The first and foremost rule for better e-learning is better writing.

It was a dark and stormy night. In a dark alley a subject matter expert handed his 83-slide deck to an instructional designer. The mission? To turn that deck filled with bullet point after bullet point of previous content into a meaningful and engaging e-learning experience.

It's a daunting mission. How does the instructional designer take that raw material—under the pressure of a really tight timeframe—and transform it into something that people will pay attention to? It starts with the basics: better writing.

Good writing is the single biggest factor that can make the difference between an e-learning program that bores people to death and one that gets them to pay attention. It's all in the delivery and how you present the information. Far too often, e-learning designers take the easy road, loading page after page with text bullet after text bullet.

Case in point

Let's imagine a compliance training program in your organization. The topic? Rules and regulations for speaking at trade shows. This 10-page policy document is so boring that no one reads it. Thus, now the stakeholders want to make it mandatory e-learning.

The first screen of the e-learning says that the program has audio in it and to be sure to use your headset. You click "next." Now you hear three minutes of audio narration that explains how to use the buttons in the course. Next!

Then come the dreaded learning objectives—"At the end of this course, you will have learned ..."—followed by 15 bullets of poorly written blah, blah, blah. Yeah, whatever. Next!

Finally, the content that actually describes the policy appears. But it's three paragraphs of on-screen text with audio narration. The content is copied directly from a policy document that a lawyer wrote and no one can understand.

This goes on for 12 more screens. It's enough to make you want to gouge your eyes out in despair. It's the stuff of nightmares, and the type of e-learning program that gives all other e-learning programs a bad name.

The solution is to find the right tone so you can turn your work from clicky-clicky blah-blah to something with a lot more oomph. Here are six principles to accomplish this.

Make it human

My mantra for e-learning is "It's all about the people, man." When we write passive scripts that are full of jargon and abstract, impersonal language, we completely neglect to connect with the person sitting on the other end of that computer. If there's only one thing you do differently in your e-learning designs, let this be it: Make it human.

Talk to people. Connect with them. Make the e-learning sound like it's a conversation between people. Real people, not robots.

Instead of this: "In order to effectively manage employee performance, managers need to successfully navigate difficult conversations with their employees. In this e-learning program, you will learn three techniques you can apply to employee conversations ..."

Try this: "Have you ever had a difficult conversation with one of your employees? Where did you struggle and why? In this short program, we're going to explore three things you can do to make those conversations less difficult and more productive. Sound good?"

When you speak directly to the learner, you're making use of the personalization principle, which is when you have a conversation directly with someone using first and second person language such as we and you. Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer tell us in e-Learning and the Science of Instruction that using the personalization principle yields better learning results than more formal language.

Make it human. Talk to the people.

Keep it light

What conversations do you enjoy more? Dense, heavy, and serious in tone; or short, snappy, with a little bit of humor thrown in? Do you like a lecture thrown at you or a conversation with you? Even when the content is serious, giving it a bit of levity makes it more accessible and human.

This may be my personal style, but I've found that most people prefer the lighter touch. It's how normal human beings talk to one another in normal conversation. As best as you can, try to lighten up.

Instead of this: "This e-learning course is designed to explain the 15 steps needed to complete our regulatory process ..."

Try this: "Need to get your head around our process? We all do! So let's take a look at the 15 steps."

This second approach sounds more human. It's the conversational tone that I described earlier, but it also has a lighter touch, sounds more fun and inviting, and overall has just a touch more sass. I like sass.

A lighter touch uses simpler language, which means less cognitive overhead for your audience. If you have to spend a lot of effort deciphering every other big word, you're not going to absorb as much of the critical information that really matters. So while you're keeping it light, drop the jargon and drop the big words.


Cut it out

This one goes without saying: Cut, cut, cut. Less really is more. Cut your scripts. Get to the point quickly and spare the learner endless screens with endless text. Keep the focus on what you need people to be able to do and not on all the history and information that goes behind it.

In a slide-based e-learning program, try aiming for one idea per slide instead of cramming in 14 ideas on one slide just because you can get the font that small. People need mental and visual space to consider and consolidate an idea. Give it to them in simple, easily digestible chunks. And then cut it some more.

Give it spirit

The best writing flies off the page in an active and not a passive voice. You can spot the passive voice by the use of the words to be or is.

Writing in an active voice may take more time and you'll need creativity, energy, and patience. But you know what? It makes for a more energetic and engaging experience for the person on the receiving end. An active voice invites us in, inspiring action and participation.

Giving your writing spirit takes more than an active voice. You need to make it an invitation, and give it a special something that makes people want to participate in your program and makes them really want to click "next."

Of the two columns in the table below, which do you prefer? I like the column on the right.

“The fabulous e-learning script was written by you.”  “You wrote the fabulous e-learning script.” 
“The process briefing document is used to define our core requirements.” “The process briefing document defines our core requirements.”
“Now that you have covered the basics of customer service, in the next section you will learn how to deal with customer issues.” “You’re one step away from maximizing your skills, but there’s a problem—a customer one in fact. Click ‘next’ to put your skills to the test.”

Treat them like grown-ups

Far too many e-learning programs patronize people, talk down to them, and essentially assume that people are idiots. Learners are busy professionals, so treat them like that and give them choices, along with the respect they deserve. The tone of voice you use should sound like an adult speaking to an adult, not a parent to a child.

Do you really need to tell them on every single screen that the "next" button is in the bottom right corner? Don't you think they learned that when they had to click "next" on the very first screen?

What if instead of telling your learners what they must do, you try to sell them on why it will be a valuable use of their time? Think like an advertiser and find the appeal, create the desire, and get them to see the benefits of taking five minutes to complete your program.

Instead of saying, "In this section, you'll learn the three things you need to do to run an effective meeting," try: "Take five minutes to find out how to run effective meetings."

Find your flow

All too often, an e-learning course goes from slide to slide with no thread to stitch it all together, no cohesion to connect the ideas and information. Slide 3 says, "These are the four steps to submit a TPA Report." Slide 4 says, "These are the risks of not submitting a TPA report." Slide 5 presents yet another fact farm. At the end of the day, it's just a big information dump.

You need to find your flow.

Finding the flow is another way to make it a conversation—use simple techniques to make one slide build off the previous slide to connect ideas and show people how it all fits together. It's how we talk to each other and how we share ideas.

This could be as simple as saying, "We just looked at the steps to follow for submitting your report. But why does this even matter? And what are the risks if we don't do it right? Let's find out."

You also could consider making the whole course a single narrative, told as a guided story or a "day-in-the-life" approach where you follow one character through a process from start to finish. By using the first person narrative, the content naturally unfolds in conversation with a natural flow.

Even though a lot of e-learning is about more than presenting information and content, we can pull many of these principles into our e-learning scripts. So go forth and write great e-learning scripts.

Watch Your Words

When you say this: 

They might really be thinking this: 
“By now you have learned …” “Oh, really? The truth is, I didn’t learn a darn thing.”
“You must do …” “No, I don’t have to do anything. You can’t make me. You’re not my mommy.”
“This will take 90 minutes.” “Actually, I don’t have 90 minutes. So instead I took 15 minutes because I just rushed through it and the final quiz was so easy I could have passed it without viewing any of your content pages.”
“To advance to the next screen click the ‘next’ button in the bottom right corner of your screen.” “Umm, yeah. I know my way around computers and smartphones. In fact, I’m pretty savvy about this stuff, but you seem to think I’m pretty stupid.”

Becoming a Better Writer

What makes a good writer? Most good writers would say, “Writing. Writing a lot.” I do think that for some, good writing comes naturally. For others, it’s a painfully learned art and skill. And for others, it may just be something they never get. You probably have some sense of where you fit into this schema.

When I write, I hear the words in my head. This works especially well when drafting an e-learning audio script, but it also works well for written text. When you hear it aloud, you hear the tone of voice, whether it makes sense, and can feel whether you have a good flow. If you don’t hear things in your head, take the time to read what you’ve written out loud to yourself. Go find a closet where no one can see you talking to your screen, or just ignore their crazy looks.

As you read your script out loud, keep your ears open and ask yourself:

  • Does it sound natural?
  • Does it sound like a human being said these things or a robot?
  • Would you want to read this thing? Really? Would you want to have to sit through this e-learning program? Really? If yes, fabulous. If not, what can you change to make it more compelling, more sticky, more human?
  •  What can you cut? If something doesn’t relate to your key points, get rid of it.

Most writers also are readers, looking to words for inspiration. Take notice of the world around you—from news headlines to social media posts, what pulls you in and makes you want to learn something? What authors get your pulse racing and how can you do that in your scripts? Pay attention to marketing materials that strike your fancy. How did the marketing team convey that idea? How did they incite your desire? What can you emulate or reuse?

This article is adapted from Chapter 7 of The Accidental Instructional Designer: Learning Design for the Digital Age.