3 quick tips for strong scenarios

Want to write realistic, subtle scenario questions? Here are some techniques that can help. Learn more.

3 quick tips for strong scenarios

By Cathy Moore

Tips and tricksIt can be hard to write subtle scenario questions. Here are some techniques that can help.

1. Put dialog in quotation marks.

This trick helps ban the bureaucratic from your writing. Instead of paraphrasing what people say, stick it in quotation marks and it will magically rewrite itself. Here’s an example.

Before: Nuria has been wrangling widgets for three weeks and is frustrated. It is difficult for her to determine the correct wrangling angle.

During: “I am frustrated,” Nuria says. “I have been wrangling widgets for three weeks and it is difficult for me to determine the correct wrangling angle.”

After: “This is driving me nuts,” Nuria says. “I’ve been wrangling widgets for three weeks and I still can’t get the angle right.”

The minute you put your dry prose in quotes, you realize how very dry it is. Then it becomes easy to make it sound more natural. This trick also moves you from boring “telling” to more vivid “showing.”

2. Ask, “Why aren’t they doing it?”

In action mapping, you set a business goal and list what people need to do on the job to reach that goal. And then for each important task, you ask, “Why aren’t they doing it now?”

Unfortunately, it’s common to skip that question and go straight from “Here’s what they need to do” to “Here’s an activity that will help them practice doing it.” This often results in a scenario question that’s generic and too easy.

Instead, take a little time to identify the main barriers to performance: “Why aren’t people wrangling widgets well?” You might talk to a few people who do the job and use this flowchart to guide the discussion. You’ll find out if training will really help and, crucially, you’ll learn the challenges that people face. You’ll have the understanding you need to design subtle scenarios that target what’s really causing the problem.

3. Branching? Start with the end in mind.

Before you write any part of a branching scenario, think of the endings that will make the points you want to make. You might aim for one best ending, a few “fair” endings, and some “poor” endings. Then write a high-level plot that provides several intersecting routes to those endings. You might first write the “best” path and then add the less-great paths. Test your plot on subject matter experts and some future learners to make sure it’s realistic and not too easy. Only then is it safe to start fleshing it out with dialog and details.

Tips & tricks image © Aquir and iStock


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16 comments on “3 quick tips for strong scenarios

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  1. I was wondering if anyone had a tool for storyboarding branching scenarios that isn’t overly cumbersome. Linear scenarios are easy to storyboard, i.e. a succession of individual interactions that have clear outcomes that don’t impact the next scenario. What I’m finding more difficult is a format to storyboard branching scenarios with a variety of contingencies and multiple paths. Is there a quick and easy way to diagram these in a storyboard document?

    1. Why not try using a mindmapping software. It’s not built for purpose but you can yse the branches. Branch Track is great but it’snot cheap.

    2. I like twine. it is incredibly quick to learn, so you can focus on dialogue etc. have heard good things about branchtrack and mindmapping software in other forums.

      1. I’m a big fan of Twine also.
        Simple yet elegant.
        Great for branching scnearios.

        Twine is an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. You don’t need to write any code to create a simple story with Twine

  2. My undergrad degree was in Theatre, and playwriting courses helped me make scenarios believable. I’d highly recommend a screenwriting course for any ID who works on scenarios for e-learning or videos. If a course is not feasible, have a few colleagues read the script aloud to see if it flows. Since many people ‘hear’ dialogue as they read it, this will help you avoid clunky dialogue. Finally, don’t let your SMEs word-smith it too much!

  3. Typically when dealing with scenarios, either linear or branched I like to identify the “points of interaction” what are the decisions we want the learner to be challenged to think about? Where do these points occur in the scenario and what is the best way to engage the learner? From there I like to work backwards (similar as above) define the characters, their backgrounds, profiles and relationships to one another. This adds the depth to the scenario and begins to flush out the overall narrative.

  4. I love the tip for quotation marks. I’m consistently amazed by how people write in a complete different (and often dry) voice than they’d use speaking or would want to read. Great idea to liven it up!

  5. Great tips, This could transcend not only training type scenarios, but really can make any writing more effective, Especially where you may be trying to describe a process with a lot of stops. I like the blockquote. I got away form doing that and need to bring it back,

  6. I especially like how when going from “during” to “after”, the text naturally crops down to something like what someone might actually say. It’s a natural simplifier, whereas the first two steps take you from prose to someone paraphrasing prose.

  7. How do you present other information about your characters — such as background, or their employment classification (exempt or non-exempt)? Or, when a scenario is an opportunity to point out a best practice (someone does something that is common, but is not the right thing to do based on best practice)? I have a hard time creating dialog out of some of these and am interested in suggestions… Thanks 🙂

    1. Deb, thanks for your question. To provide basic background, I usually sketch it quickly, like:

      Nuria, a non-exempt employee, has been wrangling widgets for three weeks. “This is driving me nuts,” she tells you. “I still can’t get the angle right.”

      It’s usually best to provide background in concise narrative rather than trying to express it through dialog. For example, this is really clunky: “As a non-exempt employee, it’s especially important for me to work efficiently,” Nuria says. “But I’ve been wrangling widgets…”

      If there’s a lot of background information, you could try a technique from interactive fiction and provide it in optional links. I give an example of the technique in the blog post Four ideas you should steal from interactive fiction.

      For addressing a common mistake, you might try writing a subtle scenario that makes the common mistake really appealing. Then when the learner chooses the mistake, they’ll see the consequences.

      If it’s hard to tempt people to make the mistake when they know they’re being “trained,” another option is to write a realistic mini-story in which someone makes the mistake, you show the consequence, and then you can ask the learner to choose how to fix the mistake.

      Yet another way pushes the content more toward a knowledge test: You present a realistic mini-story in which someone makes the mistake (without identifying it as a mistake), and you have the learner choose the most likely consequence. This is more like a knowledge check because you’re asking people to just recognize the problem rather than act on it.

      1. Thanks Cathy. I’ll practice with some of my courses to see what I can do to improve them. You always offer helpful and practical solutions and I appreciate that!

  8. Thanks Cathy.
    What are your thoughts in using the CCAF model for scenario based learning? I am working on a delegation task at the minute and trying to use CCAF, it is difficult to not slip back into a more role-play or traditional scenario.

    1. I think the Allen Interactions CCAF model is great if it’s preceded by the kind of analysis that gives you detailed answers to questions like: “What, very specifically, do they need to do? Why aren’t they already doing it? What, very specifically, makes it hard? How can we replicate those difficulties in our scenario?” We need to persuade our SMEs to provide enough realistic detail to make the context and challenge realistic and, well, challenging.

      I haven’t seen a lot of details about the CCAF model, but knowing their other work, I’m assuming that by “feedback” they mean “show the consequences of the choice, letting the learner see for themselves if they made a good choice, and provide optional explanatory feedback.” This would be instead of immediately correcting the learner, such as by immediately saying, “That’s not the best choice. It would be better to…”