Corporate Training Academy

scenario case study role play

Storytelling strategies

Want to engage your learners and improve performance? Want your participants to know how to use new knowledge in their workplace? Yes. Then try out these 4 storytelling strategies for learning in the workplace.

Stories are ancient, instinctual learning  … they work and they’re fun!!

Your earliest learning happened through stories. Being read to, watching stories unfold around you, watching TV or movies. Not to mention those cautionary tales our mums and grandmothers like to tell!!! (Not so much Dad – his stories were mostly fabricated, hysterical and with no purpose other than mischief. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – see strategy 4)

Storytelling is a powerful learning tool because it requires the learner to make sense of their observations. It implies an ending and recognizes players in the narrative. It also creates opportunities to reflect on personal perspectives and bias. Stories create opportunities to integrate feelings and thoughts with new knowledge.

I love client centred activities that require problem solving, decision making and sharing of ideas. Story telling can be used in these 4 ways to create learning activities that require decision making and action.

For example;

  • Workplace problem – increased/unacceptable frequency of customer complaints
  • Training objectives – decrease frequency of customer complaints (OR in a happy workplace – Increase customer satisfaction)
  • Create opportunities to practice and receive feedback – creating rapport, identifying the problem, , appropriate communication tools and strategies addressing the problem and the importance of decreasing the incidence of escalation.

You have choices. How do you address this issue with the customer service team?

First of all I would find out what exactly is happening and what makes the manager think there is a problem (that’s all about need analysis and outside of this blog – but check out the freebie eBook where it is covered). Remember not everything has a training solution there may be other issues at play.

1.      Scenario storytelling strategy

A scenario is a planned fictional story. You can provide all of the information right at the beginning of the activity or have it ‘unfold’ as you work through the training.

Scenario example – 

Jane is working the front desk when a very agitated Alex approached. Alex had previously purchased a widget and has found that it isn’t right for the job. Alex feels the information provided by the consultant was false and misleading. Alex wants a full refund and is threatening to give poor feedback on the company website and on independent review sites.

What should Jane do?

How this plays out will depend entirely on how you want to run the session.

  • Have people break into small groups and discuss how they would approach it
  • Individual comments and open discussion
  • Reference to policy (Interestingly, people rarely know their policy.)
  • Scenario branch off with possible outcomes based on what the learner suggests to do next. (Branching scenarios are particularly useful when you are designing online training. Of course you need to provide really ‘showing’ feedback at each step eg Alex ‘Well I’m not happy with that at all. Get me your supervisor’.)

You can have part 2 ready to go.

Jane – ‘I’m sorry you’re not satisfied with your purchase. Do you have the tax invoice? Let me help you identify a part that will best suite your need?

Alex – No I’m not interested in your apology or another part. I want my money back and I don’t have a tax invoice. I can tell you what day I bought it and that will be enough. (Becoming more agitated and moving closer to the counter. Voice is getting loader.)

And so on.

Have the group decide on a course of action and build as you go. Have policy handy as a resource.

Obviously you have planned a series of hot spots you want to hit so you create opportunities to get there, for example;

  • Emotional self-regulation (keep calm and set a professional and empathetic tone)
  • Interpersonal communication and body language
  • Not getting the boss straight away
  • Trying to find out the customer’s name and using it regularly
  • Identifying the best outcome possible for both parties
  • Staying within company policy and values (sometimes these can appear to contradict each other eg get the boss as soon as the customer asks is the policy however independent decision making and autonomy are endorsed values – discuss the balance and the outcomes of each)
  • Working with organisational cultural expectations (how we do things here)
  • Debunking any misunderstandings (such as total inflexibility – I’m not getting my manager because you don’t have a tax invoice and we are under no legal obligation to give you a refund.)

Once I’ve worked through the scenario I like to note that Alex is a woman.

Did you go back and read the case again? So will they.

Understanding individual perception and unconscious bias are critical to conflict management and excellent communication. Stories are great for uncovering these. You have to be able to see it to fix it.

2.      Case study storytelling strategy

Case studies are true stories.

Human Resource, workplace safety training  and other mandatory became mandatory for a reason. People get it wrong with dire consequences. Make your training meaningful and memorable with case studies they have to actually work on before they know how it all turned out.

Let’s say you are creating a session about discrimination, harassment, or bullying in the workplace. Don’t go to the trouble of making up a scenario. Use real cases. Use publicly available cases to demonstrate what really happened, how the decision was made, and the consequences.

How to use a case study for learning –

You can break them up. Show the situation. Look at the legislation or local company policy. Interpret the situation and make decisions (I find small group works best here). Then once the group has worked through the case, reveal the actual outcome.

Here are a couple of pages of case studies from Australia

Real cases can be powerful.  Look for cases that are published on the web or in text books and reference them correctly.

3.      Role plays storytelling strategy

Role plays are the extreme sports of storytelling in training.

Most people hate them but they are brilliant for anything that requires communication or interpersonal skill development. For example, difficult conversations in the workplace, interviewing skills, personal assessments and conflict management.

Don’t use them in risk adverse environments. Be very mindful that your learners are also colleagues and possibly managers/supervisors.

Make sure you facilitate role plays respectfully and purposefully with clearly stated boundaries.

How you can use role plays for learning – 

1 – Ask for 2 volunteers

2 – Assign each a character and use those names (in this case Cary and Sally)

3 – Give each role player just the information for their character

Cary – is a supervisor who is worried about a junior staff member, Sally, who is regularly late to work. She spends the first 10 minutes making herself a coffee. Her performance is not at her usual standard and Carry hasn’t seen her laugh in weeks. Cary is worried about her. She needs Sally to understand there is a workplace problem because of her change in performance. Carry wants to help Sally in any way possible. She needs to know whether the problem is work related (eg team problem, conflict, just bored etc). Cary wants to have a honest supportive conversation with Sally to let her know that her performance is not satisfactory and that it is impacting her team’s morale and performance.

Sally – is a data entry operator who has been in the same role for 5 years. She’s really good at it and, for the most part, she likes her job and the team she works with. Her 15 year old son is really ill and spending too much time in his room. He’s missed a lot of school and Sally has not told her employer because she is the only source of income and is terrified she’ll lose her job. She’s also very private and thinks work and home should be completely separate. She is an introvert and does not like any kind of confrontation. She isn’t sleeping and her extended family lives interstate.  Sally just wants to get through the day and earn her living.

You can see how each person in the role play has their own agenda. They have their small piece of the puzzle (provide them with just enough info to do their role and know their desired outcome.) The learners will have already looked at various models for having such conversations.

4 – Give them some time to consider how they will behave as their character and what they want to achieve by the end of the role play

5 – The other learners become observers. You can;

  • Give them just Cary’s notes and ask them to consider what they would do and what their desired outcome would be before the role play starts.
  • Give them questions to consider as they observe
  • Ask them to note what worked really well, what they would do differently, changes in body language.
  • Remember to critique the process not the acting.

6 – Be very clear about when the role play has begun


  • “Thank you (real name) for your participation and allowing us to benefit from the activity. I’m sure we all learned a great deal from (role play name). (Real name) Is there something you would like to say about (role play character name)?’
  • Ask them to take their seat again as a learner.
  • Continue the debrief with the group.

8 – Debrief the activity thoroughly. Focus on the process used and the observations. Never comment on the actors.

4.      Anecdotes storytelling strategy

Ah the old war story. Having worked in police for a long time, these can be both powerful and over used!!!

Anecdotes can be spontaneous or predetermined. Rules to consider;

  • Be careful to make them relevant and appropriate
  • Be mindful of confidentiality and anonymity issues
  • De-identify where necessary
  • Be purposeful – that is, lighten the mood, have a moral, demonstrate an action or outcome
  • Don’t waffle on

You can use anecdotes to lighten the mood when the room feels heavy or tired. I lean on a table and take a more relaxed pose which signals to the room that I’m changing the mood. This is a bit more performance and entertainment based storytelling and it is super fun and effective in recharging a room. Mischief in training is a good thing 🙂

A word of caution

You can let the participants share stories however only do so if you have the skills to set the right boundaries and deal with the emotions this will no doubt bring up. Stories are rich ways to include emotions, feelings, beliefs and experiences. Some of these will be uncomfortable, sad, or distressing. Stay within you scope of expertise.

Don’t open any boxes you’re not skilled at shutting! Stay focused on what you are trying to achieve.

Your turn

  • Where can you use stories?
  • Where have you used stories?
  • What have you learned when using stories?

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