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TD Magazine Article

Every Word Counts

Learners have tuned out of text-heavy training content (even when it’s in chunks).


Wed May 01 2024

Every Word Counts

Learners have tuned out of text-heavy training content (even when it's in chunks).

Stop writing. Employees have stopped reading. Not only have they stopped reading, but—as APM Research Lab reports—most US adults lack literacy proficiency in understanding, interpreting, and synthesizing information to draw conclusions. Further, 54 percent of adults in the US (or 130 million) read below a sixth-grade level.


Considering the many digital learning programs that training functions deliver, that is an enormous problem for L&D. After all, text is overwhelmingly the bulk of e-learning content.

The problem with content

Most learning projects are born from PowerPoint decks saturated with text. Long paragraphs, links to training manuals, and too many bullets on nearly every slide challenge instructional designers to distill content from subject matter experts into engaging courses. Adding to a designer's set of challenges are the looming pressures of time and budget.

Today's digital learning authoring tools have embraced the challenge of too much content by making it easier for designers to not only display and disseminate attractive-looking text, but to disguise text content in templated designs using animated sliders, tabs, and click reveals. Nevertheless, a little bit of interactivity to break up the boredom from reading bulleted lists doesn't increase skills transfer.

New authoring tools are further simplifying designers' choices by taking all the options away, leaving designers with the simple choice of text, video, or quiz. It's no wonder that many digital learning courses look the same.

Modern reading habits

Pressed for time and productivity, many employees rarely read for comprehension depth—if they read at all. Workers are overwhelmed with information, communication, and passive content. The volume of text and data that staff must read, watch, and listen to is seemingly endless, from emails, Microsoft Teams messages, and webinars to conference calls and social media.


Workers consume training content on various platforms, but all-day meeting culture has taught people to curb deep dives into text (and everything else). I'm sure I'm not the only one who has witnessed someone multitasking even though focused attention was in order.

People tend to skim rather than read deeply for comprehension and reflection. When someone skims text, they likely consume the information as factual rather than critically analyze it and let important pieces of information sink in. Individuals often use a pattern that follows the shape of an F or Z to scan the first line of text and pick out key words from the other parts. Skimming assesses such things as:

  • Is this text outlining something I need to do?

  • Is this text information that I need right now?

  • Is this text relevant to what I care about?

More sophisticated review processes can help individuals with both comprehension and time management. Maryanne Wolf—a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an expert in literacy—notes the cognitive differences in how people generally behave in a digital context compared to when they use deep reading methods. For the latter, more critical analysis, reflection, application of prior knowledge, analogical reasoning, and empathy occur. When people have time to reflect and analyze text, they can apply the cognitive benefits to the subsequent text that they deeply read. Another benefit of deep reading is the ability to internalize and experience others' emotions, which sparks deeper thinking and explorations.

Literacy isn't a genetic adaptation, but rather a repurposing of existing human capabilities. From humans' optical sensors to emotive response systems, reflective deep reading unlocks all the segments of the human mind.

Designing learning to induce deep reading methods

Some learners laud the fact that they completed a one-hour course in record time—mere minutes. However, that so-called achievement is nearly always the result of a learner clicking through all the presentation slides and taking the quiz at the end without internalizing any of the instructional content. One of the simplest instructional design tricks to making text more valuable is to flip the traditional e-learning script by testing before telling. Using an upfront challenge to show learners what they don't know cracks the door open (perhaps only ever so slightly) to motivating them to read the content for comprehension.


Reading for a purpose. Techniques for games and puzzles often entail burying important information that players must seek out or revisit to complete a challenge. Instructional designers can use the same mechanics by using two-part questions.

One way to do so is first instructing the learner to complete an action in a simulation or answer a multiple-choice question. Next, require the learner to cite information that justifies their response. They can highlight or copy and paste relevant details from the text that support their answer, which forces them to read for comprehension.

Another method is to first task the learner with reading conflicting advice from alternative mentors and choosing whose advice to take. Clicking a character name or avatar that represents peers, managers, or customers adds a higher-level challenge of analyzing why a particular decision makes sense. After the learner selects the advice to take, the second part is for them to predict the consequences of taking the selected action as well as the consequences of taking the other recommendations.

Emotions of a third party. Digital interactions enable learners to figuratively step into someone else's shoes. Not every interaction has to be from a first-person lens. Interactive video is great for showcasing the consequences of action with emotional reactions of characters on-screen.

Text can do the same thing, but it requires a completely different type of writing than traditional instruction. Create compelling learning contexts through writing by describing people with whom learners interact in real life. Using roles and personas, transform text into dialogue to deliver colorful realism via various methods.

  • Character development. Write dialogue that exposes feelings and thoughts—such as excitement, anticipation, worry, or self-doubt—leading to characters whom readers can relate to, like, and trust. Students seeing similar emotions to their own will build deeper engagement with the learning experience.

  • Scenario setups. Describe situations that frame relatable challenges and needs.

  • Authentic dialogue. Don't just stick to the facts; have characters describe concerns and uncertainties while projecting possible consequences of various actions they may take.

Interactions that focus on reality deliver powerful, lasting learning experiences. The difference comes from writing text that doesn't merely present facts, but authentically simulates real-world experiences.

Meaningful, memorable, and motivational experiences

For training to work, it must be meaningful, memorable, and motivational. Instructional designers can deploy those three attributes with little, if any text on the screen, depending on the training topic.

Meaningful. The training experience must be relevant to individual learners. When you provide training content that has little direct correlation to what learners want or need to do, they won't pay attention or put forth the necessary effort to learn. However, if a training program aligns directly with what they want to learn and with their dream outcome (for example, a better job, higher salary, or increased satisfaction), they will expend attention and effort (as long as the program doesn't destroy those traits with boring and tedious, text-filled slides).

Text isn't the only way to establish meaning for an individual learner. Filming short, biographic videos (three minutes or less) of a range of learners with different backgrounds achieving dream outcomes establishes tangible, individual relevance.

However, just as with text, it's easy for learners to skip through or—worse—mute and hide videos under other application windows. Novel writers who make it difficult for readers to put down the book achieve that by creating compelling stories. Do the same for videos so that viewers stay engaged because they want to find out what is going to happen (see sidebar).

Memorable. Of all the things humans remember most, it's emotion. Rather than recalling the presented content, people will more likely remember the boredom they felt during the lecture comprised of dry delivery and bulleted lists of information.

For training content to be memorable, learners must engage actively and receive emotionally rich, consequential feedback. Feedback that shows how correctly performed tasks result in awesome outcomes (for example, a company earning a "best place to work" recognition or exceeding sales goals) and how incorrect actions result in dramatically poor outcomes (such as a company shutting down or a prospect walking away) can create a learning experience that participants will remember for a long time. Visual, experiential consequences are invaluable.

Motivational. Changing behavior requires an extra, outside boost of motivation. Similar to working with a great personal trainer, training programs and learning experiences need to cheer on each learner and inspire transfer of training to on-the-job performance. A critical component of motivation comes through building confidence, an appropriate level of self-efficacy, and believing that applying new skills will return rewards. Simulation-based training enables learners to practice safely, experience outcomes of both successes and failures, and work toward the confidence that skills mastery lends.

Practice via simulations

Using if-then statements, simulations provide individuals with the ability to experience concepts through decision making and learning from the consequences: If I do this, then that will happen. Practice in a simulation enables learners to experience all the outcomes, whether good, bad, safe, or risky.

Note that simulations don't have to be long, elaborate, expensive undertakings. The work of Clark Aldrich, a practitioner in the field of education simulations, has demonstrated an extraordinary pathway to highly engaging, interactive learning designs without cumbersome, boring content presentation. Under the confinement of short experiences, learners can easily complete a simulation multiple times and benefit from experiencing all the possible paths.

Writing for simulations, especially short simulations, is radically different from creating traditional courses. Writing often entails single sentences that:

  • Set up the challenge. Example: You are the bank manager and running a little late for work, what do you want to do first to open your branch?

  • Describe decision options. Example: Skip grabbing coffee and rush to the door; park in the back, allowing other staff close spots; or call another employee to find out whether they will arrive before you.

  • Augment supporting text with visual information. Example: Show a simple diagram of the building with surrounding traffic, nearest coffee shop, and assigned parking spaces.

  • Provide feedback from the last decision. Example: You picked up coffee, which delayed your arrival and now are just minutes away from the first customer's arrival.

  • Deliver summative instruction: Example: By parking quickly and too close to the door, a bank robber snuck up and gained entry to the branch.

Effective practice with text-delivered content

Retrieval practice, which involves someone summarizing what they have read without aids, is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. Rereading has a limited effect on performance, such as when cramming for a test by rereading the material the night before an exam. The human brain is efficient at dumping such information after a test. Retrieval, especially spaced retrieval, seeds memory pathways that are significantly more durable.

Spaced practice entails resting between practice sessions for increasingly long periods, perhaps ranging from hours to weeks to months between sessions. That strategy is the most effective way of ensuring long-term retention, especially when learners won't need to perform the new skills often on the job. After developing an initial short simulation, use it as a template to create additional practice opportunities for learners by changing a few variables, such as the starting challenge description, character names, graphics, branching choices, and responses.

Content isn't king—experiences are

When distilling learning experiences down to their primary components, a recipe for building interactivity that doesn't have to rely on text to teach entails context, challenge, activity, and feedback. For each element, a learning interface can rely on visual components similar to a furniture assembly manual. The result is a visually rich and demonstrative experience that removes the need for learners to synthesize text examples. Individuals can jump ahead and perform tasks, learning from their mistakes and analyzing their own decisions or strategies.

Context. It is extremely important for learners to instantly see the relevance and application of what they can learn. Therefore, begin by creating an intriguing context or situation in which they can see themselves.

Challenge. Interactions begin with a challenge: "Can you do this?" Challenges both engage learners and demonstrate what they can already do or need to learn.

Activity. Life is not a multiple-choice question. Activities enable learners to address the challenge through doing.

Feedback. Feedback shows learners the natural consequences of their actions and helps them learn to judge the effectiveness of their work, while any resources guide learners to improved performance.

Watch your words

Not all skills are teachable with little or no text. Nor can designs forgo text altogether when complying with accessibility guidelines. But as a learner, how much more engaged would you be if a designer either leaned into text and wrote differently or provided experiential learning interactions?

Storytelling and the Brain

Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics, conducted research that shows that character-driven stories with emotional content result in better listener understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enables better learner recall of those points weeks later.

Zak also found that stories trigger the empathy-producing hormone oxytocin, which is the chemical behind human connection. Oxytocin affects social interactions and how close individuals feel to people around them.

The body releases other chemicals in listeners' brains when they hear a story:

  • Cortisol is the chemical that tells the brain to pay attention.

  • Dopamine affects memory, learning processes, and information retention. Heightened interest raises dopamine levels, increasing the likelihood of information retention.

  • Endorphins trigger happiness and ward off anxiety and sadness. A listener finding something amusing, for example, can trigger that hormone.

Note that stories do not trigger those hormones inherently. Storytellers must do the work by shaping into the story structure content that is interesting, relevant, and exciting to listeners.

Excerpted from "Power E-Learning With Stories,"

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