The Serial Effect: Creating Addictive Learning with Episodic Storytelling in L&D


Talking with friends the other day about favorite series, movies, and the like. Trying to figure out the series that made the biggest impact on us; which one had the most hooks, the most cliffhangers, the best storytelling style, that kind of thing. And for me, whenever I think of episodic cliffhangers, I always spit out “24” (which started it all) or “Lost”, as this is the one series that was the most binge-worthy for me.

Sure, there are many great series out there that held me on the edge of my seat (and many that knocked me off it), Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Money Heist, and so on. But for me, “Lost” had perfected that formula of giving you just enough per episode to get you to immediately load up the next one, in the hopes of finding out what happened!

And then I got to thinking about all the ingredients of a good series; the cliffhangers, the plot twists, the characters and their stories, the hero or band of heroes (each one battling their own personal demons), the journey or quest, the resolution of problems and obstacles, and even the villain (not necessarily always a person).

I mean, this is pretty basic stuff; Storytelling 101!


A learning and development gap? Definitely!

So, back to my reality as a learning and development creator, I immediately began making some distinctions between binge-worthy series and learning courses or programs, as they are today. Because, what are the biggest problems when it comes to creating learning for people? It’s that you want them engaged with the content, you want them to absorb what you tell them, and you want them to actively practice what you suggest or implement what they’ve been shown. And one year later (fingers crossed!), you hope they remember the basics of what the learning was about.

All this is tough to accomplish in the corporate world, because let’s face it, being asked to undergo an online learning course, is not the same as watching a series on Netflix. The first is a potentially boring “necessity” you’re dragged into and the latter an action of free will for pure entertainment.

But…why can’t learning and development resemble an entertaining series? How can it get to grips with the power of storytelling? How can it captivate its audience, as deeply as the intricate plots and richly drawn characters of “Lost”? How can L&D transform passive absorption into an active quest for knowledge, making each learning episode as eagerly awaited as the battles for the Iron Throne?

Let’s talk about it how L&D can use the “serial effect” to turn passive learning into an active, engaging journey. How episodic storytelling in L&D can revolutionize how we view, engage with, and retain learning content, making the process as addictive as binge-watching our favorite show.

Once upon a time: Psychology of storytelling

Our brains aren’t just wired to listen to stories; they’re wired to feel them. When we hear, watch, read a story, our emotional and cognitive circuits light up. Stories are the glue that binds information to our memory, making the lessons learned through a compelling narrative far more likely to stick. But it’s not just about memorizing facts; it’s about creating a powerful emotional connection that encourages deeper understanding and retention (here’s how storytelling engages our brains and how storytelling can help with learner engagement). This is the power of storytelling; turning learning into an experience rather than just an obligation to endure.

Scenes and plots: The power of episodic learning and narrative

Episodic storytelling breaks down the learning process into segments or “episodes” that are connected by an overarching narrative. Each episode presents its own story, complete with a beginning, conflict, and resolution, yet contributes to a larger, season-long arc. This structure mirrors the way series develop their narratives, allowing learners to digest complex information in manageable chunks while building anticipation for what’s next.

Unlike traditional micro-learning, episodic storytelling adds a layer of narrative depth. There’s a story that connects all the pieces together; a mission to undertake, a journey to experience, a quest to go on.

Character Development: The Learner's Journey

How can you have a story without characters?

Characters face challenges, make decisions, and experience growth, mirroring the learner’s journey. This narrative framework not only captivates attention but also fosters a deeper connection to the material, as learners see their challenges and triumphs reflected in the characters’ stories.

In traditional learning and development, the only character you get to know is the trainer, the course presenter. That’s about it. You either click with them or you don’t.

Not really the troubled hero we expect to empathize with, or the underdog who has to overcome challenges and rise up in defiance!

But even learning and development needs characters and character development. This narrative framework not only captivates attention but also fosters a deeper connection to the material, as learners see their challenges and triumphs reflected in the characters’ stories, or can relate to characters that resemble real people in their professional lives. This connection not only enhances engagement but also aids in the internalization of lessons, as the characters’ solutions offer practical strategies learners can apply in their own lives.

Heroes, losers, underdogs, the funny sidekick, the mastermind nerd, and a solid villain (gotta have a villain!), all help move a story along and help the audience immerse themselves in the experience.

Cliffhangers: Fueling the Desire to Learn More

What sets episodic storytelling apart in maintaining high engagement levels are the cliffhangers—those tantalizing moments of suspense that keep viewers at the edge of their seats. In L&D, cliffhangers can be employed to conclude episodes with unresolved questions or challenges, prompting learners to reflect on what they’ve learned and anticipate how these issues might be addressed. This not only reinforces retention but also encourages learners to apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills, bridging the gap between theory and practice.

Perhaps L&D episodic storytelling can also benefit from drip-fed practices that allow participants to absorb content to a point, then cut them off on the verge of a revelation, to allow them to reflect on everything they’ve experienced so far. Until the next dose of learning drops, to bring resolution to the dissonance.

Binge-Worthy Learning: The Serial Effect in Action

Implementing episodic storytelling in L&D involves more than just breaking content into parts; it requires a thoughtful approach to narrative design and pacing. Each episode should introduce concepts that build upon each other, creating a learning journey that evolves over time.

For example, a series on leadership might start with self-awareness, move through communication and conflict resolution, and culminate in strategic decision-making, with lots of mini twists and plots tying the concepts together. By designing each episode to contribute to these overarching themes, learners develop a comprehensive skill set, piece by piece, episode by episode. A web of learning that unfolds the more you consume.

Moreover, this format allows for flexibility and accessibility. Learners can engage with episodes at their own pace, making learning more adaptable to individual schedules and learning styles. This on-demand nature mirrors the way people consume media today, fitting seamlessly into the lives of modern learners.

Staging the drama: Using emotion to hook learners

No piece of cinema or masterpiece of the written word is complete without a rollercoaster of emotions befalling the audience or reader. The drama, the comedy, the suspense, all bring real human emotions to the forefront and transform the topic or theme into real, relatable adventures that everyone can identify with.

In the case of edutainment, learning and development engages the audience through fun, helping people learn better because they’re enjoying themselves. But why can’t comedy take center stage, to create an equivalent to “The Office” for L&D?

The Final Act: Assessing Impact

The success of episodic storytelling in L&D isn’t measured solely by completion rates or test scores; it’s also in the discussions it sparks, the insights it generates along the way, and the changes it inspires in behavior and mindset. For example, encouraging learners to share their thoughts and experiences after each “episode” can foster a community of learning, where ideas are exchanged, and concepts are debated and deepened.

Encore: Looking Ahead

Episodic storytelling stands out as a transformative approach to L&D that aligns with how people naturally consume content and learn. By harnessing the serial effect, organizations can create learning experiences that are not only effective but genuinely enjoyable. In the world of L&D, episodic storytelling should be the new standard for engaging, impactful learning.

By adopting a Netflix-inspired approach to L&D storytelling, we’re not just teaching; we’re captivating. We’re not merely informing; we’re inspiring. This method turns the learning process into an engaging journey, making every lesson a story worth remembering.


Deano Symeonides (aka Jack Bauer)

CHRO of Talent Hacks and Learning & Development Engineer (L&DE). He is a business psychologist with a passion for pushing people. To grow and develop. As a content creator and a learning & development expert, his mission is to blend deep content with serious edutainment.