Writing and Editing

Learn Rules and Tools of Engagement at Our Next ATD eLearning SIG Roundtable May 18th!
 Does your eLearning start like this?
Welcome to this training on X.  It is important for the company that you understand all about X.  Here are your objectives.  There will be a quiz at the end.
How appealing is that to your learner?  What if, instead, you started your course in a way that stimulates your learner’s interest and actively engages them in your topic?  Sound difficult?  It’s not–it just takes a little creativity.
Join us for the next ATD NYC eLearning SIG session on Wednesday, May 18th for our Interactive Roundtable on the Rules and Tools of Engagement.
How do our Roundtables work?  Simple!  We use a “flipped classroom” approach.  Download the simple pre-session assignment here using the link included below.  It will explain the brief assignment and provide you with some great materials to get started.  Then send in your 1-3 draft slides by Tuesday, May 17th.  Everything you need to know is in the PowerPoint download–along with a lot of free images and more!
Download the kit, have fun creating your draft, and we’ll look forward to your sharing it with us all on May 18th.  Our Roundtable environment is always friendly and supportive, and you will walk away with your head full of great ideas from your other eLearning SIG members.  We will also send out the final composite PowerPoint with everyone’s examples afterward to all attendees.
Stop lecturing your learners and start engaging them today.
Download the Pre-session Project Kit here:  Rules and Tools Pre-Session Project
Register for this event on the ATD NYC web site.
Even if you don’t have time to contribute some idea slides, we’ll still look forward to seeing you on the 18th!
Free Your eLearning Navigation From the Straight and Narrow

Sample Exploratory NavigationThis week’s eLearning Heroes Challenge on the Articulate Forums was all about course navigation. And you know what?  It’s always a good time to talk about navigation. If you are still creating all your eLearning courses with a strictly linear path, then you’re missing a major opportunity to engage adult learners.

I know what you’re thinking: “But it’s a Compliance course, and people just need to get through it as quickly as possible.” Change your mindset. Free yourself and your courseware from the limits of linear thinking. Regardless of the topic, you need to make your learning interesting and engaging for your learners, or they won’t remember your key points a minute longer than the answer to the last quiz question.

Sure, sometimes a linear 1-2-3-4-5 etc. progression of slides makes the most sense. But if you’re looking to involve your learners, and encourage them to remember your information, help them invest in the course, even just a little bit.

How do we do this? In this simple sample, I give the learner free choice to decide on the order of topics, and use branching to deliver the content, while still ensuring that they complete all the material successfully before moving on through the course.  Offering them the opportunity to explore as they please is a small gesture with a large impact.

Adult learners like a course better if it gives them at least a little bit of autonomy, the ability to make their own choices. Think about it–do most people really like to be told what to do, or where to go? Even in a Compliance course, where the stakes for demonstrating mastery of the topic can be high, you can still give your learner some choices.

You can also entertain and engage your learner while you’re at it. I regularly recommend using a scenario-based approach to learning. Why? Because everyone loves a good story, for one thing. And a good story can offer opportunities for you to involve the learner in creating the outcome you seek.

In the example I’m sharing here, I’ve created a very basic template in Storyline 2 that you could use for a Compliance course, or any other type of course. I’ve picked the topic of Information Security, which is a concern for all businesses, regardless of size. I kept the look and feel very neutral and professional. I present a simple menu page that introduces three characters, and invites the learner to click on the characters in whatever order they choose, to explore a risk scenario and help that character avoid making a terrible mistake. So without overdoing it, I’ve introduced a story element, and a little bit of drama to pique the learner’s interest. In my sample, I’ve set up a simple one-slide scenario and one quiz question for each character’s path, but obviously you could do a lot more if needed–although remember that brevity is always a goal.

Using characters introduces a human element. Making up a real-world scenario the learner would easily recognize makes that character and situation all the more real. Asking the learner to step in and prevent the character from making a big mistake involves them in affecting the outcome of an event they feel could actually happen in their workplace. Note my word choice there: regardless of the topic, you need to get your learners to feel something if you want them to remember.

In this sample, I’ve set up the questions to allow infinite attempts. You could also add meaningful feedback for wrong choices to enrich the experience. What you’re subtly doing is making your points, and allowing your learner to explore and fail in a safe environment, while setting them up to succeed, even if they miss on the first try. And when they succeed, I congratulate them and award them a badge for preventing a disaster (a little touch of gamification).

Once they explore all three scenarios, and earn all three badges, then and only then, a button appears inviting them to move ahead with (or perhaps complete) the course. Isn’t that a lot more interesting than rigidly controlling the navigation and forcing your learner to proceed 1-2-3-4-5 in lockstep? This way, you’re still subtly controlling the environment and the learner’s experience. You’re still ensuring they cover all the material. But you’re giving the learner a stake in the game, allowing them to make choices, engage with your content, and come out as heroes.

Next time you start a project, try looking at your course content and navigation in a new light.  Consider:

  • Free-choice navigation systems like the one shown here (or a map, or a diagram, or whatever your imagination devises)
  • Believable, recognizable characters
  • Scenarios that will grab your learner’s interest
  • Little touches of gamification

Sure, creating a course with branching takes a bit more work to design and build. But the end result will be a course that your learners might actually enjoy and remember!

To view the sample template in action, click the image at the top of this post.

Here’s a high-level look at this simple template’s structure:

Sample Exploratory Navigation Structure

Upcoming 5/13 ATD NYC Webinar: Common eLearning Design Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

ATDNY LogoAs you may know, I’m co-chair of ATD NYC’s eLearning SIG (special interest group).  Every other month, co-chair Enid Crystal and I put together a program exploring the challenges and rewards of including eLearning in your company’s blended learning solutions.  Sometimes we invite speakers, and other times we host roundtable discussions on hot topics.

On Wednesday, May 13th, at 5:30pm, we’ll be hosting a roundtable about how you can avoid making some of the most common eLearning design mistakes.  To add to the fun and participation, we’re presenting this roundtable with a bit of a “flipped classroom” approach, meaning you can do a little homework prior to the meeting, and then we’ll all share our ideas and discuss them together at the meeting.

If you’re an ATD NY member, we hope you’ll join us.  And even if you’re not, you’re allowed to participate in one ATD NY session for free.  Since our focus is on eLearning, we hold our meetings both in person and virtually, to allow as many people as possible to participate.

So, how will this all work?  Simple!  I’ve created a PowerPoint file showing six common eLearning design mistakes.  You can download it right here:  Common eLearning Mistakes Sample Slides

Pick at least one of the slides in this sample deck, and create your suggested revision that makes all the same points, but in a way that will deliver the message more effectively.

Then, email your slide(s) to me at no later than Monday, May 11th at 12 noon Eastern Time.  

I’ll collate all the submissions so that we can review and discuss them together at Wednesday evening’s meeting.  And even if you don’t have time to revise a slide, feel free to join us for the discussion.  We all learn a lot from our peers every time we hold one of our roundtables.  And of course, after the event I’ll share the collated PowerPoint deck so that you can remind yourself of the great solutions you can apply to your next project.

We hope to “see” you there!

Maybe You Don’t Need That eLearning Course

FootmenI’m contacted regularly by organizations who tell me they need me to create an eLearning course. After inquiring about the details, sometimes I surprise them by suggesting that they don’t really need a formal, full-blown eLearning course at all. You should always ask yourself the same question (or contact me, and I’ll ask!).

If what you need to share is really “information only,” then instead of creating a custom course, consider whether you might actually be able to make your key points in a simple, illustrated job aid, published in PDF format. Record a simple podcast. Create a little self-playing presentation in PowerPoint or Keynote, and save it to a movie format. Use formats like PDF, Mp3, and MOV or Mp4, that your learners can access at their convenience from virtually any device, including smart phones, iPads, and other tablets.  This approach can be time and a lot of money.

Even when creating a full eLearning course is the appropriate solution, I always encourage you to think in small, bite-size chunks of information that your learners can readily “digest.” I’ve composed a rhyming couplet to help you keep this in mind:

Less can often amount to more,
And keeping it simple will help you score.

If you don’t have the time or resources in house, I’d be happy to work with you on creating one or more job aids, or on scripting and recording podcasts or presentations that will both engage and inform your target audience. Don’t get me wrong–I love creating eLearning!  But you should always match the solution to the need. To paraphrase the old saying: you wouldn’t use a cannon to shoot a fly, would you?  Not all learning events require a formal invitation, or a formal approach.

image Storyboarding 101 – Creating Your eLearning Blueprint

Storyboard PPT ImageThis week’s eLearning Heroes challenge (#48) on the Articulate Forum is all about the basics of Storyboarding. This is an essential topic, and one always worth revisiting! Here are the questions posed by moderator David Anderson of Articulate, and my answers:

How do you define scripting, storyboarding, and prototyping? 

Scripting: I define “scripting” as the proposed wording of the voiceover script that will be used, slide by slide. Some people include the onscreen text in this definition. As long as you’re clear and consistent with your clients, so that everyone is on the same page, either can work. But coming from a performing arts background, for me the script is what is said.

Storyboarding: This is another term that comes from the performing arts, specifically the movies. Filmmakers typically have a visual shot-by-shot “storyboard” based on the written script, including visual mockups (even just stick figures) making it clear what the visual (and emotional) event is for each frame: an explosion, a look of surprise, a handshake, a close-up of an eye with a tear rolling down, etc. The storyboard is the blueprint for what the cinematographer and his or her camera crew will be looking to replicate faithfully on film. The same is true for eLearning: the storyboard represents slide by slide (or frame by frame) what the learner will encounter in the finished course–including onscreen text, visual/media elements, notation of any actions/interactions, and the voiceover script.

Prototyping: Even if you create a highly visual storyboard, it’s still only a static blueprint of what you (or your developer) will be building in your eLearning development tool. Before you develop a whole course, always develop a working prototype–a few sample slides (say 2-5) from your storyboard that give your client a “feel” for what the learning experience will be like hands-on for their target audience.  It should include draft onscreen text, image(s), and a sample interaction and/or quiz question that you plan to use. If time allows, and the client doesn’t know your work, scratch audio can be helpful, too. But for a quick prototype, it’s mainly about the look and feel.

Which method do you prefer?

I view these three elements as complimentary components of a whole, so to me it’s not an either/or situation. I use them all, and recommend that you do the same.


Do you use different types of storyboards? When do you use each?

I try to keep my process as simple and client-friendly as possible, so I use the template that best suits the project.

For soft skills training (ex: compliance, orientation, policy, etc.) I typically use PowerPoint, because every client is comfortable with it. I put the text and images on the slide, with an appropriate marker for any proposed interactive element. In the Notes section, I put the voiceover script for that slide, and in a separate bracketed paragraph, any developer notes–for instance, explanation of how an interaction will play out, how onscreen elements will appear or disappear, and align with the voiceover script. Clients can add their comments, and then once we have finalized the storyboard document, I strip out the bracketed developer notes. An alternative I sometimes use if time is tight: I storyboard right in my developer tool, then use the Word export to create a very basic storyboard document that the client can mark up. The drawback to this approach currently is that while the client can mark up the voiceover script, they cannot edit the text on the slide in the Word document, because it’s just a static image.

For simulations, I have created a separate (but still simple) MSWord template with columns for Audio File Name, Process Step #, Voiceover script, Action, and Comments. This serves as my “shooting script” when I capture the step-by-step screens needed for the simulation, and ensures that I’m not missing a step or interaction. Since there aren’t any visuals to use for a simulation storyboard until I record the screen captures, I will typically capture just one screen and mark it up with sample text, highlights, arrow, etc. as a style guide, so that the client understands what the look and feel of the whole simulation will be before I do the full set of captures. I’m including a screenshot sample of both kinds of storyboard templates with this post.  Tip: I always record my audio separately, in a standalone audio tool (Audacity, Audition, etc.) rather than in the developer tool.

 Sellon Solutions Storyboard Logo for Blog

How do you storyboard interactivity?

When I have a slide with an interaction, I will typically draft the basic proposed interaction in my developer tool (for example, Articulate Storyline), and then I will do one of two things: (a) paste static screenshots onto slides in my storyboard, or (b) create an Mp4 clip of the full interaction, so that they can understand and evaluate the look and feel of the interaction. I use SnagIt for the Mp4 mini-movies, as Storyline currently doesn’t output to Mp4–something that hope will be in the next version! As I noted above, I typically include one sample interaction in my prototype, so that the client can interact with it hands-on and decide if that approach suits their target audience. Once the client is happy with the overall proposed look and feel of how interactions will be presented in the course, then a single screenshot of the interaction, along with a description in the Notes section, will usually suffice after that.


What are your top three storyboard tips for new course creators?

  1. Keep your documentation simple and clear. Why use three documents when one will do? Why force your client to wade through endless lists of graphics asset file names, over-compartmentalized layouts, or complex developer instructions? Include information as needed, but put the tech stuff at the bottom so the client can easily skip it.  Keep your client focused on the course’s impact, not on what’s happening behind the scenes.
  2. Visuals are crucial in eLearning. Wherever possible, use the actual proposed images/media to make sure that your storyboard accurately reflects what the target audience will see. Coming up with images that speak to the client is often one of the biggest challenges in storyboarding. Using a template that only includes image placeholders would be a waste of everyone’s time.
  3. Make sure that your storyboard’s imagery and word choice (both onscreen and in the voiceover script) are genuinely engaging and compelling.  Great eLearning starts with a strong script and images that resonate with the target audience. The animations and interactions you might add are icing. By the time your client finishes reviewing your storyboard draft, they should have a clear sense of the emotional journey you have created for their target audience.


Thanks for another terrific challenge, David!  Now, I’m going to pose a challenge to Articulate in return. I have submitted this as a feature request, and think it would be enormously helpful to all Articulate Storyline users and their clients: Add a Developer Notes tab to the development stage (the content on this tab would never output in the published course), and adapt your Word export feature so that it outputs both the Notes (voiceover script) and any Developer Notes in their own cells below the slide image.  Finding a way to make the output images editable in the Word document would be a real bonus, too! Then the Word export feature would become an even better storyboarding tool, saving a lot of people time and money.

Folks: If you find my thoughts on this topic useful, I encourage you to leave a comment on this post.  And consider subscribing to my newsletter using the form on the right side of this site.  It’s free. It’s quarterly.  And there’s no spamming involved.  Ever.

Your Input Needed for Upcoming Blog Post and Newsletter Topics

Tenniel Hatter SingingOkay, I need some input from you folks: I’m working on my next quarterly newsletter. I see from my MailChimp report that a decent number of you are opening my newsletters, which is great, as I do put a lot of work into each issue. Links don’t seem to be of much interest to my readers, however, which is surprising as I think I’m sharing some pretty cool free tools and info.

So let me hear from you: what topics are of most interest to you, for upcoming blog posts as well as newsletters? Some possible topics: Articulate Storyline, Presentation Skills, Gamification, Voiceovers, eLearning Script Writing, Needs Analysis, Making eLearning Content More Engaging, Scenario-based Training, Ideas for Mobile Learning, or…?

And let me know what you’ve thought of prior newsletters–more of something? Less of something? I genuinely appreciate all constructive feedback–my goal is to post content that will be genuinely helpful to you! Let me know your thoughts.


My Fall Free Tips Newsletter Arrives This Tuesday: Sign Up Now on My Home Page!

MailChimp Newsletter Signup FormAs you may know, this year I started creating a free, quarterly Tips newsletter, and the response to my first two issues has been great.  This Tuesday I’ll be releasing the Fall edition of my newsletter, and it’s all about the use of color in your eLearning.

In each issue of my free Tips newsletter, I share handy tips and ideas on a range of topics, including various aspects of eLearning, Voiceovers, Presentation Skills, and more.

And if there are particular topics for which you want tips in future issues, just let me know!

Sign up today, and you’ll receive my Fall newsletter–which includes some pretty stunning (if I say so myself) photos of my recent trip to Montreal.

To sign up, just fill out the three fields on the right side of my homepage.  It’s that easy!  I won’t spam you, and I won’t share your information with anyone else.  Period.

Together, let’s keep the eLearning conversation going!

Words, Words, Words! (and How to Use Them in eLearning)


LORD POLONIUS  What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET  Words, words, words.
LORD POLONIUS  What is the matter, my lord?
HAMLET  Between who?
LORD POLONIUS  I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
HAMLET  Slanders, sir….

This odd exchange between the king’s advisor Polonius and the supposedly mad prince Hamlet from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy came to mind as I read a thought-provoking blog post by my friend Angel Green, a wonderful instructional strategist.  In her article, my friend half-seriously states that she hates words in eLearning, dubbing them a “necessary evil.”

But of course, we all know that blaming words is like blaming the messenger.  Words can engender great good or great harm–ask any advertising executive, playwright, or politician.  It’s all in how we use them.  Or, to my friend’s point, misuse them.  Think of all those Twitter and Facebook posts you really don’t need to see.  All those eLearning screens that are simply walls of words, not keys to knowledge, understanding, and change.

Let me put it in a more Shakepearean metaphor: words are seeds.  They need the right exposure and room to grow.  If you plant too many of them too closely together, they’ll vie with each other for the sunlight (i.e., the audience’s attention), and the end result will be a scraggly bed of weeds that people avoid, not the well-manicured garden an audience will enjoy exploring.  But the carefully-planted, memorable phrasing is money in the bank.  The right words presented in the right way at the right time will take root in our audience’s minds–and grow.

Once you’ve whittled down your course’s words to the meaningful ones, in many cases you can greatly enhance their delivery by selecting the right voiceover talent to convincingly share the story and “sell” the script you’ve written (and of course, remember to include a Closed-Captioning option).  Take the time to find a voice that matches your story’s character(s), and that sounds like someone talking naturally to the learner. Even a neutral narrator can have some personality, and should subtly communicate an eagerness to share the information for the learner’s benefit.  Using quality voiceover talent pays for itself: suddenly your words take on a whole new life in your learner’s ear.  Your course can now reach the auditory learners as well as the visual ones.  Add some nifty, meaningful interactions for the kinesthetically-inclined, and you’ve got a course that will make a lasting impression on everyone!

When it comes to including particularly dry text, sometimes editing isn’t a choice; the language may be a regulatory requirement or even part of a court settlement.  But in most cases, I’ve had success convincing legal teams that it’s best to put legalese into a pop-up window or take-away item behind a clickable shiny medallion, charming character or other appealing graphic.  Use that icon consistently throughout the course to alert the audience to such material.  Make the legalese a resource, not part of the main flow, and give its presentation some class.  That way the information has been treated with respect–without bogging down the learner, who mostly just wants to get on with the course.

Impressive as they can be these days, interactive elements shouldn’t be the only “good stuff” in an eLearning course.  Even when it’s a course your audience is required to take, they’ll respond to real engagement in any form.  The right words are good stuff.  They promote mental interaction.  Used with theatrical flair, they can be great on their own.  Ask Shakespeare.  Or, they can play their part brilliantly right alongside the interactive techno-bells and whistles available to us today.  More people are finally catching on to scenario-based courses as the most natural approach to memorable learning: Good stories stay with us.  Put your learners in a situation they’ll recognize, one that will prompt an emotional connection.  Maybe start them “in medias res”–in the middle of the story–so they have to hit the ground running, and think on their feet.  Then give them a few tools, just enough information and guidance, and encourage them to put it all together themselves as they go through your eLearning course.  Don’t do it all for them.  Use words to tease, surprise, amuse.  Regardless of the type of content: involve them, and make it entertaining!  If no one on your team is a wordsmith–hire one.  It’s worth it.

It would be nice if our clients and corporate lawyers better understood how words need to be used in eLearning–but in truth it’s not their job.  Even though they share your goal of getting the course’s message across, words mean something different to them.  A contract is not a meeting memo–and neither of them is eLearning.  Lawyers use words to define and regulate; business clients use words to communicate and record.  We–meaning instructional designers, strategists, and performance consultants–use words to inspire and enable change.  And of course we use images in the same way.  We’re the ad agency of the eLearning team.  We’re the storytellers.  We help translate and simplify, until only the essential words remain.  The ones that learners will remember.

Words, images, and interactive elements need to exist in an organic, symbiotic balance within your eLearning courseware.  Logorrhea is not a disease your eLearning course can afford to catch.  But to return to Hamlet, Polonius, and the messenger metaphor: if your eLearning course materials aren’t written in an engaging way right now, don’t stab the old man behind the curtain.  Go back and have a serious talk about words with the king.  He started it!

If you have a great example of use or misuse of words in eLearning, I hope you’ll share it in the Comments.

My eLearning Guild Online Forum Session About Voiceovers is Now Available For Free!

I was delighted to receive a note today from Chris Benz, Director of Online Events for the eLearning Guild, letting me know that they’ve selected my presentation from last week’s Online Forum as their latest free sample of the kind of quality content that comes with Guild membership.  I’m thrilled that my session was so well received, and am very glad that now you can watch and share this session even if you’re not yet a member of the eLearning Guild.  Of course, if you’re in the eLearning industry, I would strongly encourage you not just to join the Guild, but to become an active member and share your own interests and expertise as well.  I’ve found each of my experiences with the Guild to be great fun, and as always, my students/audience teach me something as well.

The session I presented last week was the opening keynote talk for the Guild’s Online Forum about incorporating Audio and Video in eLearning.  My session touches on the basics of how you can use quality voiceovers to add that powerful “Human Factor” to self-paced learning content, as well as on how and when you might consider using human versus synthetic (or automated text to speech) voiceovers.

The recorded session is 75 minutes, including the various polls and chats, which are an organic and important part of the content, as that’s how attendees participated and shared their own great and thoughtful input.  To view the session, click the Guild logo on this post, and you’ll find a link toward the bottom of that landing page.  I hope you enjoy the session, and I hope you’ll come back to this site and share your own ideas and suggestions as comments to this blog post!  My thanks again to Chris for inviting me to speak, and to Karen Hyder for her excellent support throughout the process.

More Communications and Simulations for MetLife

One of my projects this fall was partnering with the folks at MetLife on preparing communications pieces, job aids, and how-to guided tour simulations for the launch of their new internal MyLearning site interface.  I created a series of communications pieces, from the executive e-mail announcement down to a series of monthly “did you know?” follow-up spots for the site itself to be used in the first quarter of 2011.  I also consulted on and revised the proposed storyboards for the guided tours of the site’s new “look and feel,” and provided the voiceovers for both tours.  In addition, I created a series of step-by-step job aids for the most common tasks for each job role.  We delivered everything on schedule, and the new site launched successfully with all support tools in place on Monday, December 20th.  Next up in January 2011: more simulations introducing key new features of the site!