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Narratives and themes

Part 1: The learning designer’s perspective

Making the learner an offer they can’t refuse…

A lot of our content uses a theme or narrative to convey the learning points. Recently, for example, I used a mafia theme for a module on how to create good presentations.

Why? Because the stereotypes and visual identity are instantly recognisable, and not in the context you’d expect to see them, which helps the messages to stick. Plus the theme is fun. And the more fun it is, the more engaged learners are, and the more they’re likely to take away.

Tips for making it work

Let’s take a look at some of the key steps I took to make the theme engaging and consistent.

1. Research the theme

A similar level of research should go into finding the right images and cultural references for a theme, as that which goes into the content.

I looked into lines, images and characters from the most well-known (and oft-quoted) mafia movies. By pulling out some of the clichés that are commonly associated with the mafia, it helped me to create something that felt reminiscent of the style, and equally as indulgent and fun. Look out for the bank heists, larger-than-life mafia dons and some killer suits!

If a theme feels out of place, it can distract from what we want our learners to take away, so taking the time to hone in on the best concepts is a good starting point.

2. Flesh out the story

The structure of the theme needs to mirror the flow of the content. It’s almost like creating a standalone story that runs parallel to the learner journey. Going back to the mafia theme, the overarching idea is that a new mafia recruit needs to present his first ever ‘crime caper’ to the head of the mafia. So he needs his presentation to be spot on. Knowing where the central character will be at the start and end of the module helps to guide the actual learner through the same journey. 

The clearer it is, the simpler it is for the learner to follow, and the more likely they are to remember it. And if you can’t come up with a story that works… then maybe it’s not the right theme!

3. Generate the right emotions

The story we’ve created should spark interest, and the best way to do this is to generate positive emotions. We can use humour, play on stereotypes, and create exciting scenarios that help to bring our content to life. 

Imagine a mafia henchman actually performing a PowerPoint presentation? A pretty ludicrous idea with no doubt hilarious results. What’s more, if you see the head of the mafia sitting ominously behind a desk, what’s the first film you’re going to think of? (The title of this is a little hint!) It’s all there to make our modules more fun and memorable.

4. Keep the content at the centre

Through all of this, our task is to keep the content at the forefront, rather than overwhelm it with thematic devices. Our little nods to mafia stereotypes are there to bring the content to life. Our central character capturing the mafia boss’s short attention span will help learners to remember the importance of keeping their presentations short.

This links back to the point about finding a story that works. If you fall in love with the theme, you could end up shoe-horning links into the content arbitrarily. Creating a story that mirrors the content means you shouldn’t fall into this trap.

Our aim is to make the learning points more memorable, not mean they’re lost in translation. That’s why our independent user test is a key part of the learning design process at THRIVE.

Ready to give it a go?

These tips are my lessons learnt in using a visual theme and narrative. If you want to find out what else the mafia can teach you about presenting, then keep an eye out for our Creating a presentation module coming soon!




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