You need to share your considerable wisdom with team members, so your first instinct is to open PowerPoint and create a presentation explaining precisely what you do. Step by step. On a lot of slides. In excruciating detail.

But here's a much better way--a proven technique for involving learners, giving them a chance to tackle a challenge, while making learning stick (much more so than if learners just sat and listened).

That technique? Using scenarios (also known as case studies) to teach processes or skills.

You're probably familiar with case studies in business schools, law schools, medical schools and the social sciences. But as Boston University's Center for Teaching and Learning explains, case studies can be used "in any discipline when instructors want students to explore how what they have learned applies to real world situations."

The great thing about scenarios is that they can be created in any format, according to Boston University, "from a simple 'What would you do in this situation?' question to a detailed description of a situation with accompanying data to analyze."

And don't just consider using scenarios because I said so; there's lots of science about why they're so effective. For example, as Ruth Colvin Clark wrote in Scenario-base e-Learning, "guided discovery" learning methods, such as scenarios, have been proven to be more effective than traditional lectures because scenarios create greater structure while motivating learners.

Quite simply, we humans are hard-wired to love a good story, and we're more interested in solving a tangible problem than learning something theoretical.

Plus, you can make scenarios fun. There's no reason to go all formal and academic. Since you're not running a business school, you might as well develop situations that not only seem real; they're also a bit cheeky.

For example, recently I worked with a client to help a communication team become more effective at counseling internal stakeholders. Team members were feeling a bit beat up because their internal partners often treated them like order takers. So I created an exercise designed to help team members understand what motivates partners when they're exhibiting challenging behavior, and to develop techniques for managing these situations.

I divided the group into three break-out teams and gave each team a large sheet of poster paper and a scenario describing a semi-fictional partner and how he/she behaves. For example, one scenario featured Billy Bossy, who has a habit of barking out orders. Another starred Norm Know-it-All, who's an expert on absolutely every topic (including those that he knows nothing about). And the third was my favorite:

Missy Micromanager. Some people think Missy is nice, but you know the dark underside of her seemingly sweet personality. On the weekends, Missy does intricate lace filigree crochet, which requires an insane attention to detail. But during the week, Missy has her hooks in you, as she dictates with painful precision exactly what, how and when she wants you to do. She's often wrong, but she's never in doubt because she has a spreadsheet that lists every tiny task.

Each team's assignment was to create a poster that answered these questions:

  • What's this person's motivation? What pressures and anxieties are causing him/her to be this way?
  • What methods have we used in the past to manage this type of person? What have been most effective?
  • What strategies do we recommend for managing this type of person? Are there approaches we need to agree on as a larger team to deal with these situations?

The result was so much better than if I had simply presented strategies for counseling difficult internal partners. Participants were engaged, they had fun and they came up with some brilliant ways for improving their interactions with their colleagues.

Need to create a meaningful experience for team members? Use scenarios to bring learning to life.