Regardless of how anyone falls into a career of designing learning experiences, nearly everyone is surprised by the amount of writing that is involved. When writing for instructional design, we must devise ways to inspire the audience even when the content is of little interest to them or when the content is dull and dry.
One way to find inspiration is to borrow writing techniques from other fields. When you look at the techniques of writers in Advertising, Journalism, Hollywood and User Experience, you can find inspiration.
Some consider this “stealing like an artist.” It means finding something that works and adapting it to make it your own.At the DevLearn conference this year, I discussed these nine strategies you can borrow for your writing.
Strategies from Advertising
1. Know Your Audience
Although know your audience is common advice, stop and think about what it really means for a moment. The advertising industry has more resources to research their audience than do instructional designers. How can you do this on a low budget project? Spend time with your audience. Converse with them, call them or run a focus group (in-person or online). Do this and it will show in your writing. You will learn their vocabulary, discover their challenges and see what matters to them. This will give you new ways to connect with them. Check out Best Practices For Interviewing Your Audience for more on this.
2. Find the Right Voice
Effective advertising speaks to the audience in the appropriate voice. Voice is the style, tone, attitude and personality with which we write. When writing for instructional design, your own voice may not matter. What is more important is using a voice that connects to the audience. It might be the voice of a teacher or a boss. It could be a voice of a colleague or peer. When you know your audience, you’ll find the right voice.
3. From Passive to Active
When is the last time you listened to a radio commercial? They speak directly to their audience (or in dialogue, directly to the other person). One way you can speak in a more direct way is to use an active, rather than passive, sentence construction. With an active construction, the subject of the sentence performs an action. With a passive construction, the subject does not take a direct action, so the sentence feels weak. Grammar Girl uses this example from that old Motown song:
- Active: I heard it through the grapevine
- Passive: It was heard by me through the grapevine.
There are times when you can’t help but use a passive construction, such as when the subject of a sentence is vague. And although there is nothing grammatically incorrect about using passive sentence construction, it sounds weak and is certainly a less dynamic way of writing. When you want to speak to your audience with energy and power, work on that active construction.
Strategies from Journalism
4. Use Headlines, Not Titles
Magazines and newspapers use effective headlines. Did you ever look through the headlines at aol.com? They make you want to click and read the article, even when you’re not interested. What do these headlines have in common?
- You’re probably cooking your bacon all wrong (I clicked and I’m a vegetarian)
- New animal species is taking over chernobyl
- Expert reveals key group that could save humanity
You probably noted that the headlines are written to pique the readers curiosity. They are intriguing, possibly sensational and they don’t give it all away. Why not try this approach for course titles, topics and lessons, and perhaps slide titles (here and there).
5. Write Teasers in Menus and Topic Title Screens
Journalists use teasers on magazine covers to get us hooked. These are small blurbs that give you a peek at what’s inside to lure you in. Like headlines, teasers evoke curiosity. For example, in an eLearning course with scenarios, use teasers to get learners curious about the scenarios. Here are some examples for a new hires course teaching restaurant servers how to treat customers:
- This server never studied the wine menu. Was it affecting the size of his tips?
- Amy did’t like exchanging small talk with her customers. What did they think of her reticence?
- See what happened when Amir sat his customers at a dirty table.
You get the idea, right? Try adding teasers to menu items and see if learners find it more engaging.
Strategies from Hollywood
6. Give Your Protagonist an Obstacle
According to Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, the most effective Hollywood scripts provide the protagonist (the main character) with obstacles that he or she would never want to tackle. When you write scenarios and stories, make sure your protagonist has one or more obstacles to overcome. Otherwise, the story will fall flat.
For example, rather than teach five rules for proper email etiquette, tell a story about the employee who lost a client due to his informal emails. And show how the employee, who begged to not lose his job, overcame his poor skills to become excellent at writing emails to clients.
7. Make the Protagonist Change
In a podcast interview with Lisa Cron, the author mentioned above, she noted how the key to storytelling is to have the protagonist change as a result of overcoming an obstacle. Apparently, watching a protagonist evolve through adversity is a key way to entice learners into your story. When you write a longer scenario or story, create a protagonist who at the start, doesn’t have the best attitude or who is resistant to change. It will be more likely to grab your readers.
Strategies from User Experience
8. Remove to Improve
Many practitioners in the user experience community focus on microcopy—the small instructions that help users know what to do next or provide user interface feedback. As learning designers, we often write microcopy in interactive instructions or to provide help with the user interface. One key strategy you can borrow from UX design is to remove extraneous words in your microcopy. This makes your writing concise. However, when you remove unnecessary words, it means you must choose the most precise word to express your meaning.
9. Add Personality
Do you enjoy the humorous or witty user interface messages that occasionally display in apps and websites? In my time tracking program, Harvest, I get a friendly message if I accidentally forget to turn off a timer. The message reads, “Great Scott! You have a past timer running. Travel back in time to edit it or just click this link.” This shows that there is a person at the other end of the app. Someone who has put in the extra time to make me smile.
You can write friendly messages and feedback in eLearning courses. For example, when a learner attempts to skip ahead prior to completing a mandatory exercise, your message can sound like it comes from a person, rather than a computer. For example, “What’s the hurry? Please finish the exercise. You’ll be happy you did.”