Using storytelling in learning campaigns

When we think about storytelling, our minds often wander back to a time of childhood bliss. We might think of Disney, or the stories our parents told us. But what we often overlook is that storytelling is all around us. It’s part of our everyday lives – yes, even as adults. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as a TV series or a film. But other times it’s not. How we relay the happenings of our day to our partner, how we daydream about our future, and even how we build emotional connections with the world around us. These are all storytelling in action.

In fact, a 1940’s experiment proved that humans use stories to rationalise the things they see. Using a simple video of shapes moving on a screen, psychologists Heider and Simmel asked people to describe what was happening. Almost all participants gave the shapes personalities, emotions and motivations. (You can check out the video here, if you’re interested!) And it’s this emotional connection that we want to tap into with our marketing for learning campaigns.


The power of emotion in marketing

What’s a marketing professional’s primary aim? Those without a deep understanding of marketing will often jump to the conclusion that it’s to make people buy something. Which isn’t completely incorrect. But marketing is much more than that.

Effective marketing does three things:

  1. Captures attention
  2. Educates
  3. Prompts action

For example, the marketing team at Innocent Smoothies…

  1. Grab attention through witty social media posts
  2. Educate us on the goodness in their smoothies through their website & packaging
  3. Encourage us to buy the smoothie!

It’s a winning recipe. But how does it work when we’re looking at marketing for learning? Well, we want to:

  1. Grab the attention of our people (they’re very time-poor, so this is a challenge in itself!)
  2. Educate them on why they need to embark on the learning we’re offering them
  3. Encourage them to sign up for training or log in to our learning platform so that they can access the amazing resources we have for them.

But we live in an attention economy. Cutting through the noise is a tough job, especially as our people don’t necessarily want to learn. And we’re asking them to give up something more precious than money, their time. Which is where storytelling – and the emotional connection it forms – comes into play, through learning campaigns.


Wait, what is a learning campaign?


“Build it and they will come” is one of the most disastrous phrases in business – especially when it comes to learning. No matter how fantastic your content is, if your people don’t know it exists, how can they engage with it? That’s where a learning campaign steps in. Learning campaigns, with marketing at their core, ensure engagement with your content and resources and ultimately drive impact. Which I’m sure you’ll agree – is a very crucial step in learning.

But we’re seeing the phrase ‘learning campaign’ used incorrectly quite often lately. Or perhaps these people are just trying to describe something else entirely… But here at MAAS, we want to clear up the confusion about learning campaigns. This image gives you a quick overview of what’s included in a campaign. It’s about exploring what’s in it for your people, what will they take away from engaging with your learning? Then telling them the answer to that question by tapping into their emotional drivers – which will ultimately make them take action. Simple, right?!

It’s in the ‘tapping into their emotional drivers’ phase that storytelling comes into play. It’s this stage that prompts your people to engage with your learning, which is our primary aim, right?



Using storytelling in learning campaigns to personalise

Good marketing persuades an individual that your product or service will have the power to change their life, without talking to them one-to-one at all. As marketers, we create messaging, adverts, emails and so on, that go out en masse. But when it hits someone’s inbox, it should feel as though it’s entirely bespoke and personalised to their needs.

It’s a tough feat, but storytelling can help. Stories allow you to convey a message for interpretation. Take the ‘Lynx effect’ advert for the popular antiperspirant range. They never mention that Lynx smells good – they leave that open for interpretation. Their target audience could watch the video and interpret it in any way they wanted: Lynx spray makes you irresistible. Lynx spray attracts the opposite sex. Or they might get it ‘right’… Lynx spray smells good.

This was such a strong story for the brand that there has been scientific research into ‘the Lynx effect’ and the phrase ‘the Lynx effect’ is still on Urban Dictionary – five years after the brand ditched the campaign. Though the story it tells may be questionable in today’s age (and that’s why the brand rightly ditched it a few years back), the power of storytelling cannot be overlooked. It told it’s target audience that if they used its product, their life would change for the better. It made it personal and made the target audience the protagonist of the story.

This is actually often much easier in the case of learning. Your learning resources will teach your people a new skill, behaviour or way of thinking that they didn’t have before. Which will then positively impact their personal or professional lives. In our marketing for learning advertising – we must tap into that need, and convince our people that the learning we’re offering will help them get to their aspirational goal. 


Using storytelling in learning campaigns to create compassion

Whether you’re a marketing pro or not, I bet you spend time each year discussing at least one advert: The John Lewis Christmas ad.

From their 2015 team-up with Age UK for the ‘man on the moon’ advert, to 2019’s ‘excitable Edgar’; the John Lewis Christmas advert always sparks emotion. It made the audience care so much about the elderly at Christmas time, that within a week thousands had signed up to volunteer with Age UK. And it made fully grown adults buy stuffed toys of a dragon because they loved him so much. But most importantly for the marketing team behind these tactics, it increased brand awareness.

When it comes to marketing with a much smaller budget than the likes of John Lewis; brand awareness is equally as important. Take marketing your latest eLearning course as an example, you may not realise it, but learners ‘buying’ your course takes a huge amount of trust. Despite the fact that they often aren’t parting with their hard-earned cash at all. In a world where everyone comments on how busy they are, attempting to persuade learners to embark on another task isn’t a challenge for the faint hearted. Make your learners care about your learning brand, the purpose behind the training, and the impact it’ll have on their lives, and your job will become much easier.


Using storytelling in learning campaigns to explain

I consider myself quite ‘tech-savvy’. However if you ask me to explain how algorithms work in social media – you’d have me stumped. Well, that was the case until recently, when I watched Netflix’s documentary-drama, The Social Dilemma. The fact that this release isn’t a straight-laced documentary, nor is it a drama, is the reason it told such a good story. The production team used actors to depict an algorithm controlling somebody’s social media usage. It made the explanation of how an algorithm works relatable, realistic – and most of all, it aided understanding. Alongside this it humanised the algorithm as three people, all making decisions about which alert to send to an individual’s phone next.

Despite years of reading about social media and how algorithms control who sees what, I never really understood it. I knew it was the tech behind the communication platforms, but that was about it. But in 90 minutes, this documentary-drama made it all make sense. A light bulb went off in my mind, “ohhhhh, that’s what all of those articles meant”.

This is perhaps the most common use of storytelling in learning. Many of the best learning development companies use storytelling throughout their courses, modules and learning programmes to aid learning. But how do we use it to market our learning? By using storytelling throughout our learning campaigns, we can depict to our learners how our content will improve their lives, without leaving too much to the imagination. 


How storytelling in learning campaigns can help drive engagement

L&D professionals often say their biggest challenge is engagement. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think the biggest challenge for L&D is awareness. Because if people don’t realise something exists, how can they engage with it? And because L&D is framing this problem wrong (focusing on engagement rather than awareness), practitioners find themselves focusing on the content: What are we teaching? Is it relevant? How can we make it more ‘fun’? But making changes based on any of these questions is not going to make the impact we want – because they overlook generating awareness of the learning offering.

Until you make your learner aware, care and understand why the learning is important to them (not the business!) you’ll struggle to truly overcome the age-old engagement problem. Instead, create a learning campaign that tells a story to inspire your learners and creates excitement about the possibilities they will have post-learning and you’ll be on your way to combating poor learner engagement, once and for all. 

The Big L&D Reset – A Call To Arms From The Future


Restarting L&D: It’s time to do things differently

Let’s be honest – you’ve read enough about change and Covi’ and how the world is different. You’re probably filled to the brim with information on what you should do and how you should adapt, pivot, shift. You’re likely inundated with virtual conferences and webinars and Zoom chats (video off pliz). But this change, and indeed the entrance into a new year does give us a chance to take a pause, doesn’t it?


Following such incredible disruption to both our personal and professional lives, it’s natural to look at the negatives this imbalance has caused us. 2020 was, after all, a bit shit wasn’t it? The highlights of my year included leaving the house for food and buying new loungewear (seriously). 


But it’s not all been doom and gloom. We’ve had some lessons too – change can happen and we can survive it. We can sometimes even thrive in it. Now the question is, can we and should we sustain it? I believe this pandemic has given learning and development REAL opportunities to do things differently both now and in the future. Because this change Covid has caused is permanent; our hearts and minds are not the same. Our learners are not the same. 


And we are not the same. And that’s OK.


Others in L&D are changing, but are we? Really?

I’m the first to admit that the learning and development industry needs a shakeup. I try to do a lot of shaking myself, but you are a stubborn lot at times! 😉


But what’s not changing? Well….for starters, a lot of the ‘thought-leadership’ in our industry is steeped firmly in the past, with perspectives tainted with the ‘old ways’ of doing things and why they were effective. We also lean too heavily on tech to solve problems which are so painfully big that I can’t even understand why we think a new LXP would fix it all. We’re constantly on the search for panacea, the wondrous and elusive gleaming genius of a solution to all our problems. 


But jesus guys, surely we know this just does not exist? 

Our challenges are big and interlaced with the business’ and the sentiment of the people within it. L&D’s problems don’t generally spur from the way training is created and delivered, at least in my opinion. They’re bigger and much more complex. Our learners are disengaged and would rather turn to YouTube and Google. Our business stakeholders have unrealistic expectations of what L&D should do. This often equates to a culture of order-taking which, in some senses, means very little of our own function is left for us to ‘fix’ in the first place. Sidenote: this is likely the reason we often turn to tech as our solution, because that is something we DO control!  

In a nutshell, we got some big problems.

l&d-changeIt is broke, so we do need to fix it 

These temporary solutions (ie, throwing tech at the problem) weren’t working for a long time before ol’ Covi hit. But what this gargantuan pandemic did (and is still doing…please go away now Covid) was give the world some time to take stock. Other industries which have been obstinate and just focused on short-term solutions suffered; Covid undoubtedly accelerated their slow extinction as they proved unable to keep up with the pace of change. And as a result, their success is dwindling…

The ‘high street’ was already dying, with retailers shifting to online, personalised shopping experiences… 

Industries such as print were failing, primarily due to the digital revolution. This may well have been the final nail in the coffin…. 

Steel and manufacturing began struggling to keep pace amongst the growing demand for more sustainable sources… 

These industries have simply had to evolve, or they die. To me, the changes we observe outside of L&D way beyond the pandemic are a barometer for the changes L&D too has been experiencing. To respond to changing audience needs we shifted to mobile learning (now basically just essential). We’ve then moved away from prescriptive learning and LMSs to more modern, social learning environments and platforms. We’re also starting to look at data, and analytics, and maybe even marketing to help us better solve our problems (yay for MAAS!). 

Slowly, glacially at times, we have begun to outgrow our old ways of working. But have we yet moved away from our old ways of thinking? I’m not so sure. And my worry is that as long as our old mindsets, old ways of thinking and working continue to exist, we’ll never really be able to reach our full potential as a critical business function. 


So, how can we truly capitalise on the potential of L&D? With this incredible opportunity of change at our feet, let’s ask ourselves: “what do we need to do differently?” 


So, what does L&D need to do differently? 

Well, I asked some of my friends…because they seem to know more about this stuff than I do. 



LORI NILES-HOFMANN, Co-owner, NilesNolen

Whilst there are many things L&D needs to change, the most imperative is to mobilise deliberate upskilling and stop with the spray and pray generic course libraries. 


Companies are facing massive shortages where vital skillsets are not available in talent pools. Employee upskilling is the most direct way for every company to maintain viability and competitive advantage. L&D must begin to collaborate with talent management to analyse the HR data to identify and close the skill gaps imperative to the business, not track completions or hours of training.





MATT ASH – Director of Learning & Performance, Media Zoo

We need to do less, better. I have yet to encounter a client where content is the solution to their challenges. There is a wealth of research on effective behaviour change that ties in directly to how people learn. It’s time to open our eyes to the reality of implementation of L&D across the business.  Benchmark, test, adapt.





AMANDA NOLEN, Co-Owner, NilesNolen

Start focusing on business outcomes instead of learning outcomes, and stop talking about learning (for the sake of learning). Stop throwing stuff online or digitising it as fast as possible… when it wasn’t delivering clear value to begin with.






JACK LOCKHART, Learning Experience and Performance Manager, PerfectHome

We need to show radical accountability for the experiences we deliver and support. I’ve started to really lean on the phrase ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept’ as a benchmark for what I do in the business. If I really hate that experience that I own, what are other people going to think of it?

I also feel we have a responsibility to use evidence-based practice as a chance to educate others around us. It’s easy to chop others down for not doing it. Or that ‘they should know better’ when actually it could be a chance to support, coach and educate to bridge some of the divisive gaps that have come up. A rising tide lifts all boats.




JOHN HINCHLIFFE, Talent Manager, Jam Pan

For me, it’s about how we provide answers to questions that meet people at the point that they need them. Organisations, and we as learning practitioners, have to acknowledge that we are fallible as human beings and forget a lot of information, thus we cannot rely on our learners to still know the information they consumed in the future. 

To provision for this we can create easily accessible, short pieces of knowledge to provide our learners with the information they need, when they need it and in as few steps as possible. This not only means looking at the content we create but also the systems we utilise to house this for ease of access. If you do not have a Learning Platform that supports this then maybe it is you have a Sharepoint site with relevant folders, a number of channels on your MS Teams with user generated content to provide answers to FAQs or even at its most basic level an email with curated links to external material that provide the solution.

 By allowing people to obtain the right information when they need it, it will bring a number of positive ROIs to the organisation, which in turn increases the value of the L&D function.




EGLE VINAUSKAITE, Director, Skillbright Labs

What often gets lost among budgets, courses and completions, is that the L&D function, when done right, can help people reach their career aspirations and all the good things that come with them.


This responsibility needs to be taken seriously. Content, programmes and technology need to serve a business and/or employee need. Time spent talking with end users needs to be viewed as essential to create something useful, not a corner to cut. And data capability should be a strategic goal to know where, when and how to best support employee learning.


Sales, marketing, product and other business functions figured this out ages ago. There are skills and methods that can be readily borrowed. Support is available from more experienced industry peers. This is not the future—the time is now.




LAUREN WALDMAN, Founder, Learning Pirate

L&D needs to start treating learning as a fundamental HUMAN skill and not that of a business transaction.  Look deeper into the meaning of true learning, how it’s done and how we have evolved as human beings to facilitate that process within ourselves.  


Learning occurs on an everyday basis, whether we realise it or not. We have an unlimited capacity to do so and once we understand ourselves and our operational system (our brains) much better, not only can we evolve as learners but as greater more aware humans. 





It’s time to truly put learners first 

Why on earth has it taken a pandemic for us to start to understand that our people are the glue of our business? Our people, their hearts and spirits and minds are precisely what keeps our businesses running, but at times our industry seems to lose sight of how human L&D truly should be. 

There’s some fantastic advice above, but one thing is for certain. We need to change and we need to truly humanise L&D if we are ever to be successful in this digital, globalised world we’re now living in. Evolve or die. I know which one I’m picking.