These three words are almost never heard in learning and development. More often, they spark images of Hollywood back lots, movie stars, and manic directors trying to finish their film on time and budget. Yet, there are some aspects of the Hollywood system that can inform and influence the learning and development industry.

The work of learning and development is often hemmed in by the twin pillars of learning theory and developmental psychology. We look to the recent discoveries in human potential development and the most current developments in technology. However, there is more to the equation.

Cognitive psychology and developmental neuroscience continue to prove through applied research that humans learn best when a story is involved. The learning and development industry is adopting this new tool and methodology — but perhaps not to its fullest potential.

The challenge of crafting and creating an overarching narrative that frames the designed learning experiences is often the reason narrative training is not pursued more. This hesitancy to embrace narrative training could be due more to a lack of tools than to a lack of understanding. Here are a few time-tested tools that will help you successfully design, develop and deploy narrative-based learning experiences in your organization.

The Plot Outline

“Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order” (Jean Luc Goddard).

Instructional design techniques encourage the enumeration of learning objectives, or outcomes, as well as topics covered in the learning experience. Simply put, this step involves outlining the experience — but it is so much more.

Traditionally, learning experiences are linear in fashion. Sometimes, this structure is necessary, given the content involved. However, try moving around the topics and practices within the experience as a whole. It may be time to employ the “cut-up” technique.

Outlining the learning experience in a way that parallels or mirrors a traditional plot diagram can also help to identify weak points and “plot holes” in the workshop or course. It can also provide a peek into how you might improve the experience for the audience.

This method provides something of a double return. The learning experience is given a different form and appearance. On the other hand, the method also gives the instructional designer and trainer the ability to reimagine the formula in order to keep the work fresh and engaging for them.

The two best models to start with come from the stage and the screen. One is Freytag’s Pyramid, also known as the Five-act Model or the Shakesperean Model. It breaks a narrative into five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement:

Freytag's Pyramid

The other effective planning model was developed by the late Syd Fields, a noted screenwriter. His seminal work, “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting,” delves into the Three-act Structure, which simplifies Freytag’s Pyramid:

Three-Act Structure

As with any tool, these models are a great resource not only for thinking cinematically within instructional design and training deployment but also for planning learning experiences. By nature, they are cultivating, not restrictive. They are forms to be used — mastered, even — and adapted as needed. They are not immutable.

The next step in thinking cinematically is another common practice in entertainment media: storyboarding.


Storyboards are a way to begin visually presenting the content of the learning experience. This practice has been a mainstay of the entertainment industry for decades. Films, television shows, commercials and video games use this technique, and there is no reason why instructional designers should not do the same.

Storyboards can help designers and the rest of the learning team accomplish many of the tasks involved in creating an engaging and authentic learning experience, including:

  • Identifying and addressing gaps (plot holes) in the experience.
  • Identifying and addressing weak points within the overall experience.
  • Removing any unnecessary content.
  • Ensuring continuity throughout the learning experience.
  • Identifying appropriate media needs.

In essence, storyboards allow designers and their team to visualize the learning experience and do an early quality assurance check before expending further time and effort.

There is a myriad of free and subscription-based tools and templates that designers and their teams can use to create storyboards, but a blank sheet of paper and a pencil can also suffice.

The third pillar in narrative learning is another common practice in the entertainment industry: the script.

The Script

Filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Mel Brooks and Frank Capra point to the script as the most important part of any film. The same goes for instructional design; scripting the learning experience is essential for the audience to truly participate and walk away from the session with the knowledge and/or skills identified in the learning objectives.

Scripting a learning experience is just like writing a script for the stage or screen, with one difference: improvisation. When designing instructor-led training (ILT), it’s critical to make allowances for each trainer to individualize the experience in order to engage the audience within the given context.

The script also makes your training more accessible, providing one of the elements required for learning experiences to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ADA requires any educational videos or recordings to have not only subtitles but a transcript, too. The script is that transcript.

Approaching instructional design and training projects from a cinematic point of view can provide learning and development professionals and participants with the most engaging and authentic learning experiences possible. By borrowing tools from the entertainment industry, learning professionals can make experiences not only more enjoyable for all involved but also more impactful for participants. Plot outlines, storyboards and scripts are easily integrated into almost any workflow and quickly become a natural part of the development and design process.