How using metaphors creates more engaging learning

In our first post, we looked at ways to use storytelling in combination with interactive strategies to create more effective and memorable learning experiences. Here, we’ll explore the value visual metaphors (themes or concepts) can add to learning through storytelling.

Using Visual Metaphor in E-learning

A metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly dissimilar things which brings out points of similarity between them. This makes metaphors a powerful tool for learning. A strong metaphor helps us to ‘see’ an idea or concept from a new perspective.  

Good metaphors are inherently simple – by creating a point of comparison with something already understood, they can help make difficult learning concepts accessible and memorable.  For example, comparing gardening to investment could help learners understand financial growth and risk – planting annual flower seeds provides a rapid but small return, while planting an acorn means that, though you wait years to see it, your return could be much bigger.


The key is to choose a concept that adds real learning value and supports the learning points being made. Here are some of the ways we have done this for our clients at SiyonaTech:

Building on the familiar: Records management

Records management is a dry, rules-based subject. We created a NetFlix-style portal where learners could explore each topic through a different genre of tv show. Through ‘ILM Man’, learners explored the roles and responsibilities involved in records management in the context of a cartoon series. ‘Records Management’ provided a take on a familiar office, asking learners to test their knowledge of records management processes by negotiating tricky tasks and awkward colleagues.

Making complex ideas accessible: Risk-based quality management

To explain the value of risk-based quality management in clinical trials, we used the metaphor of brakes on a car. In the same way that brakes allow us to accelerate with confidence, risk-based quality management means clinical trials can be conducted more quickly while maintaining safety. 

The use of a simple, universally understood concept effectively communicated a difficult mindset shift. In our client’s own words:

We are asking people to work differently, to trust in data analytics and each other to focus resources on those risks that are most critical. This requires a shift in thinking from being risk averse to risk tolerant. Using a metaphor provided a simple way for teams to understand what we are asking them to do and why, in a way that everyone can relate to.

In another course, to bring the subject of design thinking to life, we created an Indiana Jones style adventure game. Learners used design thinking to uncover the reasons a city had been abandoned and persuade its inhabitants to return.  The compelling simplicity of the concept and tasks helped learners come to terms with techniques such as creating problem statements, doing research and prototyping.

Casting well known subjects through a fresh lens: Fraud risk

Financial compliance topics tend to be revisited regularly and learner fatigue is real.  Visual metaphors can both spark the learner’s interest in a subject they may feel they know already, and sustain that engagement by focusing in on the key risks and behaviours.

By presenting Fraud risk through a Murder on the Orient Express style mystery, we told a realistic story of human motivation and greed, casting the learner as a Hercule Poirot style investigator interviewing fellow passengers to spot the behaviours that could indicate a fraudster.

Fostering emotional involvement: Ethical Charter

Concepts can create a sense of emotional involvement. When we created learning to introduce employees to their organization’s ethical charter, using a popup book format made this feel human and personal.  We placed the story literally in the learner’s hands, in the same way that choosing to behave in an ethical way is an individual choice.

Concepts provide limitless scope for innovation and creativity, and the opportunity to surprise and delight your learners every time. How about:

  • …learning the skills of taking ownership by piloting a mission to Mars?
  • …exploring personal and social competence skills through a mountaineering expedition?
  • …spotting bribery and corruption risks through a time travel adventure where you investigate the fall from grace of a high flying executive?

Have any of these ideas fired your imagination? Get in touch if you’d like to talk about how we can help you tell your organization’s learning stories.

In our final post on storytelling, we’ll consider how gamification can enhance storytelling in e-learning.

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