5 Journalism Techniques To Borrow For eLearning


In some ways, the goals of learning experience designers aren’t that different from those of journalists. When it comes to writing a news or magazine story, the journalist’s goal is to inform, educate and entertain. This isn’t a big leap from what instructional designers and developers are trying to achieve.

In journalism, most articles use a conventional structure intended to make an article compelling while still being informative. Why not borrow these same techniques in our work, to motivate and perhaps entertain learners? Here are some ideas that you can borrow from journalism to boost the quality of your eLearning.

1. Use catchy headlines instead of course titles

Catchy headlines are compelling because they communicate a benefit to the audience. They pique the reader’s curiosity, often making a promise of what the reader will be able to achieve. Effective headlines are often very specific. They may give the reader the amount of time it will take, the number of tips they will get, or the number of goals they will reach.

On the other hand, typical eLearning course titles are about as exciting as a big yawn. Learners get drowsy when they see titles like this: How to Manage Projects. By borrowing ideas from magazine covers, you can make titles exciting. See below for some alternatives to: How to Manage Projects.

  • Behind the Scenes of Awesome Projects
  • PM Success in 15 Minutes a Day!
  • Delivering Incredible Projects On Time
  • 10 Secrets from Project Management Gurus
  • How to Manage Less with Better Results

Of course, using titles like these means your creative treatment throughout a course may need to change. This could be a positive development.

 2. Create teasers on menus and title screens

Teasers are short bits of promotional text intended to attract a potential audience member to read a story. Teasers leave out the important details so readers want to find out more. In online learning, we can use teasers in menus and on title screens. Here are some teasers pulled from current magazines:

  • Newsweek teaser for an article titled, The Least Likely Spy: “How did an amateur pilot turned artsy bookstore owner end up at the pinnacle of the CIA?
  • TIME Magazine teaser for an article titled, Big Data Meet Big Brother: “If computers can now predict our behavior, should governments watch our every move?”
  • Real Simple magazine teaser for an article titled, When to Get Cell Phones for Your Kids: “Consider these criteria before shelling out for a fancy smartphone for your child.”

To write intriguing teasers, journalists recommend:

  • Hint at what’s inside, but don’t reveal it
  • Think of a teaser as an advertisement
  • Learn how the tabloids do it, then tone it down
  • Let your teasers attract attention

Here is how I used teasers in a recent course developed for medical providers.


 3. Write a compelling lead

Journalists are taught to open with an effective lead at the start of the article. In these first few sentences, they write an enticing hook or they capture the essence of the subject. See these example leads below.

  • Washington Post for an article about hunger in America: “It was the first day of summer in a place where summers had become hazardous to a child’s health, so the school bus rolled out of the parking lot on its newest emergency route.”
  • Wired magazine for an article covering how Vine climbed to the top of the social media ladder: “In April, when bombs ripped through the finish line of the Boston Marathon, there was a defining visual of the explosion that went viral online. It wasn’t a photograph, though, or a YouTube video; instead, it was a short, looping video called a Vine.”
  • NY Times for an article about green transportation in Europe: “Vienna is employing some old-fashioned technology to run shiny new electric buses wending their way through the narrow inner-city streets.”

Learning architects can borrow this device to hook learners at the start of a learning experience. You may draw from journalistic techniques as well as from adult learning principles. However you start, avoid a dry list of learning objectives. Some approaches for hooking the learner are:

  • Feature a relevant but personal story
  • Start with a game or challenge
  • Use a novel creative treatment
  • Create a meaningful metaphor
  • Present an intriguing scenario that accurately reflects workplace issues
  • Let learners know in words they would use, why the course will be valuable to them

Everyone agrees that writing a compelling lead is hard work, so don’t be discouraged if this doesn’t come easily.

4. Quote from engaging sources

How often do your courses use quotes or short interviews that are relevant to the course topic? Journalists often pepper articles with quotes that provide insight, opinion or interest. Quotes are so commonly used in journalism, it’s difficult to find articles without them. A quote brings validation and authenticity to writing. It’s also an effective way to get your point understood.

For example, National Geographic Magazine had an article about women in science. The article carried this quote:
“There is no question about it that there is still a gender bias with compensation for equal performance, for selection to be in charge of various projects—it’s just a part of our culture,” Earle said.

Although many quotes are from experts, this isn’t a requirement. Often a quote from the intended reader or a subject of the article adds greater value. In Wired magazine’s article about giving iPads to child patients prior to surgery, the author quotes a 10-year old:
“It was fun to use it,” he remembers. “It makes you focus on the iPad, and it takes your mind off the surgery.”

Because this journalistic technique is underused in eLearning, meaningful quotes have great potential for bringing a topic to life. They provide real-world examples and bring color to the content. Making points through quotes can also add credibility to a viewpoint when persuasion is a goal. Some ways to consider using quotes are:

  • Conduct short interviews and pick the quotes that will enhance learning and interest
  • Use a question and answer technique to convey content
  • Use attention-grabbing pull quotes in your visual design
  • Present relevant quotes by audience members and peers

5. Close with a kicker

The kicker, which provides a little kick or surprise, is a journalistic tactic for making a strong closing or start. In the book, Introduction to Journalism, the author explains the kicker as a “closing quote or fact which takes the story a little further by providing shock, irony, humor or simply food for thought.” It might be a high-impact sentence, a moving quote or a connection to a key point at the start of the article. The kicker is often emotionally satisfying and is in tune with the entire story.

How can we learn to write great kickers? Journalism teachers recommend that students study the closing paragraphs and final sentences of varied articles. Copy what is effective and avoid what is stale and mediocre. Consider how typical eLearning courses end with a review and then a quiz. Wouldn’t a “kicker” be a welcome way to close? Some journalistic techniques you can use for kicker closings include:

  • Memorable quote
  • Restating the theme or main point
  • Evoking an emotion
  • A thoughtful question
  • An anecdote that wraps up the essence of the course

I hope I’ve convinced you that journalism has wonderful approaches to writing that we can borrow to enhance learning experiences. A little more thinking and writing like a reporter could bring much needed excitement to our industry.


Ansell, Gwenda Estelle. Introduction to Journalism. Jacana Media; Third Edition, Third edition edition (October 1, 2011).

Stein, M.L. and Susan Paterno. Newswriter’s Handbook: An Introduction to Journalism. Blackwell Publishing Professional; 2 edition (July 10, 2006)

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  1. Carey Fried says

    great pointers Connie. I Love the ideas. I actually studied journalism and can totally appreciate the pointers above. great way to think about design.

  2. Connie Malamed says

    Thanks, Carey. It’s great that you’ve studied journalism. I’m guessing you can come up with other ideas. Please come back and share if you think of any.

  3. Andrea says

    Great pointers. On a weekly basis, the L&D team advertises eCourse offerings in our company newsletter. This article will help us to create catchy headlines and teasers that will hopefully draw in our users.


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