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

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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.