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The Power of Dramatic Techniques in Learning

Frank McCabe is a Learning Designer at LEO Learning, and one of the BBC WritersRoom 10 for 2014.

In the first installment of his two part special, Frank looks at the power of empathy and pulling motors in drama and how you can apply them to learning interventions.

Using Dramatic Techniques in Learning

“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter […] the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives.” Reynolds Price, American poet and dramatist.

When designing eLearning, we face the constant challenge of capturing the imagination and attention of learners. This is often phrased by our clients as ‘engagement’ – a term we hear every single day.

Scenarios in learning programmes provide greater opportunities for fostering engagement than almost anything else – primarily because, quite simply, people love stories.

This basic fact is the foundation of a vast industry of seminars and manuals on film, theatre and television story structure. Much of it is snake-oil, but there a few universal gems that can be applied to great effect in any style of digital storytelling.

Empathy Keys

A few years ago, a new character was introduced to a popular British soap opera. Early surveys of the TV-watching public showed she wasn’t going down particularly well with audiences, so a storyline was introduced in which she learned to play the trumpet. Her popularity among audiences went through the roof.


A common technique for drawing audiences into a story is to use empathy keys. These are tried and trusted character ‘beats’ that evoke positive feelings towards our hero or heroine. If we identify with a character, we’re more likely to care about what happens to them – and stay with the story.

Watch out for empathy keys next time you sit down to watch TV. They’re all over the place. How many leading characters have a pet cat or dog? A surprising number. How many are seen playing a musical instrument? Again, more than you’d think. These are blatant empathy keys. Those of you who’ve seen Inside Llewyn Davis will now recognise the double-whammy the Coen brothers served up in that movie – man carrying around nothing but a guitar and a cat.

Empathy has no connection to logic or the gaining of knowledge, but it is essential for proper engagement. In learning scenarios, different types of empathy keys need to be employed (guitars in the workplace bringing back nothing but uncomfortable memories of The Office).

What circumstances do we empathise with at work? Which circumstances can everyone relate to? It could be something as simple as having a character walk up eight flights after discovering the lift isn’t working… Try to weave into your narratives something that invokes feeling in a learner audience, rather than just a practical or intellectual response.

Pulling Motors

Linear e-learning lends itself really well to the concept of pulling motors – these are unexplained details that plant a question in the mind of the audience and ‘pull’ them along with a narrative. Perhaps the most famous example of a pulling motor is the ‘Rosebud’ motif in Citizen Kane – the quest to find out the word’s significance is a pre-occupation for both the audience and the characters in the story itself.

We can plant all kinds of pulling motors within learning courses – and in fact we do already, to an extent. What we think of as ‘teaser’ intros would certainly qualify.

But how about starting a scenario with the most dramatic or interesting event rather than simply the first event? Many films are now structured non-chronologically. Wouldn’t your learners’ interest be piqued by seeing dramatic plot point first up? They may be driven more strongly as a result to complete the scenario.

Bold claims can be effective pulling motors in learning too. Telling learners up-front that a course could revolutionize the way they work can (if that statement is true!) provide a powerful “what happens next?” motivator.

Learn more about LEO Learning’s ability to produce highly quality video and animation to create dramatic techniques.

Whatever your interests and challenges may be, we’re interested in talking to you. Our vision for the future of learning makes innovative use of various forms of learning, tailored to the way you and your organisation think.

Our latest ebook will get you thinking about how you can transform learning in your organization. It includes practical tips and insights to help you make meaningful, relevant and lasting changes to your organization.

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