We all want to create great e-learning that really speaks to our learners and helps them improve at their jobs. One way to do this is by creating realistic scenarios. Sounds pretty easy, but writing a realistic scenario involves more than just throwing some character images and speech bubbles onto a slide. Creating a believable scenario that applies to your specific group of learners requires some effort and thought.

In this article, I’ll focus on three guiding principles for writing realistic e-learning scenarios and show you how to apply each one in a sample context.

So, let’s start with this situation: You’re a training designer for a pharmaceutical sales company. You need to develop medical sales training for their sales reps about a new line of products. The first question you should ask yourself is, “How will this information be applied in real-life scenarios?” In this case, the sales reps at the pharma company must learn about a new line of products so they can sell it effectively to customers. The real-life context: pitching the new products to customers.

1: Create Relatable Characters

Characters are a central piece of your scenario, so it’s a good idea to develop them up front. Scenarios often involve multiple characters, but try to keep it as basic and straightforward as possible.

Knowing your audience is critical: develop characters that are as close to your average learner as possible. Are most of your learners 20- to 30-year-old men? If so, they’ll relate more to a 25-year-old male than a 65-year-old woman. You don’t need to provide a 10-year biography of the character, just a few simple lines of contextual background information.

For our medical sales e-learning example, we created a character named Bill. “This is Bill Meyers. He’s been a sales representative for Pharma, Inc., for six years. Throughout this module, you’ll help Bill make smart decisions to sell our new line of products.”

We then created a second character, Dr. Tim Singh. “This is Dr. Tim Singh. He’s contacted Pharma, Inc., to learn about its new line of products. If Bill can convince him, Dr. Singh might make a big purchase today!” And voila, you have your characters and scenario ready to go.

2: Develop Real Challenges

Your next step is to develop a real-life situation that your learners will face, where they’ll need to know or use the information you’re teaching them in your course. What will they be doing when they need to apply this information? You want this situation to be as close to reality as possible, so all of the normal parameters and rules that apply in real life must apply in the scenario.

Back to my example. The e-learning module you’re designing teaches sales reps about the new line of products. But when would the reps need to apply the knowledge they’re learning in real life? Well, they would need to know this information when they receive calls or inquiries from potential customers.

For our example, Bill receives a call from Dr. Singh asking for more information about the new line of products. “Hello, I’m calling to find out about the new product you’re selling and how it can benefit my patients.”

Here comes the challenging part: You need to develop one correct response as well as at least one or two realistic but incorrect alternatives. You might need to get input from SMEs or stakeholders at this point. Examples of potential answers:

Answer 1: Independent studies prove that our new product reduces infections by 80% and helps alleviate pain in almost all cases. (CORRECT)

Answer 2: Our new product reduces infections by more than 50%. It also helps with pain. (INCORRECT)

In this example, answer 1 is correct because Bill has made reference to independent studies that prove the efficiency of the product, and he has made a reference to a statistic of 80%, which is a persuasive, high number. Answer 2 is incorrect because in this one Bill doesn’t mention the independent studies (which are important) and because he states a low, and incorrect, percentage. These are the kinds of realistic, minor details your SMEs can likely provide and validate.

3: Show Real Outcomes

You need to demonstrate potential outcomes of the learners’ decisions that are as close to reality as possible. When learners can see the impact of the decisions they make in real-life situations, it makes a lasting impression.

Examples of potential outcomes for our situation:

Feedback 1: Wow, I’m impressed that independent studies have proven your product reduces infections. Eighty percent is a very high figure! I think I’ll switch to your product.

Bill impressed the doctor with facts and high figures backing up the new product. The outcome? Bill made the sale and the next day received a well-deserved promotion.

Feedback 2: Hmmm…I’d be more impressed if you had information backed up by facts or studies. And reducing infections by 50% is not that high. I think I’ll stay with our current product.

Bill didn’t give the doctor the facts and figures he needed to persuade him. As a result, he lost out on a major potential sale.

With scenarios like this, you can more effectively convey information, reinforce its relevance, and test whether learners can apply it in real life.

And to get started, you just need to follow these three simple guidelines: develop characters, create real-life challenges, and demonstrate the outcomes. In no time at all, you’ll have great scenarios that really speak to learners and help drive home your content.

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