top of page

To Make Learning Memorable, Think Like a Writer

The following is an excerpt from Mindspace’s upcoming ebook, The Innovator’s Learning and Development Checklist: How to Create a Culture of Learning, that will provide a guide to creating more effective and memorable learning experiences to cultivate a company culture of learning.

Every writer sets out with the same goal to create an engaging, memorable experience for their audience.

Quick quiz!

Question 1: What do you remember from your new hire training?

If you answered, “I remember my trainer, and…ummm…some information about our company, and…well…some other stuff,” you’re not alone. That’s roughly as much as most of us remember from our new hire training. Research done by the National Training Laboratories suggests that learners forget anywhere from 70–95% of what they learn through lectures, reading assignments, and demonstration — all the aspects of most corporate training.

Question 2: What was the plot of your favorite book, movie, or video game?

Most of us can give a fairly good summary of our favorite stories, and some of us can even quote entire movies. Either way, I guarantee your answer to this question is a lot more detailed than the one above.

Novels, movies and video games have a huge advantage. They’re designed to entertain, and most of them don’t have to actually teach anything. And yet, journalist and biographers have been using storytelling techniques to educate for centuries. Even fiction writers sprinkle in facts that their readers will remember long after they put that book down or walk out of the movie theater.

How can an instructional designer present the huge amount of information typically required in a corporate training while still providing a memorable experience? At Mindspace, we believe that by thinking like a writer and coupling it with your wealth of knowledge, it’s easy to design courses that are both informative and memorable.

Write Your Ending First

Veteran game writer, Darby McDevitt (Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines), suggests creating a “high-level narrative summary” before beginning any writing. This outline of where the game will go should become the primary reference source for everyone involved in the project. The reason is simple. If you don’t know where you need to go, how can you ever expect to get there?

When designing a lesson plan, the first thing you need to consider is what new knowledge you want your audience to come away with. You may be tempted to say, I want them to learn everything! But don’t do it. Everything is not helpful. Harvard Kennedy School Senior Lecturer, Dan Levy, says about course planning, “I always think, what are the one or two things I absolutely want students to take away from this course?” By limiting your goal to one or two key objectives, it becomes easier to maintain focus and design a lesson in which everything you include improves the students’ understanding of those objectives.

The lesson outline is also where writers will decide how best to tell their story. Is it a novel? An epic gaming adventure? A collection of blog posts? As an instructor, you need to decide how best to present the information you want to teach. Will it be a single, longer training? A week-long course? Or perhaps a series of micro-moments spaced across a period of time to spread out the learning experience. In most cases, your objectives should help to dictate your format.

Maintain Focus and Limit Extraneous Details

Charles Dickens used to get paid by the word, so it’s no surprise A Tale of Two Cities contains such an excess of details. While great for Dickens’ wallet, those long, meandering sentences and multiple adjectives often turn off modern readers, regardless of the quality of the story.

If your lesson feels like a Dickens novel, chances are your audience is tuning you out. While they may want the important bits of information you have to offer, they don’t want to sit through long lectures, especially if it doesn’t feel relevant to their work. As Kristin Acuna, a Pixar Storyboard Artist, explains, “You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.”

As you consider what material to include, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Will it deepen your audience’s understanding of core objectives? Regardless of how interesting or entertaining the information may be, if it doesn’t fit with your objectives, then it doesn’t belong in your training.

  2. Will it relate directly to your audience’s daily role? If not, it won’t be important to them, and it’s unlikely they’ll retain it.

  3. Does it add value to your brand? Your employees are an extension of your company brand, so the material you preset in your trainings should always tie back to your brand.

Add Backstory

One of the most important jobs a writer has is to help readers relate to the main character. The more they see themselves in the character, the more committed to the story they will be. They accomplish this empathy by creating a relatable back story. As a trainer, you can achieve a similar effect by including relevant real-life stories. As Patti Shank, a PHD and specialist in training and instructional technology, explains, “stories allow us to learn from the experience of others without having to face another person’s personal consequences.”

During orientation for my semester in London, the program director told us the story of a past student who asked for the bathroom and was shown to a room with a sink and a tub, but no toilet. Without getting into too much detail, the story ended with a broken sink, a flooded floor, and a guarantee that future students would always remember to ask for the loo.

These kind of personal narratives, whether funny or just interesting, help create a richer understanding of the culture and community — and they can be highly memorable. A story of a phone agent who went above and beyond their role and made a difference in the life of a client will resonate with new agents, while also helping to achieve empathy with their peers and your clients. The time your dog ate your shoe may be funny, but it won’t help a cat lover learn — or care — more about their role.

Incorporate Mini-Games

Game writers often include mini-games to help players develop new skills. Like a novelist taking us on a short aside that may at first appear unrelated to the greater story, these mini games provide a short break from the rigid structure of the larger theme and typically prove useful later.

Including interactions in your lessons can also offer a break from lecture, or the endless reading of an e-course, and provide an opportunity for students to become more engaged with your content. Including questions or practice scenarios that directly relate to your learning objectives (and your learners’ goals), can increase retention. According to the National Training Laboratories, students actively involved and collaborating improved their retention rates, and practicing a skill can increase retention rates to as high as 75%.

These micro lessons don’t have to be confined to practice or knowledge checks. If we consider the most common use of mini-games, to teach fundamental concepts, it’s clear these interactions can be just as effective for teaching new lessons in an engaging, memorable way.

However, adding interactions or games only help your audience remember the information if they are relevant to the material. Keep micro lessons on theme with your course objectives.

The chances of your audience remembering your class as well as they remember the first time they read Harry Potter or played Gears of War is unlikely, but that’s okay. Your students don’t need to remember everything you teach them. They just need to remember those key objectives that will help them do their jobs more effectively, and know how to find the information they need.

As you build your next training, remember to judge all of your content based on whether it fits your key objectives and look for ways to incorporate relevant personal narratives and mini-lessons. You can also include your own version of our Quick Quiz above to check how well your students are retaining the information. Just don’t be too hard on yourself if they still can’t quote you line for line the way they do Star Wars.


Illustration by Kyle Davila, Senior Art Director at Mindspace

bottom of page