistakes to avoid #2: “Eat! Eat! You need to eat!”

“You need to eat more!” she says, heaping your plate until it rivals Mount Everest. “Eat! Eat!”

We all know the stereotype. Unfortunately, we can find ourselves turning into that stereotype when we feed information to people.

“You have to know this!” we say, filling the screen to bursting. “And this! And this!”

A huge platter of paellaIn scenario-design land, we can find ourselves doing this:

“First we’ll feed them everything they need to know, and then we’ll feed them some more as we show them how an expert does it, and finally we’ll let them waddle, overstuffed and dazed, through a scenario.”

Example, only slightly exaggerated

In the first post in this series, widget technicians had to diagnose squealing widgets. In the “Eat! Eat!” design approach, we’d “teach” them this way:

  • Tell the “widget story” — how widgets were invented and our company’s proud role in widgets’ ascendence to importance.
  • Explain how prompt customer service has helped us stand out in the widget field.
  • Explain that despite the stellar quality of our engineering, any widget could eventually develop a squeal.
  • Show a video of a squealing widget.
  • Show all the moving parts in a typical widget and what they do.
  • Explain that most squealing widgets have a wobbling synderhobble, and the squealing will stop when the synderhobble is screwed back into place.
  • Open a squealing widget, point to the wobbling synderhobble, and screw it back into place.
  • Say, “Now you do it.”
  • Watch as the “learners” obediently imitate what they saw five seconds ago by opening their widgets and screwing the synderhobble back into place.
  • Display a bulleted list of the other, less common causes of squealing widgets.
  • Move onto the next topic: Wobbling Widgets.

What’s wrong with this?

We make people eat when they’re full

We assume that everyone in the audience is equally and profoundly ignorant of the topic. But our audience consists of adults with decades of experience tinkering with gadgets — that’s why they signed up to be widget technicians. Some of them have already worked with widgets or with widget-like technology. Yet we stuff them with information they might already know, slowly suffocating what motivation they might have had.

We make people rely on short-term memory

Worse, our “scenario” came immediately after we showed them what to do. We used a version of “tell, show, do” that short-circuits independent thought.

Mike, a new widget technician, watched us screw the synderhobble into place, and 20 seconds later he had half-heartedly imitated what he saw. He was actually thinking about the vintage motorcycle he’s been taking apart in his garage.

Did Mike learn what we wanted him to learn? Was the behavior we wanted “Screw a synderhobble into place?” or was it “Correctly diagnose the cause of a squealing widget?”

Screwing the synderhobble into place is easy. Correctly diagnosing the cause of a squealing widget while an irritated customer waits impatiently is much harder. But instead of having people practice the hard stuff, we fed them the answer immediately and had them practice the easy task.

An alternative

The first post in this series describes an activity that would help Mike practice the harder stuff: He’s on a fictional phone call with a customer whose widget is squealing.

We haven’t shown Mike the history of widgets, and we haven’t told him that the most common cause of squealing is the synderhobble. We’ve just plunged him into the fictional phone call and provided optional help.

In elearning, that optional help could be links, such as:

  • A downloadable job aid: “How to Diagnose a Squealing Widget”
  • A short presentation, “The Moving Parts in a Widget,” that’s always available online

In face-to-face training, the optional help could be a printed version of the job aid and a link to the presentation on everyone’s smart phone. Since technicians often go into the field, this information needs to be portable.

When he’s in the scenario, Mike can look at the help or not, depending on his pre-existing knowledge and his willingness to try and possibly fail. The feedback shows the consequence of his choice, as described in the previous post.

Mike has to think on several levels: What do I know about this already? Is it accurate? What could be causing the squeal? What should I try first? And when he looks for information, it’s because he wants it. The information is a tempting buffet, not a mass forced-feeding.

Mike thinks hard and practices the hard stuff — diagnosing a squealing widget. He’s not daydreaming about the vintage motorcycle, and he’s probably more likely to transfer what he learned to his job. We’ve also made transfer easier by giving him a job aid and some information that’s always available on his phone.

I rant about this a lot, in posts like the following:

For the research supporting this approach, see Where’s the research support for scenarios? in my knowledgebase, the research cited in the post Throw them in the deep end, and books that summarize learning research, including Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning and Design for How People Learn.

Action mapping workflow available as an interactive graphic

Action mapping workflowWith help from readers’ feedback on the draft version, I’ve improved the action mapping workflow and summarized it in an interactive graphic.

You can download the graphic and a Word version of the workflow from that page.

Photo credit: Platter of paella by Joanbrebo via Compfight cc

3 quick tips for strong scenarios

Tips and tricksIt can be hard to write subtle scenario questions. Here are some techniques that can help.

1. Put dialog in quotation marks.

This trick helps ban the bureaucratic from your writing. Instead of paraphrasing what people say, stick it in quotation marks and it will magically rewrite itself. Here’s an example.

Before: Nuria has been wrangling widgets for three weeks and is frustrated. It is difficult for her to determine the correct wrangling angle.

During: “I am frustrated,” Nuria says. “I have been wrangling widgets for three weeks and it is difficult for me to determine the correct wrangling angle.”

After: “This is driving me nuts,” Nuria says. “I’ve been wrangling widgets for three weeks and I still can’t get the angle right.”

The minute you put your dry prose in quotes, you realize how very dry it is. Then it becomes easy to make it sound more natural. This trick also moves you from boring “telling” to more vivid “showing.”

2. Ask, “Why aren’t they doing it?”

In action mapping, you set a business goal and list what people need to do on the job to reach that goal. And then for each important task, you ask, “Why aren’t they doing it now?”

Unfortunately, it’s common to skip that question and go straight from “Here’s what they need to do” to “Here’s an activity that will help them practice doing it.” This often results in a scenario question that’s generic and too easy.

Instead, take a little time to identify the main barriers to performance: “Why aren’t people wrangling widgets well?” You might talk to a few people who do the job and use this flowchart to guide the discussion. You’ll find out if training will really help and, crucially, you’ll learn the challenges that people face. You’ll have the understanding you need to design subtle scenarios that target what’s really causing the problem.

3. Branching? Start with the end in mind.

Before you write any part of a branching scenario, think of the endings that will make the points you want to make. You might aim for one best ending, a few “fair” endings, and some “poor” endings. Then write a high-level plot that provides several intersecting routes to those endings. You might first write the “best” path and then add the less-great paths. Test your plot on subject matter experts and some future learners to make sure it’s realistic and not too easy. Only then is it safe to start fleshing it out with dialog and details.

What techniques have you discovered that help you write strong scenarios? Let us know in the comments.

Scenario design course: New sessions available

Two new sessions of my four-week, hands-on scenario design course have been scheduled, starting on Oct. 28 and Feb. 10. Learn more about the class and sign up for future announcements here. The action mapping book used in the course will be published this year; I’ll be sure to announce it in the blog when it’s available.

Tips & tricks image © Aquir and iStock

Is it ever okay to be a control freak?

Here’s a short scenario that uses a particular type of structure. What do you think about it?

Sample scenario

Spoiler alert! Play the scenario before you read on.

What type of branching is this?

Here’s how the scenario looks as a flowchart in BranchTrack‘s editor. No matter what we decide at decision point A, we all end up at decision point B. It’s like we have no free will!

linear scenario

If you’re feeling cranky, you could call this the “control freak” approach to scenario design: No one may advance without first making the correct choice, and then all people must advance as one obedient mass to the same scene.

If you’re feeling more generous, you might call it a “teaching” scenario.

It might be helpful for raw beginners

The extreme control exercised by the designer could actually be useful in the following conditions:

  • The people playing the scenario are beginners in the subject matter AND
  • We haven’t preceded the scenario with a bunch of information telling people everything they might need to know.

In other words, people new to the topic learn about it through a guided experience first, not through an information presentation followed by a “practice” activity.

Like this kind of discussion? Then you’ll like the scenario design workshops that I’m giving soon in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney.

What could happen if we put the information first?

Let’s run an imaginary experiment. Let’s not start with the scenario. Instead, we’ll give our learners lots of do’s and don’ts about classroom management. We’ll follow that with a video of an expert talking about how honorifics like “Ms” supposedly squash students’ self-esteem, and then, finally, we’ll send them into the scenario to “practice what they’ve learned.”

Now that our learners are no longer absolute beginners, the relentless feedback and forced re-tries are likely to feel annoying and even patronizing.

“But we have to give them information!”

I agree, we do — after the scenario.

We can give people a chance to learn through the (very!) structured experience first, and then help them synthesize what they learned by giving them some reinforcing information. We can trot out the video expert after the scenario, for example, to reinforce the scenario’s message about honorifics.

Putting the scenario first does several things. It:

  • Helps people gauge their pre-existing knowledge, if any
  • Shows the learner through their mistakes that they need to learn this stuff, making them pay more attention to the information that follows
  • Gives them a concrete, memorable story with which to organize the more abstract information that follows, possibly helping with retention and transfer
  • Gives them beginner-level information in an engaging way, possibly motivating them to continue

For more on this activity-first approach, see my post “Throw them in the deep end!”

However, I still recommend true branching for most audiences

I focus on instructional design for adults in the working world. Most people in this world already have at least some previous experience or knowledge of the common topics covered in corporate training (how to treat people nicely, how to sell stuff, how to avoid breaking laws…).

As a result, I suspect that in most situations, a truly branching scenario would be more satisfying for the players. By letting people make mistakes, see the consequences of those mistakes, and draw conclusions, we’re saying, “I acknowledge that you’re an adult with a brain and life experience, and I trust you to be able to learn from more experience.”

Our careful handling of the branches, feedback at the ends of the paths, and optional help or resources along the way will help make sure that players are drawing the right conclusions without getting too frustrated. It’s all about choosing the appropriate amount of scaffolding for our audience.

For an example of a “real” branching scenario for people with some prior knowledge, try playing AutoLoon Ethics Training, which helps you practice your action mapping and consulting skills.

What do you think? And how do you manage stakeholders who want to be control freaks when it’s not appropriate? Let us know in the comments.


Design challenging scenarios that your learners love with my workshops this September and October in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney. The first workshop is on Sept. 19 and spaces are limited, so check out the details and make your plans!

Get your free 23-page ebook: Training Designer's Guide to Saving the World

Makeover: How to write challenging scenario questions

We’ve all seen scenario questions that are too boring or easy. In fact, here’s one:

A member of your team is often an hour late to work on Monday mornings. What should you do?

A. Ask the team member why they’re late.
B. Refer the team member to the Employee Assistance Program for counseling.
C. Dock the team member’s pay for the missed hour of work.

How could we improve this question? Let’s look at some ideas. (We’ll look at a lot more ideas for strong scenarios in the scenario design workshops I’m giving soon in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney.)

1. Focus on a specific, real performance problem

Our scenario question is weak because it isn’t based on an analysis of what’s really going wrong. Instead, it’s based on assumptions about what people are probably doing wrong.

So our first step in the makeover is to look more closely at the actual performance problem.

Girl walking on railroad trackLet’s say that our business goal is this: “Employee retention will improve 10% by 2016 as all managers use the Friendly Face at Work management model.”

We set this goal because employee turnover is high, and during exit interviews, people said managers were too harsh. We then paid a consultant $70,000 to tell us to use his patented Friendly Face at Work model.

In action mapping, every activity we write supports a specific, real-world behavior that people should perform but are messing up somehow.

In this case, the behaviors we want to see are the behaviors in the consultant’s model. The one we’re focusing on now is, “When a team member consistently fails to reach a standard, encourage them to share why they’re struggling.”

Our managers aren’t doing this. Why not?

2. Find out WHY people are messing up

In our analysis, we discover that managers already know they should ask a struggling employee what’s up. The real problem is that they don’t ask because they worry about sounding intrusive.

They’d be more comfortable if we helped them phrase the question appropriately. That’s the behavior they should be practicing: asking the question.

3. Find out in what CONTEXT people are messing up

The first draft of our question is boring because it’s so generic. Nothing in the real world is that simple. So with our subject matter expert (SME), we’ll add some realistic complexity. Here’s one possible rewrite,

Jake has worked on your team for two years. In the last two months, he’s arrived an hour late on most Mondays. He doesn’t seem as cheerful as he used to be, and a couple of times you’ve noticed that his eyes appear bloodshot. You’re pretty sure he’s married and you remember signing a congratulations card for his new baby about seven months ago, but you haven’t heard anything since then.

You ask Jake to come into your office after lunch. When he arrives, his eyes look bloodshot again, and he fidgets with his hands.

How do you start the conversation?

A. “You’ve been a great member of the team for two years, so I’m surprised that you’ve started coming in late. Is something going on?”

B. “I’ve noticed that you’re coming in late on Mondays, and I’d like to help you get back on track. What can we do to help you get here on time?”

C. “I want you to know that no matter what the situation might be, I’m here to help. Could you help me understand why you’ve been coming in late?”

This still isn’t the best question in the world, but it’s at least more subtle and realistic than the first draft. And, importantly, it focuses on what managers really need to practice: how to phrase the difficult question.

Tweaks for context

In addition to changing the focus of the challenge, we made the following tweaks:

  • We gave people names, which in a way also gives them a face as readers pull up a “Jake” from the database of people in their brain. My Jake probably doesn’t look like yours, but he has a face.
  • We provided cues that may or may not be relevant — the bloodshot eyes, the changed mood, the baby that we haven’t heard about lately. No management challenge takes place in a vacuum.
  • We put people’s words in quotation marks, adding voices to make it more real (and, in this case, to model specifically how the question should be asked).

Finally, another cue that we wrote a more challenging question is that it’s not obvious (to me, at least) which answer is correct. We have to understand the consultant’s Friendly Faces at Work model to know how we’re supposed to phrase the question.

If we can write scenario questions without the help of a SME, we’re probably writing questions that are too easy. The SME will help us write a subtle question and help us make clear through feedback which option is correct.

Scenarios require a lot of SME help, so you might want to prepare a steady supply of donuts or chocolate for your expert. In the scenario design workshop, we’ll also look at ways to quickly and efficiently get the expertise out of your SME’s brain and into a scenario.

What do you think? What has helped you write more challenging scenarios? Let us know in the comments.

All photos in this post (c) iStock


Design challenging scenarios that your learners love with my workshops this September and October in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney. The first workshop is on Sept. 19 and spaces are limited, so please check out the details and make your plans!

Get your free 23-page ebook: Training Designer's Guide to Saving the World

Branching scenarios: How many decision points?

You’ve decided a branching scenario will be part of your project. But how long should it be?

First, I’m assuming that we’re talking about an exploratory or “learning” scenario, meaning a story in which learners make decisions without a lot of hand-holding and learn from the consequences of their decisions. I’m also assuming that the skill you want learners to develop is relatively complex, such as managing a conversation to create the best results.

Aim for 7 decision points in most paths

As a general rule I recommend that each path include at least 7 decision points, meaning even if I make a not-great decision, I continue down a path that includes more decisions, including ones that could lead me to a better path, and when I reach the end of the story, I’ve made about 7 (challenging! relevant!) decisions at least.

Of course, the optimal depth for an exploratory scenario will depend on a lot of factors, including the complexity of the skill you want learners to master, their attention span and tastes, and the amount of development time you have.

What about bad decisions?

In some situations, you’ll want to have short paths that go quickly to failure if there are common but egregious mistakes being made by learners in the real world.

Scenario flowchartTo see an example, try the AutoLoon Ethics Training scenario, which simulates the discussion between an instructional designer and a client who wants an information dump.

I included some short, 3-decision paths that go quickly to failure. I wanted to make clear that some common decisions made by instructional designers can quickly doom a project. Longer paths in the scenario include 10-12 decision points.

Click the image in this post to see a larger view of the flowchart, or view the inner workings of the scenario on the BranchTrack site.

Let them go back

In an exploratory scenario, I think it’s best to let learners go back to the previous decision. This encourages them to explore, and it lets you include short, “bad” paths while still making the scenario interesting.

Have some learners review an early draft

The challenge for us as designers is that we’re so deep into the story and we’ve thought through so many possibilities that the scenarios we write can look more complex to us than they do to learners.

It could be a good idea to have a handful of typical learners complete an early draft of the scenario and talk about it with you, so you can get their perspective. It can be useful to do this in a small group, so learners talk with each other and possibly debate things, giving you a sense of how much the scenario is making them think.


London workshop on June 6

Please join me and Norman Lamont in London on June 6 for the one-day, hands-on workshop “Training design for business results.” It’s action mapping on steroids. You’ll get in-depth practice applying activity-centered design to one of your projects. Learn more about the workshop.

Get your free 23-page ebook: Training Designer's Guide to Saving the World

4 ideas you should steal from interactive fiction

Here are a few fun stories from the wild world of interactive fiction. Try them out to see cool techniques you can steal for your training scenarios.

1. Put the backstory in links.

The most realistic scenarios are rich in detail, but lots of detail can mean lots of text on the screen. One way to lighten the load is to put the backstory in optional links.

In Remembered, by Chris Klimas, you explore links to learn more about the history of the characters. The more backstory you read, the richer your experience.

This technique could be used to add depth to the typical management scenario. For example, here’s a scene from a (fake) scenario.

Earlier today, Noah emailed you to ask for a 10-minute meeting. Now he’s arrived for the meeting and looks flustered.

“It’s Brian,” he says. “He’s always been a procrastinator, but now it’s affecting my ability to meet my deadlines. He was supposed to give me Phase 1 three days ago and and when I ask about it, he only says, ‘I just need another day.’”

What do you do?

When you click “Noah,” you see this:

Noah transferred to your department 3 months ago, citing personality differences in his previous department. He’s reliable and does solid work.

He can look impatient in meetings, glancing often at his watch, and when someone offers a new idea, he’s likely to point out problems with it. He seems committed to meeting the unit’s goals and has proposed changes that improved efficiency. He’s the team lead for the project.

The link about Brian, a quiet man, points out that he recently asked to be moved away from a noisy coworker and has been looking tired.

This isn’t Dostoevsky, but the bits of backstory add more dimension to what could have been a generic management scenario with shallow, thought-free options. You get realistic details that make the decision more nuanced, but without feeling like you’re slogging through a novel.

2. Build the entire story on the screen.

Putting the backstory in links lightens the load, but it can make the story feel fragmented. Another approach is to build the entire narrative on one screen.

Cover of a playIn The Play by Deirdra Kiai, you need to manage the egos and poor preparation of actors in a play. The result of each decision is added to the narrative on the screen rather than bringing you to another “slide.”

Bonus: As you play, keep an eye on the list of cast members on the right. It doubles as a record of their emotional states and your ability to manage them.

Having the final story appear all on one screen makes it far easier for the player to review it. This approach could be useful for longer scenarios about negotiation, difficult conversations, leadership, and other complex issues.

See the attribution box on the left of the story for a link to the tool used to create it.

3. Reconsider your belief that text is bad.

Did you suffer from the lack of images in the above two stories? Probably not.

Many scenarios that we create in training-land don’t really require visuals. Instead of spending an hour searching for non-awful stock photos of people talking on the phone, we could spend that hour making the story stronger.

4. Don’t leave the homestead.

The fake-translated-Russian story Small Child in Woods has an important lesson for us all.

A note about tools
“Remembered” and “Small Child in Woods” were created with Twine, a free tool that I explored in this post. You might also want to check out BranchTrack, a slick tool that makes it easy to build branching scenarios and doesn’t suffer the technical glitches that can plague Twine on corporate PCs.


Scenario design online course open for registration

Become a scenario design master with “Scenario design: In-depth and hands-on,” my new online course. Registration is open for sessions that start in January.

Australia workshops!

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design master class for training managers at the Learning@Work conference
  • Nov. 22, Melbourne: Breakfast session on training ROI at ConVerge
  • Nov. 26, Melbourne: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet
  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet

Get your free 23-page ebook: Training Designer's Guide to Saving the World

12 cool ways to use scenarios

Desperate woman wants to know what happens next in scenarioDecision-making scenarios aren’t just for elearning. Here are 12 ideas for other ways you can use branched scenarios to help people practice solving problems.

First, some vocabulary. Each “decision point” in a branching scenario contains the following:

  • The result of the previous decision, such as, “The forklift continues to speed toward the plate glass window.”
  • The stem and options for a new decision, such as, “What should you do?” followed by three or four actions.

Face-to-face training

One of the great benefits of a challenging branched scenario is that it provokes discussion. No more glassy-eyed stares! Some ideas:

  1. Go through an online scenario together: Project the scenario on a screen and as a group decide what option to take at each point.
  2. Act it out: Assign roles in the story and have participants read and act their lines once the group has decided what they should do.
  3. Go through the scenario in small groups: Divide participants into groups of four or so. Have them work through the scenario as a group, then report back to the larger group why they think they got the result they did.
  4. Require someone to defend each option: To bring the discussion to a deeper level, assign each option to a participant: “Bob, you’ll argue for option B every time, whether you agree with it or not. Give it your best shot!” You can do this in large or small groups. If you have four options at each decision point, you might create groups of four and, before they start the scenario, have each person choose an option to always defend.
  5. Ask the group to improve the scenario. Ideally, you tested an earlier version of the scenario on a sample of your audience and improved it based on their suggestions. Now do it again, but as a learning exercise. You could ask what options participants wanted to have but didn’t, how the plot could be made more realistic, and how failure and success should be measured.
  6. Have groups design their own scenarios. After going through and discussing a scenario you wrote, form small groups and have them each design a branching scenario for their colleagues. You might offer a list of story ideas for them to choose from, each offering the opportunity to closely examine the complex decisions that happen on the job. The design project should probably take place over a couple of weeks rather than in one intensive session, and each group’s deliverable could be a simple, text-only PowerPoint or Twine scenario that’s run at another gathering of the full group. You’ll need to win the participation of managers and subject matter experts, but considering how deeply we have to examine every decision to write a good scenario, this exercise could be really powerful.
Sample from a paper-based branching scenario

A branching scenario can be as simple as a printout, with one decision point on each page.
This low-tech scenario inspired intense discussion in a class at West Point.

Email and mobile

Keep your audience engaged by feeding them one scene a day. It’s an email soap opera!

  1. Send an email episode each day to participants showing the results of their last decision and presenting them with another decision in the story. Have them click an HTML link in the email to register their choice — and make them wait until the next day to see how it turns out. You could set this up with an email auto-responder, which your marketing staff should be familiar with, although the branching could be more complex than they’re used to. The email could be plain text or use HTML and images.
  2. Use text messages to deliver one decision point a day to a mobile audience. Participants can make their choice by sending the appropriate code from their phone. Entire novels have been delivered through text message!
  3. Encourage discussion throughout the run of the soap opera. For example, you could set up a discussion forum, assign some people to add posts to keep it lively, and include links to it in the emails or text messages.
  4. Have the scenario play out in real time: If you want people to practice making decisions in a process that plays out over weeks, and the lapse of time is important, you could insert realistic delays between the decision points. You could send emails from scenario characters or other messages that provide the same kind of information that people would receive if this were a real situation, or remind them to perform the same monitoring that they would need to do in real life so they can make a good decision at the next point.

Audio and video

Are podcasts popular in your organization? Are you allowed to use YouTube? Go for it! You might also set up a discussion forum as described above or otherwise encourage people to talk about the scenario as it unfolds.

  1. Record an audio file of each decision point and its options. When participants click a link to choose an option, they receive the file for the next decision point, either immediately or after a realistic lapse of time. You might use participants’ colleagues as actors in the scenario to increase its appeal.
  2. Create a branched video story: Create a separate video for each decision point, and then use YouTube’s annotations feature to link to each option at the end of the video. Here’s an example. If you can’t use YouTube, this tool designed for marketers might work for you.

Make it controversial, and don’t forget the debrief!

One of the strengths of scenarios is that they inspire discussion. Encourage that discussion by intentionally making your scenario not only challenging but also a little controversial, such as by failing to include a popular option or by making a common mistake so appealing that a lot of people fall for it.

Finally, I don’t recommend using scenarios alone, no matter what setting you put them in. Learners need a debrief, some structured way to discuss, draw conclusions, build a model, and identify how they’re going to change what they do.

What did I miss? What’s another way to use scenarios to get people thinking and talking? Let us know in the comments!

Scenario design workshop open for registration

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Australia workshops open for registration

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design master class for training managers at the Learning@Work conference
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  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet

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When do you need a branching scenario?

Elearning mini-scenario screenshot

A mini-scenario. Make your decision, see the result, that’s it.

When should you go to the trouble of designing a branching scenario? Let’s look at some examples.

First, you might not need a branching scenario. Most of the time, a one- or two-scene mini-scenario does the job fine.

In a mini-scenario, you make your decision, see the realistic consequence, and figure out if you made a good choice. You might then go to a very different scene representing a different situation.

Mini-scenarios are great for covering a lot of possible problems, but they’re not so great for getting deep into a more complex situation. For that, consider using a branching scenario.

It’s not just a series of scenes

In a branching scenario, decisions made in early scenes affect later scenes. This helps people practice such skills as:

  • Recognizing and challenging their own assumptions
  • Recovering from mistakes in a long or complex process
  • Navigating extended, ambiguous situations
  • Deciding when to stop gathering information and act

Scene from cross-cultural simulationA lot of you are familiar with the Haji Kamal scenario, in which you help an inexperienced Army officer make a good impression on an Afghan leader. You have to make many decisions in one conversation, and things you say at one point affect what happens in later points.

This wasn’t a problem for us, but it’s easy to imagine a stakeholder saying, “We shouldn’t spend all our budget on just one story! We should have lots of short scenes so we can cover things like how to deal with children, what to do when you have to search someone, what to do when someone tries to give you a gift…”

I’ve seen cross-cultural training that uses that approach. You’re tossed from one mini-scenario to another so you can practice social niceties. In one scene you accept a business card correctly, and then suddenly you’re eating in a restaurant, and then suddenly you’re deciding what gift to bring to someone’s home. This is surface training. There’s no deep change involved.

For the Army, we used a branching scenario because we wanted deeper change. Our (many!) interviews with soldiers suggested that one challenge they faced was their western perspective of “We’re here to help you, so let’s get down to business.” We wanted them to practice recognizing when that perspective was hurting local relationships and, importantly, practice recovering from mistakes.

More examples

In their “Family of Heroes” scenario (registration required but worth it), Kognito also focuses on just one conversation. Their goal is to help us see from another’s perspective, manage our emotions, and recover from mistakes. Imagine how much weaker the interaction would be if it were instead a series of unrelated one-scene snippets from the couple’s life.

In this fake language learning scenario, the branching isn’t complex. In order to make sense of later scenes, you have to choose correctly in previous ones, and the branches are just little loops to make sure you choose correctly. But because later scenes build on vocabulary learned in previous ones, your learning is repeatedly reinforced, and I hope you also gain confidence.

Part of simulation flowchart

If you want to cover different situations but also want the advantages of some branching, you might present a series of shorter scenarios. One artist’s intriguing Flash interaction uses that approach. You meet three different young people and try to talk them out of killing themselves.

Finally, at the other end of the production spectrum, the BBC helps you learn Spanish and Spanish customs with an interactive TV mystery series.

All of these use branching to some degree, because their goals include challenging our assumptions and encouraging us to build our own knowledge. While they don’t cover the variety of topics that mini-scenarios could cover, they aim for deeper change.

I’m looking for more publicly available examples of branching scenarios. There are several on my recently updated elearning examples page, but the world needs more! If you know of any, please share the links in the comments.

Upcoming workshops

Sydney, Australia, Nov. 13: Join us for “Training design for business results,” a one-day workshop for learning managers at the Learning@Work conference. There’s currently a super-early-bird discount available through the Learning@Work site. Please see more details in my workshop calendar.

Other workshops in Australia and elsewhere are in the planning stages. I’ll announce them in this blog; to make sure you don’t miss anything, subscribe to the blog if you haven’t already.

Photo credit: Signpost image used to represent this post is by The Nick Page

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