Help! One of my team members just came back from an elearning conference...

Good morning,

I hope you're all well. So one of my team members went to an LMS-sponsored conference in Portland last week. He came back and is of the impression that all of our courses have to be narrated. I was pretty shocked to hear that, as narration seems to be the exception and not the norm when I see Storyline course examples. I can't imagine. We do have a lot of narrated content, but they're glorified voiced PowerPoint presentations. We have a couple scenario-based soft skills courses that are okay.

My concern is how do you narrate content from a 50-slide PPT presentation on grease, fuel additives, and filtration if you're not allowed to remove any content? I've only got so many pictures of tubes of grease and bypass filters, and they will get very boring after 30 seconds. I can only get my hands on so much video through istock. We came to the conclusion a while ago that our technical courses would have to be more static because they're very technical, more like an ebook or a brochure. I've worked very hard to use animation and classy color schemes to at least make it somewhat visually appealing.

I received some additional feedback: "Just approach them knowing that we will be using narration, even if the narration is the words on the screen. We want to involve as many senses as we can." This goes against everything I've ever learned. You don't read the text on the screen verbatim. PowerPoint 101.

Any thoughts would be very much appreciated!

21 Replies
Julie Stelter

Hi Cheryl,

Conferences can be dangerous places for people :) I once had a client say to me, after coming home from a conference, that the flat design vector illustrations she spent hundreds of dollars investing in are considered clipart. She was told by a speaker at the conference that "No one should be using clip art, any more." I explained it was flat design and very popular. Her mind is made up, though. 

Narration  doesn't have to mean that the entire text is be read to the techy. A highlight or overview can be narrated for each slide. Then the learner can do a deeper dive into the content using interactive video, interactive illustrations, animations and the designs it sounds like you are already using. A little bit of narration can keep it more interesting so its something to consider. It may be a compromise as well.

I have had many LMS providers, too many to count, ask me, "What does an instructional designer do?" With that thought in mind, I only listen to LMS people for their technical knowledge and not their understanding of design. This is their role. Design is ours. It doesn't surprise me that a technical provider believes there is a "one design that fits all." Stand firm!



Cheryl Hoover

Julie, thank you so much for weighing in. I think there were some good speakers there, including some Articulate folks. I believe some of their recommendations were taken out of context like the "no clip art" comment above.

I really like your suggestion on a brief bit of narration. That has potential, and I hadn't thought of that. My mind goes to full narration and bullet points.

Thanks so much!

Rachel Barnum

If you would like some science back up, take a look at cognitive load theory. Actually, one of the specific recommendations for reducing cognitive load in e-learning is "Eliminating redundancy: Avoid pre-senting identical streams of printed and spoken words."


Narration should supplement the print on screen, not read it out loud to the learner. I like Julie's idea to just use bits.

What exactly are your courses on typically?

Cheryl Hoover

Hi, Rachel,

Thank you so much for your input and for the link. That's awesome.

We just opened our corporate "university" on January 1. I was hired on October 21. They wanted a new course out every three weeks. It's been crazy. The first group of courses were horrid and nothing more than glorified voice over PowerPoints. I'm getting better and learning more sophisticated techniques, mostly with the help of the awesome people on this forum sharing story files.

Half our courses are soft-skills, all sales related: Customer Follow Up, Handling Customer Objections, things like that. Those are fully narrated. We also have a growing number of technical courses, all related to automotive synthetic oils: Lubrication Fundamentals, Drivetrain Fundamentals, Engine Operation, Fuel Additives, Grease, Filtration. They are very, very wordy and linear. I don't know if this will change, but I've been told not to whittle them down. My "storyboard" time is so limited as I'm also the LMS admin and the knowledgebase admin.

Any other thoughts you have are so appreciated. And thanks for the link!


Mark Robertson

I don't know if I'm too late to join in this discussion but I've been giving a lot of thought to this issue.  I think narration is very important if you want to engage learners.  High quality recording good tone and pace, and a mix of narrators make a big difference.  Like others though I don't think the presenter should just read the text.  However I have had mixed feedback from my learners - some are confused by the absence of text on some slides (I've started hiding the seekbar when there is no audio and this helps); some get very upset when the spoken word doesn't match the written.

Eric Bybee

Hi Cheryl, and thanks for starting this discussion.  Your question is one that I have been through many times as I design, develop, and release courses.  I completely agree that just reading the words on the screen verbatim is just horrible, but often this is what the SME or Sponsor wants.  Personally, I like to think they really don't know what they want, they just think they do.  :)

I try to use VO for emphasis.  When trying to really drive home a concept or point.  I design a lot of Compliance courses, many of them Age Restricted Sales related, and I have to make certain the learner fully understands the company policy and state laws, so VO becomes important.  That said, I agree that using VO for conveying high-level ideas from a slide works well, but Mark is correct.  Sometimes folks do get confused or even concerned when text isn't on the page or in the Notes area and this can lead to its own set of headaches.

Recently I have been challenging myself to design without leaning so heavily of VO.  I find that it forces me to think outside the box.  How to I get my ideas to the learner without talking AT them, which often is all we get to do with voice-over.

Good luck.

Cheryl Hoover

I've been out of the office for a few days. Please excuse my delay.

Thank you both for weighing in with your experience. I've had the chance to discuss this with the department head, and we're all going to meet next week to review some options. The more he's thought about it, he said he realizes reading word for word doesn't work. This is such dry technical material, but there's got to be a way to share it without the learners falling asleep. I personally think we should just present the manuals to them. Just because someone did a one-hour PowerPoint presentation on the topic doesn't mean it has to be a "course."

Thanks again so much for the feedback. I'll definitely share your thoughts in my meeting next week.

Jenifer Pearson

I think another important component of narration is giving the learner the option to turn it on and off if you are reading text verbatim (although, to the above point about cognitive overload, this isn't necessarily recommended) and provide a script as an alternative.  Some learners may read faster than the narration and to chain them to the slide to hear the full narration can be maddening. 

Walt Hamilton

If you can get a hold of e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Richard Mayer, you should. It actually contains a lot of research, and a lot of ideas that are counter-intuitive to what a lot of people "feel" is right about learning. There are some really frightening statistics dealing with the "more is better" idea (read: let's engage ALL their senses).

Cassandra Lux

Hi Cheryl, this is something I've struggled with as well since joining my non-profit org a year ago. All online learning was in the form of narrated powerpoint and very dull. Many of the courses I've developed over the last year use minimal or no voice over. I'll be honest, initially, there was a little push back. However, folks are coming around and enjoy the self paced style. One thing I've done occasionally that seems to bring balance is adding markers/buttons with audio. That way folks can click the marker, which often includes imagery too, for more info. Those that don't want the voice over can skip it but still get the pertinent information. I call it the museum technique- sometimes when visiting a museum, I just want to read the placards and sometimes I want the voice over that's often available with the placards. I hope that comparison makes sense.

Good luck!

Cheryl Hoover

I love that idea, Cassandra. I've used markers but just to hold text. I think one time I put a video in a marker, but that's it. Thanks so much for sharing your ideas.

We have one course that's a video. Many of our courses have manuals as resource attachments. I'm beginning to think that these technical courses should maybe be a short video introduction and then links to the manuals. People who are inclined to even attempt these courses will read the manual anyway.  Unless, of course, we could hire someone like Rachel's friend to do short videos on different topics!

Thanks again.

Cheryl Hoover

In the event any of you are bored, here's my latest that's mostly text if you're curious. This is pretty indicative of the type of material. Some of the links aren't likely to work because they're locked down with passwords. The story shell came from one of the challenges, and I thought the animations would at least provide something to the dryness of the material.

Mark Robertson

Interested to read Cassandra's idea about the museum technique and the  thoughts of others.  Whilst the approach may depend on the learning need (e.g. compliance or developmental) it seems the best way to go if at all possible is to have a  mix of approaches, and put the learner in control.

To me this sort of flexibility is one of the big advantages of online learning over traditional approaches since it can cater so well for a range of learning styles.

Thanks for getting me thinking Cheryl . . .


Cheryl Hoover

I wanted to get back to you and thank you all again for the support and ideas. I purchased "The Science" book and had enough time to absorb some of it before my meeting last week. We reviewed a lot of examples and were in agreement on which ones were good and maybe not as good. I've been given a little more flexibility and think I can come up with some scenarios and conversational narrative, even for this very dry type of material.

Thanks again!

Siobhan Singh

From my experience, I have found that learners in our business have gotten a lot more out of really engaging and interactive courses which get the learner to actually "do" things like drag and drop, make decisions, even simulating situations which they then proceed to work through, than they ever have gotten out of narrated slides.  The only time I find narration useful is when I'm preparing training for people who are unable to, or not very good at reading or people who's first language is not English.