Writing Styles for eLearning Narration
In a recent post, I talked about the Six Steps to Writing eLearning Narration – more specifically, how to gather, organize and bring your content together. Although I covered the basic technical aspects of writing your first draft of eLearning narration, I didn’t cover the stylistic concepts of writing narration.
As eLearning professionals, our narration has to accomplish so many different tasks. Not only does it need to inform the learner of the topic, best practices or procedures; it also needs to engage and motivate the learner. This can be a challenging balancing act for any eLearning designer to accomplish.
Formal vs. Informal Writing Style
In general, I’d say there are no “hard and fast” rules when it comes to the style you choose to write with. Some people tend to be more formal/technical writers, and other are more informal. For me, I generally enjoy writing with an informal style – meaning, I like my narration to have hints of personality or a more casual feel.
As you can see from the example narration above, I started the first sentence with the word “so.” It’s these little extra words that are unexpected and helps to bring personality to the narration. Additionally, it also allows the learner to feel a bit more at ease with the whole learning experience.
Making a case for a more formal style of writing, I think it’s most appropriate when you’re discussing anything where there’s no room for interpretation. You don’t want the “meat” of what you’re saying to get lost in translation. These are topics that require specific procedures or are policy related.
I will say however, I think it’s also important to mention that it’s also appropriate to have a blend of both formal and informal styles. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. As I say with all things eLearning – be intentional!
Types of eLearning Narration
So, as I was writing this post, I thought I’d look back at a few of my past eLearning projects and try to notice all of the different types or styles of writing I used. I was amazed to see how different the writing was from one slide to the next. It varied drastically depending on what I was trying to accomplish on that particular slide and the types of content being used. This was especially true for courses that included video, quizzes or scenarios. The narration was a mixture of very technical, very informal, and everything in between.
As I mentioned before, eLearning narration has two specific goals, first to inform the learner, and second, to engage the learner. What I discovered was, depending on which of these goals I was trying to accomplish, the style of my narration varied greatly, as did the content.
So, let’s explore these different types of eLearning narration and learn how you can get the most out of them in your next project.
Most new eLearning designers tend to fear on-screen text. We’re always told to have less and less text on the screen and add more and more visuals. Although this is somewhat true, on-screen text plays a very important role in helping the learner best understand your content.
Tips for writing on-screen text:
- Identify key statements from your narration that can act as on-screen text. This includes procedural steps, key facts or anything else that you really want to learner to remember. See the impact/key statements (in blue) below as an example.
- The on-screen text doesn’t have to match the narration exactly. Feel free to shorten the statements by removing extra words, etc. When the on-screen text matches the audio narration exactly, it can quickly bore the learner and make you course predictable.
- The on-screen text doesn’t always have to be in the form of a bullet list. Make it more dynamic by turning it into a graphic. This helps build visual relationships between the content.
Procedural steps, or technical writing, is content that requires the utmost accuracy and attention to detail. Often times, procedural steps are tied to a process with a high financial or legal liability. As I mentioned, you don’t want anything to be lost in translation.
Tips for writing procedural steps:
- In general, procedural steps or technical writing should lean towards being more formal writing. Limit the amount of humor or use of a casual tone.
- Make sure the content is as accurate as possible and look at it from the learner’s point of view. In most cases, this is content you will need to learn yourself and verify. By learning the process yourself, it may help you discover new ways to communicate it or things your subject matter expert left out (this happens more often then you know).
- As with on-screen text, convey this information with a graphic or interaction to help identify relationships within the content.
Instructional statements are something I see a lot of new eLearning designers forget to incorporate into their narration. These are small statements that tells the learner what to do (i.e., click the next button to continue, click here to begin, click on each of the tabs to learn more, etc.). These statements are very easy to forget and I see a lot of new eLearning designers write and record their audio narration and then later realize they should have included them. Without instructional statements, it can easily leave the learner confused as to what they should do next or the purpose of the slide. This is especially if the learner is expected to interact with the content.
Tips for writing instructional statements:
- Include the majority of your instructional statements at the beginning of your course. This is where the learner will feel the least confident. As the course progresses, use less and less of these statements.
- Create an optional tab to view instructions about the course controls and point it out to the learner at the beginning of the course. This allows you to condense a lot of this instructional information into a single screen and allows the learner to decide if they need that assistance.
- If you don’t want to include the instructional statements in your audio narration, turn them into on-screen text annotations.
Writing good exam or test questions can be the hardest and most time consuming task within an eLearning project. On one particular project I worked on, a business partner and I spent a full three days working on a simple 20 question test. Although this may seem excessive, this was necessary to make sure the exam was both accurate and challenging.
Tips for writing exam questions:
- Write questions that relate directly back to the learning objectives. Don’t test on anything that isn’t explicitly covered within the course. The learner must be able to fully answer the questions with what was covered in the course.
- All of the available answers for any given question must be plausible. Don’t litter your question with throwaway answers. This forces the learner to think through the questions and really test their knowledge. You’ll quickly discover, coming up with plausible wrong answers is the hardest part.
- Don’t over complicate or create trick questions. Keep things simple and don’t make the learner feel as if you’re trying to deceive them.
- For every plausible wrong answer, provide feedback (either immediately after they answer or at the end of the test) as to why that option was incorrect. This will help them understand their mistake and know what the correct answer is and why.
Scenarios help learners connect the dots between the learning content and real-life. Additionally, they allow the learner to explore a situation and make their own decisions based on what they’ve learned.
Tips for writing scenarios:
- Scenarios can be written in a formal or informal style.
- Create branched scenarios. Draft the correct path first and then write additional (wrong) paths for the learner. Each path must provide a learning opportunity as to why that was the correct/incorrect path.
- Like writing exam questions, each path within a scenario must be plausible and real to life.
If you have the opportunity and resources to incorporate custom-scripted and produced video into your eLearning course, do it! Video is a great way to bring your course to the next level and add yet another layer of multimedia for the learner’s enjoyment. While I worked for Kohl’s Department Store, we had access our own in-house video production team. This enabled us to go out to the stores and shoot video of just about anything we could imagine.
Tips for writing video scripts:
- Like anything else within your course, if you choose to use video, be intentional about it. Write your video script to actually show your learner’s something. It’s a waste of time to create a talking head video that simply lectures to your learners.
- Write in a natural and conversational tone. In all cases of writing a video script, have someone read it aloud. This will help you perfect the tone and cadence of your script.
- If you have one, consult with your videographer. This will help them understand what they’re filming and will allow them to provide you some tips to improve the script.
- Don’t forget to include blocking notes within your video script. The blocking notes tell the actor/actress what actions they need to be performing while speaking the dialog. Blocking notes also help the videographer to determine the best angle(s) to capture the action.
Just like scenarios and videos, stories help the learner easily connect with the content. Stories can give historical context and perspective. I’ve found that stories can help the learner gain a greater respect for the learning content. This is very important if you want them to retain the content you’re attempting to teach. Whether you tell the story through a video, a scenario or simply though audio narration and on-screen imagery/text, all stories have certain components that can’t be missed.
Tips for writing stories:
- All stories must have a beginning, middle and end. In the case of writing stories for the purpose of learning, they should present a situation, a problem that needs to be solved and a resolution.
- Again, like videos, scenarios and even exam questions, the story has to be plausible and real to life. The situation must be something the learner could actually face in their place of work or life. If the story seems too fake or cheesy, the learner won’t take it seriously.
- Keep the story short and simple. Long and drawn-out stories will only serve bore and confuse the learner.