Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Structured Experiences

580488_623132987698607_278299478_nWe can take two different paths when writing books that help readers to change their behavior —process learning and insight learning. These exist on a continuum, and both kinds of learning are valuable. Good instructions for behavior change alternate between process (how to do something) and insight (why doing something will benefit me).

In the latter type of learning, insights are discovered by readers rather than taught through rules, examples, practice, and feedback. Effective stories work well for this purpose. In addition, you can include exercises, or structured experiences. Following are some options.

Making lists

One way for readers to make your key learning points more concrete is to list personal examples. If you’re writing about habit change, for instance, ask readers to describe times when they successfully changed a habit.

Readers could follow up with another list of times when their change attempts failed. Making both lists sets up people to reflect on which habit-change strategies worked well and which did not.

Telling my story

Sometimes people benefit by telling their story at length — with more scope and depth than possible in a brief list of examples.

This strategy is widely used in groups based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. For AA members, “telling your story” of hitting bottom with addiction and making the decision to get help is fundamental.

Exemplar cases

Create stories about how people succeed at applying a process in daily life. These stories can range from brief anecdotes to extended narratives. In any case, the purpose of these stories is to give examples of how your ideas actually work.

The trick is to make these stories vivid, credible, and authentic. Keep abstract theory and academic jargon to a minimum. Also remember that stories can be presented through audio and video as well as text.

Problem cases

Create open-ended stories (case studies). These leave the main character in the middle of the action with a problem to solve. Ask readers to suggest possible solutions and evaluate each one.

If you’re writing for recovering alcoholics about how to prevent relapse, for example, include a story about a person who ends up at a party where he feels strong urges to drink again. Then prompt readers to suggest relapse-prevention strategies.

Structured experiences

With these “outbound” activities, readers go beyond the page and take their learning into daily life. For example, they can:

  • Apply a process. Say that you’re explaining a process for decision-making. Ask readers to apply the steps in that process to a real decision in their lives and describe the results.
  • Practice a script. Write a model that readers can use to make an assertive request, say no to a compromising situation, or practice some other skill.
  • Carry out an experiment. Ask readers to pair with a partner or join a small group. They practice a new behavior, observe the outcomes, and share their insights with each other.

Prompts for reflection and further action

Stories and structured experiences gain power when they are modeled, debriefed and discussed. You can do this by providing:

  • Sample responses to exercises.
  • Questions that direct attention to key events in a story and points to remember.
  • Questions that guide readers to express their own insights and plan new behaviors based on their insights.
  • Reminders that readers share their insights and plans with a peer, group, mentor, sponsor, counselor, or coach.

You can also prompt readers to reflect by completing sentences. Therapist Nathaniel Branden offers many examples here. In the Master Student Series of books, we prompt students to follow up on stories and structured experiences with two simple sentence fragments:

  • I discovered that….
  • I intend to….

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.

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