We’ve all been there: the moment you realize you’ve stopped paying attention and have no idea what you just read or heard. So you go back and reread or retake or review, but it keeps happening. Maybe you’re just distracted ... or maybe there’s another explanation.

The vast majority of nonfiction texts and informational materials, including e-learning courses, are written in a formal style. Why? Because that’s how we’re taught to write in school.

In their book E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer suggest that people try harder to understand something when they’re engaged in a conversation. It seems our brains are hardwired to pay closer attention when there’s a social element in the mix. They call this the personalization principle. In sum, it states that favoring a conversational writing style and incorporating virtual coaches in e-learning courses can get learners to pay closer attention and retain more of what they learn.

Let’s look at a couple of the quick and easy ways Clark and Mayer suggest for applying the personalization principle to e-learning courses.

Use First and Second Person (“We” and “You”)

An easy way to take your writing from informal to formal is by replacing the article “the” with the personal pronouns “we” or “you,” like in the following example:

Formal: When exercising, the heart rate increases to supply more food and oxygen to the muscles.

Informal: When we exercise, our heart rate increases to supply more food and oxygen to our muscles.

Can you believe what a difference that small change makes? The first example sounds dry and academic, while the second feels more relatable.

Ask Questions and Direct Comments to Learners

Another way you can make your course sound more conversational is by addressing your learner personally. For example, instead of jumping right into an explanation, start with something like: “Did you know that …?” or “Now let’s take a look at …”

Favor Polite Language over Direct Language

The results of one study showed that when you use polite language instead of direct language, learners perform better. This was found to be especially true of learners whose prior knowledge of the subject matter was low. You might want to keep that in mind next time you’re writing feedback for questions in your next e-learning course. Instead of saying “Sorry, that’s incorrect. Try again!” you might encourage with “Sorry, that’s incorrect. Would you like to give it another try?”

Use Human Voices for Narration

You might be tempted to use a text-to-speech application to create voice-over audio for your course. I get it! Text-to-speech makes it super fast and easy to create and maintain voice-over audio. However, Clark and Mayer’s research shows that people learn better when listening to a human voice instead of a machine-generated voice. So next time you consider using text-to-speech narration, be sure to think about how it might impact your course’s effectiveness. 

Include a Visual Narrator

Clark and Mayer also suggest that adding a visual narrator can simulate a person-to-person interaction and increase learner engagement. The idea is that learners who can visualize the person speaking feel more connected, as if they’re having a conversation with someone. They might even see the narrator as a guide of sorts, so they feel less isolated and more comfortable in the learning process.


Although personalization is a highly effective technique for increasing learner engagement, be careful not to overdo it. As they say in their book, “Good instructional design involves adding just the right amount of social cues to prime a sense of social presence in the learner, without adding so much that the learner is distracted.”

Want to learn more about Clark and Mayer’s principles? Check out these articles:

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