Intention and Obstacle

Intention & Obstacle: How To Make Elearning Content Into Irresistible Interactive Stories

In my last article, the cleverly titled, “Storytelling in an Elearning World,” I introduced a special kind of design meeting.

A meeting that is guaranteed to change the trajectory of your elearning project for the better.

You call this meeting for the sole purpose of wedging story (and emotion) into your design process.

And, since “momentum” is the name of the game, you do this immediately after performance consulting. Because what better way to build momentum than adding juicy stories?

Anyways. As I said in my last post, the agenda of your “story meeting” is as follows: Vision, Events, Plot, Central Premise and, Backstory. And, one-by-one you go through each heading to spark ideas…and…get everyone to agree on a narrative.

All right stop, Collaborate and listen

This is the point where you stop, and say, “Okay. We’re not storytellers. But, by golly, we’re going to try to create a compelling narrative…something that will resonate!”

You see, storytelling can’t be a “secret design hack” or a happy accident. No, you must collaborate and get ideas on the table. And, the five headings are a quick and dirty way to do just that.

You’ll uncover what will make the experience stimulating, or intriguing, or fun.

But, all of that work is just to grease the wheels for the sixth heading and the REAL reason for the meeting:

Intention and Obstacle

“You have to build a drive shaft first. And that drive shaft can only be intention and obstacle. That’s what creates friction and tension and that’s what drama is. If you don’t have that then it’s journalism.”
— Aaron Sorkin, Oscar Winning Screen Writer

In 2012, I designed intention and obstacle into my elearning experience, Broken Co-worker, and it went viral.

The feedback from that project made me understand just how POWERFUL this strategy is.

And, the funny thing is, this may come natural to you, as it did for me.

Here’s why…

As simple as this sounds, watching great movies is helpful,…The Princess Bride, The Goonies, or, a personal favorite, Clash Of The Titans (circa 1981)…

Movies like that will help you instinctually “get” intention and obstacle.

Look: Here’s the plot of the critically acclaimed film Say Anything which will illustrate my point.

Lloyd, an eternal optimist, seeks to capture the heart of Diane, an unattainable high-school beauty and straight-A student. It surprises just about everyone when she returns the sentiment. But Diane’s overly possessive, divorced father doesn’t approve and it will take more than the power of love to conquer all.

The point is… stories… stories that resonate… have a clear intent and a clear obstacle. Maybe it’s because life is a sequence of intentions and obstacles.

How Do You Do It?

Now, keep in mind, you can have multiple intentions and obstacles in a story (and in an elearning experience.)

Usually, a story is broken up into scenes (or acts), and each scene has its own intention and obstacle.

Here are three killer examples of intention and obstacle in elearning action!

Our World War: Interactive Episode

Our World War
Told over a 3-part story arc, the Our World War Interactive Episode is an excellent example of how you can break up your elearning into concrete missions (or scenes), each with an explicit intent and obstacles.

Connect with Haji Kamal

Haji Kamal
The US military wants to win the fight against Al-Qaeda. But, for that to happen they need the support of local tribes (and influential leaders in particular.)

Broken Co-worker

Broke Co-worker
A timid new hire, Sam, wants to enjoy his job. But, someone is in his way: Emma. Sam is gonna need confidence to overcome Emma, if he wants the workplace he desires.

Like those examples, think of your potential elearning experience as an intention and obstacle, or a series of ’em.

O.K., assuming you’ve gone through the previous five headings, the next step is to start asking the tough and practical questions,… if you want to engage and influcence through storytelling.

Question #1 – Describe the world before our protagonist begins learning X. (Where X is the skill or awareness.)

Question #2 – Why does he want X bad? Why?

Question #3 – Why is X super important (or urgent)? Why?

Question #4 – What’s standing in their way? And, why is this formidable?

Question #5 – Why does he want to maximize his X skills or X awareness? Why?

Faciliating this question and answer session can be quite fun because all kinds of cool contexts and authentic ideas emerge.

So, if you want your elearning to resonate — and the experience to compel people forward towards reflective challenges and experiences — come up with an intention and obstacle. It’s worth it.


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Every Monday, I send out an exclusive email with a strategy I’m using. It might include design tips, storytelling hacks, engagement strategies, and — of course — all sorts of creative ideas I get.

Try it out for a week! Unsubscribing is easy, and there’s great advice coming next Monday. Just submit your email in the opt in (or here) and you’re set.

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