So why use scenarios?

I’ve written a lot about how to write scenarios and I’ve written about when not to use them. So why use scenarios? What are they good for?

From your learner’s point of view, a good scenario will speak to their curiosity. It will show a situation they have been in or can imagine themselves being in. What happens if I …?

Making them care

Nick Shackleton Jones talks of the affective context – a piece of learning design must either address things the learner cares about or create new concerns  – make them care about something they don’t. By using the tools of fiction and drama, even in a small way, scenarios achieve both of these better than a dry exposition of ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘it is essential’.

Practice at doing

For the organisation investing in training, scenarios directly address the need for employees to do something. Being able to do is more important than knowing facts. Scenarios offer practice at doing. Slides-and-test offers a temporary hosting of facts in the brain, to be ousted by more interesting facts as soon as the end of course quiz is passed.

A cautionary tale

Vintage engraving of sheep
Sheep-dip training often doesn’t meet anyone’s needs.

A long time ago in a company (not) far away, the powers that be decided that someone had carelessly given away commercially sensitive information at a management networking meeting. In their panic to ‘do something’ they decided that training had to be given explaining why this was a Bad Thing and how you should Not Do It.  A large slideshow was produced and an expensive elearning company commissioned to create quirky graphics and a test. But who should receive this training?  It was hard to define exactly who might be called upon to attend a networking event, and impossible within the learning management system to corrall off those people. So everyone had to do it. Everyone from the lowliest temp to the most senior executive. That solved the problem – the problem of segmenting an audience that is!  There was an outcry from staff and their managers at the colossal waste of time – the vast majority of employees would never be attending such events.

In response, sanity prevailed and a revised version of the training looked at scenarios in which one might accidentally give away too much about what one is doing at work, even at the pub on Friday evening. In the process it emerged that, yes, you could give away sensitive information without attending events; events at a high management level just  exposed you to different risks with bigger consequences. So two sets of scenarios were created – one for most staff, with situations they could credibly find themselves in, and one for managers attending networking events. Because they looked at what people actually do rather than telling them what was ‘vital’ and ‘essential’. And because it spoke directly to people about their own lives, it went down well.

“We just have to prove we’re telling them about it”

But we may get the riposte “It’s compliance – we just have to prove we’re telling them about it.”

Why? What practical difference does it make?

If it makes no difference, don’t spend money on elearning, send a mass email. If it does make a difference – what’s the potential cost of an incident? What’s the likelihood? Those will tell you what effort and money it’s worth spending on getting it right.  How will you know they’re getting it right? The answer has to be by doing something, not by answering multiple choice questions.

Business results come from doing, not knowing. So training should practice doing, not knowing. And that’s where scenarios work.

Designing Predicaments – a guide to storytelling in scenarios – is free here – just sign up for updates.


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