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Scenario Writing: Top 5 Pitfalls

Scenario Writing: Top 5 Pitfalls; title displayed on a tablet held by a man; in the background, a person is falling into a pit

Introduction

By now, most instructional designers agree that scenarios are beneficial for learning. But when writing scenarios for training, how do you craft stories that are realistic in the context of the learner’s job? Start by avoiding these common mistakes when writing eLearning scenarios. Let’s count them down.

Scenario Writing Pitfall #5: Disguising Info Dumps as Conversations

I recently reviewed a compliance course which included a conversation that went something like this:

Man and woman in a warehouse. Text reads
 

Steve is a new employee. He is meeting with his supervisor, Maria, for a safety orientation.

Maria: It is important for you to remember that all employees are responsible for safety here at ABC Company.

Steve: What can I do to contribute to a safety culture?

Maria: Every employee is expected to comply with all aspects of the occupational safety program. This includes being informed of the potential risks and hazards, staying aware of your surroundings, and protecting yourself and others. You should always wear the appropriate personal protective equipment whenever you are in the warehouse. At a minimum, this includes a steel-toed boots, a hardhat, and reflective vest. If you are working in the lumber cutting area, you will need safety glasses, hearing protection, and protective gloves. Remember, always use safe work practices, follow proper procedures, and report hazards.

Steve: Sounds good. What are some biggest hazards I might face on the job?

Maria: I am glad you asked. Forklifts represent one of the biggest safety hazards in the warehouse. In fact, in industries across the US, about 100 employees are killed and 95,000 are injured every year while operating forklifts.

Steve: Wow, I never thought about how dangerous a warehouse could be. What else do I need to know?

Have you ever in your life had a conversation like this? It isn’t a conversation; it’s an info dump disguised as dialogue. This example reads like someone copied phrases from the policy document and forced poor Maria to speak them.

What to Do Instead

Conversation can be an effective way to present information, but it needs to be written in a true-to-life way. (The amazing Christy Tucker has an excellent series on how to do it well.) If you can’t imagine your target audience actually having the conversation, chances are, you need to do some rewriting. Work closely with your subject matter experts to make sure the dialogue uses terminology your learners are likely to use. Better yet, include some members of the target audience on your review team. If the learners need to read the policy language, link to the document instead of awkwardly inserting the language into a conversation.

Scenario Writing Pitfall #4: Writing Robotic Speech

One of the issues with the above example is that the dialogue is stilted, with nary a contraction (such as it’s, you’re, and I’m) to be found. As a former English teacher, I’m convinced that we (English teachers) are partially to blame for this common misstep. Many instructional designers were taught, somewhere in their high school or college careers, that contractions are not appropriate for formal writing.

Because people tend to half-learn grammar rules, they sometimes end up writing scenarios and scripts that sound like Lt. Commander Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who does not, cannot, will not use contractions in his speech. This trait, by the way, distinguishes him from his evil twin, Lore. It’s no wonder many instructional designers shy away from contractions if they’re the stuff of evil, yellow-eyed robots!

Lt. Commander Data with a speech bubble saying,

Conversations should be written the way people talk. Forget what your English teacher told you. You’re not writing a term paper. Read the dialogue aloud and listen for parts that sound stilted or that you naturally “autocorrect” as you read.

Scenario Writing Pitfall #3: Avoiding the Gray

If you’re writing a safety course, there are probably going to be some very clear-cut right and wrong answers. But not every situation is black and white. For example, consider this scenario from a diversity and inclusion course for fire service personnel:

It’s Kate’s second day at the station, and she’s the only female on the team. When she goes to check her gear, she sees a plastic tiara where her helmet should be. Dante and Zach, two firefighters who’ve been with the department for years, laugh as they notice her pick up the tiara. Zach says, “Hey Princess! I thought this looked like more your style.”

As a leader in the department, how do you handle this?

  1. Let it go. Firefighters always give the rookies a hard time.
  2. Tell Kate the teasing means she’s part of the team now.
  3. Ask Zach to step into your office, and speak to him privately to allow him to save face.
  4. Call out the behavior in front of everyone who witnessed it, so expectations are clear.

Each of these choices represents an action that a fire department leader might realistically take. However, a prank that involves a firefighter’s personal protective equipment is one that puts her safety in jeopardy. In addition, a department that wants to build an inclusive culture should not tolerate hazing. Given this information, C or D might both be considered correct choices with advantages and drawbacks for each choice. It’s a gray area with an opportunity for the learner to explore what happens with each choice—when provided with consequence-based feedback. That brings us to the next pitfall on the list….

Scenario Writing Pitfall #2: Getting Preachy

A Golden Rule of Writing is “Show, Don’t Tell.” One way to do this in eLearning scenarios is to show the consequences of the learner’s actions instead of simply telling them if their answer is correct or incorrect. Use the decision point to advance the story.

Let’s say you’re rewriting the safety scenario from above to include some decision points, like so:

 

You’re giving a tour to Steve, a new employee who will be working in the warehouse. Before you go in, you stop to don your personal protective equipment (PPE).

Steve: I’ve got my steel-toed boots and hardhat like you told me in the welcome email. What else do I need?

Which other PPE items do you recommend for Steve? Consult the company policy and select all that apply.

  1. Hearing protection
  2. Protective gloves
  3. Reflective vest
  4. Safety glasses

 

Now let’s say the user gets the answer partially correct. Which feedback does a better job of advancing the story rather than preaching to the learner?

Scenario Feedback Examples

FEEDBACK EXAMPLE #1

Sorry, that’s incorrect. According to the policy, all employees must wear a hard hat, steel-toed boots, reflective vest, and safety glasses while in the warehouse. Employees in the lumber cutting area are also required to wear hearing protection, protective gloves, and a dust mask.

FEEDBACK EXAMPLE #2

You’re definitely going to want a yellow reflective vest, to make sure the forklift operators see you. Safety glasses are important to keep any flying particles out of your eyes. We’re not going into the lumber cutting area right now, so we won’t need protective gloves, a dust mask, or hearing protection—in fact, it’s not a good idea to wear ear plugs in the storage areas of the warehouse, or you might not hear the forklifts.

FEEDBACK EXAMPLE #3

You and Steve put on safety glasses and earplugs before entering the warehouse. A few minutes later, you have a close call with a forklift operator who doesn’t see you because you’re not wearing reflective vests—and you don’t hear the forklift coming because of the earplugs.

The first example takes the learner out of the flow of the story and steps into the world of preachiness. Cathy Moore calls this “eager-beaver feedback.”

The second example isn’t bad; it reads as if a colleague were advising you. This approach would work well if your timeline and budget don’t allow you to create branching scenario.

The third example—which would likely include branching—goes a step further and shows the consequences of a bad choice. Ideally, it would also include a link to the policy or a job aid explaining proper use of PPE.

Scenario Writing Pitfall #1: Not Tying the Story to the Learning Objectives

Finally, we come to the number 1 mistake in my top 5 list: forgetting that the purpose of the story—for an eLearning scenario—is to teach the learning objectives. It can be easy to get caught up in the story, but before you even start creating your characters or outlining the decision points, you have to start with the performance problem you are trying to solve and the learning objectives that will get you there. For instance, if you were writing an old-fashioned exam, you’d make sure every question was tied to a learning outcome, right? Likewise, you should do the same for every decision point in your scenario.

Summary

To recap, you can improve your eLearning scenarios by remembering these Do’s and Don’ts:

Scenario Writing: Top 5 Pitfalls. Do: Align the objectives to the decision points. Don't: Forget to tie the story to the learning objectives. Do: Use realistic consequences as feedback. Don't: Get preachy. Do: Use situations with multiple correct options as teachable moments. Don't: Avoid gray areas. Do: Write like real people talk. Don't: Write robotic speech. Do: Be realistic, and link to "learn more" interactions as needed. Don't: Disguise info dumps as conversations. https://scissortailcs.com

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I Want to Hear from You!

What other common scenario pitfalls have you seen? What have you struggled with? Let us know in the comments!

If you’d like help developing eLearning scenarios, get in touch!

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Comments

  • Great tips! I think the conversational writing (including contractions) is a common hangup for clients and stakeholders. in one of my recent projects, I wrote one of the characters as saying “Yep” instead of “Yes” (I’m trying to work on giving my characters better individual voices, including using more distinct verbal patterns). One of the reviewers flagged every instance of more casual language in the script “because it will cause problems if we have the course translated later.” Clients often try arguing that conversational language is either harder to translate, or harder to understand for people for whom English isn’t their first language. Those are myths though–translators have no problems with contractions or conversational language (technical jargon is more likely to be a problem). Plus, if your learners can’t understand “isn’t” means “is not,” then they don’t speak English well enough to understand the training. I see too many IDs not pushing back against those myths.

    • Thanks, Christy! As someone who learns a lot about writing scenarios from reading fiction, I love that you are giving your characters individual voices and verbal patterns! It can be difficult when the client is a stickler for formal English. I’ve been pinged by clients before because using contractions was a no-no in their style guide—but the style guide was written with formal writing in mind (reports, manuals, etc.) rather than eLearning. We know (from Meyer’s personalization principle) that people learn better from conversations and social interactions, so as learning experts, we have to push back when we know it’s in the best interest of the learner.

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