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8 Storytelling techniques for online course creators

What do Mulan, The Lion King, The Lord of the Rings, and Odyssey have in common? They feature different characters, of different genders, in various historical contexts, and one of them is a lion (a hobbit’s not a human either).

Of course, they are all heroes, which we follow on a particular journey. This journey has a very similar structure, unsurprisingly called the Hero’s Journey.

Read more: 4 Awesome ways to incorporate stories in your online course

The hero’s journey is just a fun way to structure a course. However, many other methods help learners better understand concepts, remember important information, improve focus, and connect with you as the instructor. Here are a few of them:

1. Answer an intriguing question: make learners pay attention

“Does learning stop after the age of 25?” Answering this question can bust a learning myth and, at the same time, help you maintain learners’ attention if they’re curious to find out the answer.

To make you understand, I could introduce a character, let’s name him Joe, who is in his forties and is starting a new degree. I can present my arguments on the pros and cons of starting a new path at 40, introduce new concepts about adult learning and the benefits of online learning for busy adults.

At each step of the way, I can insert the character in the story, explaining how they managed different aspects of learning. For example, compared to their younger counterparts, adult learners use their life experience to come up with innovative solutions to problems.

In the end, I’ll present the good results that my character has achieved. If you have numbers or any other kind of stats, that’s even better. In this way, answering a question keeps learners engaged, but the question has to be pretty compelling and relevant.

2. Create timelines: help learners remember steps

Timelines are great if you’re telling a more linear story and mapping out the steps needed to complete something.

I could show you a timeline of my character as he progresses through his education journey, helping you visualize the process. For example, to show you a “map” of adult learning, I could add Step 1: Motivation, Step 2: Seeking educational opportunities, Step 3: Education plan in action, etc.

The best way to do this is through a presentation or video. You can start with an empty timeline and, as you’re explaining each step, add an item to it. Alternatively, you can do this with gamification, where each game level is an important step, and the beauty of this is that you can help learners remember what they’ve mastered at each stage by using badges.

3. Incorporate cliffhangers: encourage completion

People are curious creatures. Cliffhangers work because they keep people on the edge of their seats, ready for the next installment of a book, TV series, or movie franchise.

Starting with an intriguing question and then using it to make a point is a type of cliffhanger. However, there are other ways to do this throughout the course. You could leave “bread crumbs” or clues for the learner by incorporating symbols or cool visuals. Alternatively, you can simply refer to future modules often to let them know how useful it’ll be to check them out.

Of course, you need to connect them and find a common thread, so it makes sense for them to want to continue.

4. False start: for stimulating critical thinking

Critical thinking is mainly about understanding the complexities of life. If I were to present Joe’s story as a person who went from point A to B to get a college degree, that would be OK but not so interesting.

Instead, I can start with the beginning, stop the story and drop the bomb: Joe almost quit halfway through the first year. That’s called a “false start”. Learners expect something predictable to happen, but instead, it wasn’t at all like that, as work and family commitments often conflict with adult learning.

This technique can help you tell your own story by thinking back to when you were still trying to figure it all out. You can then reflect on what you’ve learned, which can serve as an important lesson for learners.

5. Relatable characters: connect with learners

When was the last time you rooted for a stereotypical, poorly written character? Or better yet, what makes a good character?

The idea is that people will root for someone similar to them in one way or another. It doesn’t mean that your course needs to dive deep into their inner world, but they have to be relatable.
Many courses are tempted to only talk about the “ideal” model because it can help learners understand what the best case scenario actions and decisions look like.

However, life’s a little bit messier than that, and your learners will probably struggle at some point. In this case, throw in some examples that reflect both good and not-so-good decisions. If you want to create two characters, one “bad” and one “good,” make sure that you show empathy for both of them since we all have our shortcomings.

6. Use repetition: to help learners recall information

Repetition is often used in all kinds of writing, from fiction to nonfiction, as it can help learners connect the dots.

For example, if you have a super important concept, don’t just use it once and be done with it. If I were to create a course about adult learning, I could talk about motivation and what makes adult learners keep going with their studies.

I could repeat in different key moments of the course this mantra: “People often regret more what they didn’t do than what they did” — which is true, by the way.

So, every time I describe an obstacle and a way to overcome it, I can repeat this saying. It helps sustain my main point: adult learners will rarely regret pursuing their educational goals.

Read more: 6 Neuroscience tips for better online course design

7. Keep it simple: make the course easy to follow

The core objective of your course is, of course, to teach. Going off on tangents and incorporating many elements at once can feel overwhelming and confusing.

In the hero’s journey, we focus on the hero, and each part of the story is connected to the hero’s struggle. For example, if we see the main villain in a side scene, it’s just because that helps further the story. We quickly go back to the hero to see the consequences of what the villain has done.

If it’s not essential to the story that you’re trying to tell, cut it out and also downsize when it comes to the number of characters, if needed.

8. Strong ending: make conclusions stick

The story serves as a technique to help learners understand concepts. You’re not telling the story for the sake of the story.

Of course, course participants can draw their own conclusions based on it. However, all stories have a strong ending because they’re supposed to drive the main point home, which serves as a key lesson to remember.

For this purpose, you need a strong ending that ideally summarizes your main point(s). This is true even if you’ve already mentioned them in the text/video, as sometimes learners pay attention to one thing or another depending on their mood, focus, and what they already know.


Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways in which we learn. Online course creators use them all the time, even if they’re not aware of it. However, knowing a few methods to enrich your lessons with the help of stories can help you be more intentional with how you structure your content for optimal learning.