Writing for Instructional Design

Sep 24, 2012

Hi, everyone:

I am starting to pull together material for a mini Storyline lesson called "Writing Tips for E-learning Pros." I'll cover such things as how to clean up SMEs' wordy prose, how to generate more interest in your e-learning scripts, how to write for voiceover narration. (Before becoming an e-learning developer, I taught writing and rhetoric, and still publish regularly.)

As far as the art of writing is concerned, is there anything else you e-learning pros want to do better? Thought I'd ask before I start developing. Thanks, Daniel

41 Replies
Steve Flowers

This is such a cool idea, Daniel. I think one of the challenges ID's often run into is work-up structures. It baffles me when folks jump right into writing content (what I call "turdification") without first mapping the structure and intent of the experience. Touching on a few ways folks can approach that process could be really helpful. "Show your work" is critical to avoid unnecessary effort. Progressive scaffolding is the design process.

Happy to send you some things that I do to structure foundations of the experience.

Daniel Brigham

Thanks, Steve. I was hoping to focus on writing chops vs. instructional design writing issues, but perhaps I can open up the scope. In any case, I'd love to look at your approach to what I might call framing the content.

Here what I do in the first few client meetings:

1. Isolate the performance problems the client wants to address

2. Determine the causes of those problems (it may be that e-learning can't do diddley squat about them)

3. Figure out the best ways (giving the contraints of e-learning) for learners to practice the skills they struggle with.

Of course, I've got a few docs that sort of diagram this out. Not every client likes the "emphasis on problems," but really, that's what it sort of comes down to. --Daniel  

Steve Flowers

I think of it as framing the experience. I think people get so bound up in writing content (checking the boxes for all the stuff that needs to be included) that they ignore the flow of the experience.

Will dig out the stuff I use. Pretty simple and not novel. A structure for the outlining that frames things up gradually.

Elizabeth Israel

I would suggest showing a matrix as to the differences in writing styles when writing for instruction.  Example:  use much more ACTIVE than passive voice; crisp/salient writing rather than loads of details.  I think that as an ID your writing style needs to adapt to what you are creating and what the end product is supposed to be.

Daniel Brigham

Susan Demoya said:

What about strategies to write better/more effective test questions as part of the e learning course? 

Great idea, Daniel! I'm looking forward to the seeing your presentation.

Thanks, Susan. For this first go round, I'll most likely focus on the art of writing (conciseness, ways to engage the learner), rather than composing good questions. But you've got me thinking. Maybe that'll be part two.
Melani Ward

Hi Daniel,

This sounds great. As a writer for 20+ years I can appreciate what you're trying to do. I wrote something recently on the 6 pieces of instruction that SMEs often struggle with, the first one being a lack of verbal facility. Subject matter experts have mastered the language of their chosen field. They use certain words and language that are second nature to them but that can slow their students down or confuse them. They have to learn how to adjust their “speak” so what they say is accessible to everyone and it is put in a context that can be understood quickly. 

One of the exercises I do with SME before they are going to teach is I have them rework their language so they take out all of their industry speak and make simple word choices. It's not always easy to do but just creating the awareness tends to help them shift toward the learner rather than focusing on their own expertise. 

Good luck with your course!

Daniel Brigham

Hi, Melani:

SMEs also struggle with putting too much in. We have to constantly remind them, "Now, how does this affect what the learner does on the job"?

Bruce Graham made a good point above: SMEs sometimes seems afraid that we are dumbing down their work. I understand their concern, but clarity is not dumbing down. Very few ideas are actually complex.

Working with SMEs to create content is a small lesson in and of itself. By the way, what other kind of stuff do you right?

Melani Ward

Hi Daniel,

Yes - putting too much in is such a common habit. I wrote about this very issue here http://hotbuttoncopy.com/dump-some-content-so-people-learn-more/. I am always able to pare down without dumbing down when I consider the distinction between what is need to know and what is nice to know.

In terms of other writing, I do a lot of business writing. I have been writing copy for a variety of industries for many years. I have written everything from chapters in legal texts to courses, resumes, curriculum, essays, feature stories, case studies, Web copy and more. I could write 15 hours a day and never tire of it 

David Anderson

SIM Khoon huat said:

Maybe it will be useful to show how one can write for the same piece of work - one with narration and one without, for  a comparison.

What a great idea. That really speaks to the freedom we have for communicating with multimedia. I think multimedia journalism does a great job finding new angles and presentation models for communicating visually an event or story. For example, news orgs created dozens of different interactive graphics, videos, timelines and features covering every angle of the BP oil spill

Storyboarding and designing a topic in two or more formats is a great way to sharpen your elearning saw.

Daniel Brigham

Sim: I agree with David, that is a good idea. Of course, it would take real time to pull off, but the things that make you better almost always do. Thanks, David, for the BP link. I'll be sure to check it out. Thanks also for that screenr you did on setting up a dropbox so you could show your portfolio. Did that over the weekend.

April Edmonds

My suggestions:

1. When writing for e-learning you have to be very specific -- remember learners are learning at their own pace and do not have an instructor in front of them.  I have found that even though SME's submit content I have to rewrite some to further explain something that someone would normally experience if they had instructor-lead training. 

2. Content chunking. 

3. Accessibility -- Remember your audience -- sometimes bells and whistles are great, but it is not for everyone. 

4. Consistency in writing. Make sure things like e-mail or email are the same through out the course. 

5. Have job aids separate from e-learning course. I find that having a bunch of hyperlinks to documents is distracting. It would be better to have a list of documents as handouts/downloads separate. 

Daniel Brigham

Here's a question some of you may be interested in:

If cost isn't a major factor, when do you build a slide for voiceover narration, and when do you build a image/text slide? I guess I'm trying to suss out the strengths of text/image only slides vs. those with voiceovers. Anyway, just a question David's comment above prompted.

Rebecca Fleisch Cordeiro

Hi All,

I don't have anything brilliant to add to what's been discussed, but I am interested in the discussion and in your final product, Daniel.

Melanie thanks for sharing your posts. Do you make this critical mistake when you teach particularly resonated with me. I've been working with adults for over 20 years now and I totally agree that it's important to remember back to what it was like the first time you experienced whatever it is your teaching about, to apply that filter, to be able to not just show the result but how you did it and WHY. And yep, for face-to-face sessions, 3 hours prep for 1 hour course, minimum. I know I've spent more than that the first time through. Then another prep the 2nd time to adjust. And potentially adjust again. It's definitely an iterative process.

Melita Farley

Hi Daniel

Good question about when to use voiceover narration and when to use image/text only - I'm really interested in other people's responses too!

I should start by saying that for me, this does depend a little on the client and what they need/want and who the learners are.

With that in mind though, I use voiceover as a way of doing three things specifically:

1. Helping to relay a 'story'.  Often this means building a short audio 'play' where characters interact with each other.  

While I understand the necessity of text in telling stories sometimes, it is quite clunky.  Verbal and/or verbal/visual stories are much more interesting and engaging - especially if learners develop a relationship with the characters.

2. Providing additional explanation for something.  This is something I will often use in highly technical training.  Where possible I'll find an industry leader with a good voice to narrate some content in a conversational style.  For example, if I need to include some diagrams about a particular building technique, I'll make the diagrams into short film and ask the narrator to explain what is happening.  For a lot of the people I work with, this reflects the way they are used to learning - on the job - where someone shows them something while explaining what is happening.

3. Being a 'guide' to the content.  Audio reminders of what to do next can be useful for some learners, particularly if they are new to online learning.  I either give people the option to 'turn on' the guide (an avatar usually) at the beginning, or have it kick in at particular times or when there is a longer than expected gap before people do the next thing.


Melani Ward

"Here's a question some of you may be interested in:

If cost isn't a major factor, when do you build a slide for voiceover narration, and when do you build a image/text slide? I guess I'm trying to suss out the strengths of text/image only slides vs. those with voiceovers. Anyway, just a question David's comment above prompted."

I think this is an interesting question Daniel. One I constantly struggle with. Personally 9 times out of 10 I prefer audio and text. I guess as a writer I respond to the written word far more and I like the audio, like Melita, to relay a story. I might use text to introduce content then move to audio and image to explain that content in a different way. I also like Melita's practice voiceover to be a guide that the learner can turn on and off.

So much depends on the learner and their level of comfort with the material. I am fascinated by all of the research that's been done on multi-media learning and what learners can process cognitively and how to take that into consideration when designing.

Rebecca Fleisch Cordeiro

It is an interesting questions in terms of cognition and adult learning. Much research reveals that adults don't like to have something read "out loud" to them that they can read for themselves on the screen. (Of course this doesn't address accessibility and Learners with visual or auditory difficulties).

On the other hand, as Melita suggests, scenarios with interactions among characters may feel more "real" if there "acted" (spoken) out.

On the other hand (I know), depending on the scenario and the amount of dialog, captions can do a pretty good job here. And depending on the number of characters, it can increase cost and production time to obtain the various voices. Depending on what's happening on the screen, and the need to synchronize, production time can again go up.

In terms of the strengths of images/text and audio, and cognition and processing, Richard Mayer's work breaks it down differently: it's between the verbal and visual channels. So text and audio are verbal. Images and videos are visual. And he describes several ways to manage content format (i.e., verbal or visual)  to improve processing and deepen learning.

So much to think about!

My question: how do you reconcile what may appear to be inconsistency if some slides have narration and others don't?

Steve Flowers

There are a few things we consider when looking at the trade-offs between adding audio and leaving it out. There's always a trade-off that results in "debt". Trade-offs include labor / $$ costs, lifecycle maintenance costs, bandwidth costs and more. The trick is to keep the debt incurred under control and balancing the value against the cost (effort to outcome ratio).

Nature of the Information

Sometimes it really doesn't matter to the context / content what communication modes are used to present the content. Six in one hand, half-dozen in the other. Many times, it really doesn't matter and your audience becomes the deciding factor. Sometimes it really does matter. Some instructional strategies are challenging to execute using audio and some objectives can tend toward instructional strategies in the "hard to do with audio" category. There are also communication mode strengths to consider. Have you gotten a sense that verbal communication carries an extra channel of information? Ever had a problem getting your point across in email? Inflection, emphasis, cadence are things we can carry into verbals that can sometimes be difficult to convey consistently in writing. If you need authenticity, audio can be pretty powerful. We use it to capture stories from peers, performers, and SMEs.


What does the environment look like where the audience will experience the training? Will the audience be at their desk free from interruptions? Does the audience prefer to listen to content presentation without having to look at the screen, only tabbing back to the window to interact or view? Knowing how your audience will best catch the expository components of your solution is one of the ways to nail down a "best communication mode".

Real Estate

Does it benefit the audience to provide additional information via audio so they can focus on the elements that are most valuable in a visual? Sometimes it's tough to decide what to add to the screen visually and what to take away. Audio can be a good channel for progressive disclosure.

It may be easier to ask when it's *not* best to use audio. If you're able to get the message across with text and images, you may want to think twice about adding a third channel. Research shows that competing channels aren't good for learning. Audio + text (identical to audio) + images = bad. Depending on the nature of the information you're dealing with, you might have trouble maintaining attention with an exclusive audio program. "Pendet" -- it depends Most of the time it depends on a staggering number of factors.

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