How to get everyone to write like Ernest Hemingway

Probably everyone on your team agrees that elearning should be concise and lively. But does everyone agree on what “concise and lively” looks like? Here’s one way to get everyone on the same stylistic page.

Quantify, quantify

When we talk about writing style, we can get bogged down in personal preferences that are hard to communicate. But if we use readability statistics to quantify style, it’s easier to guide writers.

I’m not talking about the nearly useless “ninth-grade reading level” requirement in your corporate style guide. Instead, let’s look at the Reading Ease measurement that’s part of Word’s readability check. It’s a much more practical guide, especially if you compare your score with that of familiar publications.

Reading ease scores of several publications

What does this chart tell us?

Want to be popular? Aim for a high score.

The highest-circulation magazines tend to have the highest readability scores. Coincidence? I think not!

Instructions can be short and lively

I included Better Homes and Gardens and Family Handyman because they cover a lot of the same territory that elearning does: they motivate you to make a change and tell you how to do it. They also manage to get a high readability score while using terms like “oakleaf hydrangea” and “personalized wrench.”

What score should you aim for?

Many plain-English advocates suggest aiming for a score in the 60s, and that’s my preference, too (this blog post gets a 63). I’ll settle for the 50s if necessary.

Unfortunately, a lot of elearning ends up in the 40-something “Suits” category, thanks to corporate drone.

De-drone to improve your score and motivate learners

The reading ease formula considers sentence length and the number of syllables in words, so short sentences with short words score better. But changing your style to get a higher score can also have a profound effect on how the reader feels about you. Here’s an example.

Before

It is expected that all employees will strive to achieve the highest standards of customer service, as service excellence is a competitive differentiator in the market and improving customer service is key to the Firm’s strength as a business. To that end, this course demonstrates the six-step Customer Delightification process which…

After

Our competition does a pretty good job of customer service. But soon they’ll find out that “pretty good” isn’t good enough, because we’re going to do better. This course will give you …

What happened?

We stopped talking around the issue and stated it directly, the way our CEO might say it. And by using “we” and “you,” we made clear that we’re human beings in a conversation, not robots issuing edicts. These changes also improved our reading ease score by a bajillion percent.

Quick ways to increase your score and sound like a human being

  • Say “you” and “we.”
  • Cut 98% of adjectives and adverbs.
  • Write active sentences that make clear who does what.
  • Use strong verbs instead of wimpy “is.”
  • Look for tacked-on clauses (“blah blah, which…” “blah blah, because…”). Turn them into standalone sentences.

How to check your score in Word

The readability check is part of Word’s spelling and grammar check. So, check your spelling. If you don’t see a window with readability statistics, you need to turn on the feature:

  1. Open Options and then Proofing.
  2. Find the section titled “When correcting spelling and grammar…”
  3. Check the box next to “Show readability statistics.”
  4. Check your spelling. You should see the readability results.

Be sure to check a big chunk of text–500 words or more. Short snippets give unreliable results.

Check both on-screen text and narration scripts. All the text associated with your material should be concise, easy to understand, and direct. A lot of narration sounds dull and de-motivating because it’s coming from the “Suits” category.

Why not use grade level?

  1. Grade-level statistics have too much baggage. People worry about offending their audience by writing “below” their educational level. For example, a stakeholder could say, “Our learners all finished college. Therefore, we should write at grade 16. Writing lower than that dumbs down the material.” Using the reading ease score and keeping the conversation focused on magazines read by adults avoids these issues.
  2. Grade levels aren’t global. “Seventh grade” means different things in different cultures, while the reading ease score isn’t tied to the US educational system. You can really localize the process by determining the reading ease scores of local magazines and comparing your materials to them.

For way more about this topic, including research and how-to guides, see Writing for the Web and Patti Shank’s 2017 book, Write and Organize for Deeper Learning.

7 ways to make dialog sound natural

“Upon examining the data,” your scenario character says, “I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the proposal, specifically its requirement that we induce wombats to fly.”

Who talks like that? No one in the real world. However, you might find your scenario characters talking like that in your first drafts. Here’s how to fix it.

Droid turns into a human

1. Make sure you’ve actually written dialog. Show, don’t tell.

Not this: Barbara says she is concerned about the delay in processing TPS reports.

Instead: “It takes too long to process TPS reports,” Barbara says.

Let the readers draw conclusions like they do in the real world.

Not: Peter doesn’t want to talk about what happened at his previous job.

Instead:

“Peter, what happened at your last job?” Louise asks.

“Who wants coffee?” Peter says. “I’m going for a refill.”

2. Start late. You might be tempted to write the small talk that starts a conversation, so it sounds realistic. Instead, fast-forward to the meat for more impact. Imagine how a movie would show it.

Not:

Jason goes to Emma’s office.

“Good morning, Jason,” Emma says. “Thank you for coming in. I know it’s a long trip for you.”

“I’m happy to help,” Jason says. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, the auditors called me yesterday, and…”

Instead:

Jason goes to Emma’s office.

“I need to cancel our account,” Emma says. “The auditors found problems.”

3. Use contractions: “She is our best chainsaw juggler” becomes “She’s our best…” Not allowed to use contractions? Fight back with the tips in this post.

4. Don’t stuff the dialog with story. If they wouldn’t say it in real life, don’t make them say it in your scenario.

Not: “Diane, I’d like to hear your opinion about how to handle cultural differences on the new Zeko project, since you have been with the firm for eight years and have worked on numerous projects with companies in Zekostan.”

Instead: Bob calls Diane, who has eight years’ experience on Zeko projects. “How should we handle cultural differences on the new project?” he asks.

5. Choose informal words. “Wish” becomes “want,” “assist” becomes “help.” Find simple alternatives in The A to Z of Alternative Words (PDF) from the Plain English Campaign.

6. Break sentences into fragments of different types. It varies the rhythm, makes people sound more human, and gives them character.

Not: “If you want to play the banjo, you will need to go outside.”

Instead: “You want to play the banjo? Go outside.”

7. Use “said” and “asked.” Avoid having people “growl,” “smile,” “snarl,” or “laugh” their lines, which gets distracting and over-dramatic.

Often, you don’t even need “said.”

Example:

“How much are you willing to invest?” Jorge asks.

“Ninety bajillion dollars.” Andrea opens her briefcase. “I have it right here.”

Scenario design workshop: A few seats are still available

Want to improve your scenario design skills? There are some seats available in the scenario design workshop that starts on November 8. You’ll apply what you’re learning to a real-life project from your job. We’ll meet in the afternoon in Europe and mornings in the Americas.

Scenario-based training headquarters

I’ve gathered a lot of ideas about scenario design in one spot. You’ll find example scenarios, design tips, research summaries, and more.

I hope to see you at Learning Pool Live

I’m joining Learning Pool Live in London this Thursday, October 20, to give a keynote and short workshop. I hope to see you there!

Makeover: How to write challenging scenario questions

We’ve all seen scenario questions that are too boring or easy. In fact, here’s one:

A member of your team is often an hour late to work on Monday mornings. What should you do?

A. Ask the team member why they’re late.
B. Refer the team member to the Employee Assistance Program for counseling.
C. Dock the team member’s pay for the missed hour of work.

How could we improve this question? Let’s look at some ideas. (We’ll look at a lot more ideas for strong scenarios in the scenario design workshops I’m giving soon in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney.)

1. Focus on a specific, real performance problem

Our scenario question is weak because it isn’t based on an analysis of what’s really going wrong. Instead, it’s based on assumptions about what people are probably doing wrong.

So our first step in the makeover is to look more closely at the actual performance problem.

Girl walking on railroad trackLet’s say that our business goal is this: “Employee retention will improve 10% by 2016 as all managers use the Friendly Face at Work management model.”

We set this goal because employee turnover is high, and during exit interviews, people said managers were too harsh. We then paid a consultant $70,000 to tell us to use his patented Friendly Face at Work model.

In action mapping, every activity we write supports a specific, real-world behavior that people should perform but are messing up somehow.

In this case, the behaviors we want to see are the behaviors in the consultant’s model. The one we’re focusing on now is, “When a team member consistently fails to reach a standard, encourage them to share why they’re struggling.”

Our managers aren’t doing this. Why not?

2. Find out WHY people are messing up

In our analysis, we discover that managers already know they should ask a struggling employee what’s up. The real problem is that they don’t ask because they worry about sounding intrusive.

They’d be more comfortable if we helped them phrase the question appropriately. That’s the behavior they should be practicing: asking the question.

3. Find out in what CONTEXT people are messing up

The first draft of our question is boring because it’s so generic. Nothing in the real world is that simple. So with our subject matter expert (SME), we’ll add some realistic complexity. Here’s one possible rewrite,

Jake has worked on your team for two years. In the last two months, he’s arrived an hour late on most Mondays. He doesn’t seem as cheerful as he used to be, and a couple of times you’ve noticed that his eyes appear bloodshot. You’re pretty sure he’s married and you remember signing a congratulations card for his new baby about seven months ago, but you haven’t heard anything since then.

You ask Jake to come into your office after lunch. When he arrives, his eyes look bloodshot again, and he fidgets with his hands.

How do you start the conversation?

A. “You’ve been a great member of the team for two years, so I’m surprised that you’ve started coming in late. Is something going on?”

B. “I’ve noticed that you’re coming in late on Mondays, and I’d like to help you get back on track. What can we do to help you get here on time?”

C. “I want you to know that no matter what the situation might be, I’m here to help. Could you help me understand why you’ve been coming in late?”

This still isn’t the best question in the world, but it’s at least more subtle and realistic than the first draft. And, importantly, it focuses on what managers really need to practice: how to phrase the difficult question.

Tweaks for context

In addition to changing the focus of the challenge, we made the following tweaks:

  • We gave people names, which in a way also gives them a face as readers pull up a “Jake” from the database of people in their brain. My Jake probably doesn’t look like yours, but he has a face.
  • We provided cues that may or may not be relevant — the bloodshot eyes, the changed mood, the baby that we haven’t heard about lately. No management challenge takes place in a vacuum.
  • We put people’s words in quotation marks, adding voices to make it more real (and, in this case, to model specifically how the question should be asked).

Finally, another cue that we wrote a more challenging question is that it’s not obvious (to me, at least) which answer is correct. We have to understand the consultant’s Friendly Faces at Work model to know how we’re supposed to phrase the question.

If we can write scenario questions without the help of a SME, we’re probably writing questions that are too easy. The SME will help us write a subtle question and help us make clear through feedback which option is correct.

Scenarios require a lot of SME help, so you might want to prepare a steady supply of donuts or chocolate for your expert. In the scenario design workshop, we’ll also look at ways to quickly and efficiently get the expertise out of your SME’s brain and into a scenario.

What do you think? What has helped you write more challenging scenarios? Let us know in the comments.

All photos in this post (c) iStock


Design challenging scenarios that your learners love with my workshops this September and October in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney. The first workshop is on Sept. 19 and spaces are limited, so please check out the details and make your plans!

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Jettison the genies and let learners think

Elearning has genies, superheroes, and wizards. Live training has the all-knowing instructor. I say all of them should stop being so darned helpful. Here’s why.

Let’s say that you’ve dusted off your bike and have been riding it to work, but it’s no longer shifting smoothly and the chain keeps falling off. You tightened a nut that you thought might help, but the chain fell off again.

Now what? Which of the following will make you a smarter biker?

A. You download a troubleshooting guide from the internet. You spend two minutes going through its steps to check cable tension and the condition of the chain, and you discover that a loose Dunlowbrat was the problem. You tighten the Dunlowbrat and you’re ready to roll.

or

B. A hipster genie appears with a poof. “In cases like this,” he says smugly, “you need to tighten this thing here. It’s called a Dunlowbrat. Here’s a screwdriver. Now tighten the Dunlowbrat.”

Hipster genie promising to make you awesomeWhich is more efficient? Solution B, obviously. You didn’t waste two minutes checking other connections or puzzling things out. The hipster saved you time by telling you what to do.

Which will make you a smarter biker? Solution A. When you went through the troubleshooting process, you learned that cable tension and chain condition can also cause problems, which will make future problem-solving go faster and give you a better understanding of how a bike works.

You also might be more likely to remember a solution you discovered on your own rather than the one that someone with “superior knowledge” simply told you, although the trauma of having a hipster genie suddenly appear would certainly be memorable.

What does this have to do with instructional design?

Let’s turn your bike problem into an elearning activity with a clickable bike.

Challenge: Your bike no longer shifts smoothly, and the chain keeps falling off. Click the part of the bike that is probably causing the problem.

You click a likely-looking nut.

Feedback: A hipster genie pops onto the screen. “Nope! That won’t work. In cases like this, you need to tighten this thing.” He points at a screw on the bike. “It’s called a Dunlowbrat. Click the Dunlowbrat to tighten it.”

You obediently click the Dunlowbrat and an animation makes it look like it’s tightening.

Hipster genie: “Awesome! You rule!”

Your dignity and your brain wither simultaneously.

Genie-free rewrite

Let’s jettison the genie from our elearning version and see what happens.

Challenge: Your bike no longer shifts smoothly, and the chain keeps falling off. Click the part of the bike that is probably causing the problem. If you’re not sure, follow this troubleshooting guide.

You ignore the troubleshooting guide and click the wrong nut.

Feedback: The chain falls off again as you’re climbing a hill, and you get grease on your clothes right before your meeting with the directors of HugelyImportant, Inc. Try the steps in this troubleshooting guide.

You open the troubleshooting guide, which has you click on a bike part for each step and concisely explains why you’re checking each part. When you click the first part, you’re told that it feels tight already. The same happens for the second part. When you click the Dunlowbrat, you’re told it feels loose. You choose to tighten it, and you get the following feedback.

Feedback: The bike shifts smoothly and the chain stays in place. You roll into work relaxed and grease-free.

Face-to-face version

Obviously, in face-to-face training this would be a heck of a lot easier. Let’s say we have a bike-maintenance class in a parking lot. The instructor could bring out a bike that has a loose Dunlowbrat and have someone ride it around the parking lot while shifting. Everyone watches as the chain falls off. The rider also reports that shifting was rough.

The instructor says, “What should we do?” and a few members of the class propose tightening the wrong nut. “A lot of people do that,” the instructor says agreeably. “Let’s tighten that nut and see what happens.”

The chain falls off again, the class is puzzled, and the instructor doesn’t say, “It’s a loose Dunlowbrat.” Instead, he says, “There’s a process we use to diagnose this type of problem. Here’s a handout. Let’s go through it together.”

But genies are fun!

If you’re sure that your audience likes genies, superheroes, and wizards, you’ll probably want to keep using them. But I’d suggest that you encourage the genies to act more like the instructor in the face-to-face example above, helping people find the best solution, and don’t let them tell people what to do or how to think.

You might also want to tell your genies to keep their feedback (“Awesome!”) in line with the level of learners’ accomplishment, unless you’re intentionally using over-the-top humor. Our hipster genie could actually be a fun, over-the-top guide, but only if he uses the techniques of the real-life instructor and helps us figure things out for ourselves.

Genies are a symptom of a deeper problem

The main reason we add genies and their superpowered friends is because we’ve let the material be primarily a presentation, and we just want to make the presentation more “fun.” A deeper solution is to overhaul the design so there’s far less presentation and a lot more learning by doing.

What do you think? Do you think genies can use their magical powers to deepen learning, or are they just another way to add bling to boring presentation? Let us know in the comments.

All photos in this post (c) iStock


Typical stock photo woman ponders the futureFrustrated with stock photos? Here’s your chance to vent! Please complete this 7-question survey to tell me everything that’s wrong with the currently available photos of people. I’m considering creating photos for use in elearning and scenarios, and I want to make sure I know what you need. Thanks!

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5 quick ways to pull learners into a course

Typically bad stock photo“Welcome to the course Online Responsibility,” a too-perfect male voice intones while you stare at a stock photo of a man who’s grinning idiotically at a computer.

“Billions of bits of data travel through our firm every day,” the voice drones on while the stock photo changes to science-fictiony swirling lines and numbers. “Since the dawn of the digital age, electronic communication has…”

You lunge for the Next button, but you’re not allowed to click it until the droning man finishes, which he finally does while you’re in another browser tab, watching a video of a cat playing the piano.

I’ve seen a ton of elearning, and the painful majority of it starts this way. What are some alternatives?

1. Use a meaningful course name and skip the explanation.

If the title of the course is “Data Privacy,” then you can trust learners to understand that it concerns keeping data private. A meaningful title frees you from having to ponderously explain what the course is about.

2. Nix the narrator.

In corporate L&D, our learners are adults who can read for themselves, and they do it a heck of a lot faster than a narrator talks. Nothing squashes my interest in a subject more thoroughly than having the material spoon-fed to me by a slow speaker who apparently thinks I’m dense. In my sacrilegious opinion, the best use for a narrator is to talk about a graphic that isn’t already self-explanatory, not to deliver information that could be more concisely and quickly delivered through text. Here’s some research to support this. (And our main goal should be to design experiences, not information.)

3. Immediately show concise, appealing objectives.

Briefly tell the learner what they’ll be able to do as a result of the course, and focus on what they care about. Here’s a sample makeover of some boring objectives.

4. Motivate by showing, not telling.

Normally, your objectives should be motivating enough. If you think your learners need even more motivation, avoid the temptation to present statistics or to otherwise tell them why the topic is important. Show them through a story.

For example, you could (quickly!) show a young couple with a baby being turned down for a mortgage because one of our employees accidentally released their private data, which a bad guy used to get credit cards and destroy their credit history. For more on using stories to motivate, see Made to Stick.

5. Put basic information in activities, not a presentation, and let people prove that they already know it.

If you want to make sure everyone has the same basic knowledge before continuing, design activities that let people either prove they know the basics or discover the basics through feedback.

For example, in my scenario design course, I want everyone to have the same definition of “scenario.” However, I don’t show the definition at the start. Instead, I just say, “Let’s see if you can identify what I think a scenario is.” I then show several examples and non-examples and ask for each one, “Is this a scenario?” In the feedback I explain why the example fits or doesn’t fit my definition of “scenario.”

This starts the material with an activity, rather than a presentation, and I suspect it makes the definition more clear than a text blurb would have. It also lets people who already know the definition skip ahead by skipping the detailed feedback once they’ve confirmed that they made the right choice.

What do you think? What techniques have you seen or used that get learners immediately, actively involved in a course? Let us know in the comments.


London workshop on June 6

Please join me and Norman Lamont in London on June 6 for the fun, hands-on workshop “Training design for business results.” It’s action mapping on steroids. You’ll get in-depth practice applying activity-centered design to one of your projects. Learn more about the workshop.

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4 ideas you should steal from interactive fiction

Here are a few fun stories from the wild world of interactive fiction. Try them out to see cool techniques you can steal for your training scenarios.

1. Put the backstory in links.

The most realistic scenarios are rich in detail, but lots of detail can mean lots of text on the screen. One way to lighten the load is to put the backstory in optional links.

In Remembered, by Chris Klimas, you explore links to learn more about the history of the characters. The more backstory you read, the richer your experience.

This technique could be used to add depth to the typical management scenario. For example, here’s a scene from a (fake) scenario.

Earlier today, Noah emailed you to ask for a 10-minute meeting. Now he’s arrived for the meeting and looks flustered.

“It’s Brian,” he says. “He’s always been a procrastinator, but now it’s affecting my ability to meet my deadlines. He was supposed to give me Phase 1 three days ago and and when I ask about it, he only says, ‘I just need another day.’”

What do you do?

When you click “Noah,” you see this:

Noah transferred to your department 3 months ago, citing personality differences in his previous department. He’s reliable and does solid work.

He can look impatient in meetings, glancing often at his watch, and when someone offers a new idea, he’s likely to point out problems with it. He seems committed to meeting the unit’s goals and has proposed changes that improved efficiency. He’s the team lead for the project.

The link about Brian, a quiet man, points out that he recently asked to be moved away from a noisy coworker and has been looking tired.

This isn’t Dostoevsky, but the bits of backstory add more dimension to what could have been a generic management scenario with shallow, thought-free options. You get realistic details that make the decision more nuanced, but without feeling like you’re slogging through a novel.

2. Build the entire story on the screen.

Putting the backstory in links lightens the load, but it can make the story feel fragmented. Another approach is to build the entire narrative on one screen.

Cover of a playIn The Play by Deirdra Kiai, you need to manage the egos and poor preparation of actors in a play. The result of each decision is added to the narrative on the screen rather than bringing you to another “slide.”

Bonus: As you play, keep an eye on the list of cast members on the right. It doubles as a record of their emotional states and your ability to manage them.

Having the final story appear all on one screen makes it far easier for the player to review it. This approach could be useful for longer scenarios about negotiation, difficult conversations, leadership, and other complex issues.

See the attribution box on the left of the story for a link to the tool used to create it.

3. Reconsider your belief that text is bad.

Did you suffer from the lack of images in the above two stories? Probably not.

Many scenarios that we create in training-land don’t really require visuals. Instead of spending an hour searching for non-awful stock photos of people talking on the phone, we could spend that hour making the story stronger.

4. Don’t leave the homestead.

The fake-translated-Russian story Small Child in Woods has an important lesson for us all.

A note about tools
“Remembered” and “Small Child in Woods” were created with Twine, a free tool that I explored in this post. You might also want to check out BranchTrack, a slick tool that makes it easy to build branching scenarios and doesn’t suffer the technical glitches that can plague Twine on corporate PCs.


Scenario design online course open for registration

Become a scenario design master with “Scenario design: In-depth and hands-on,” my new online course. Registration is open for sessions that start in January.

Australia workshops!

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design master class for training managers at the Learning@Work conference
  • Nov. 22, Melbourne: Breakfast session on training ROI at ConVerge
  • Nov. 26, Melbourne: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet
  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet

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3 powerful ideas you should steal from marketing

Marketers and trainers have the same goals: They want people to do something. But they achieve those goals in vastly different ways, and I think marketers often do it better. Let’s look at some techniques we can steal from a successful marketing video.

This post includes two embeds that probably won’t appear if you’re reading it through email or an RSS reader. I recommend you view this post in the blog.

Here’s our role model, the immensely popular commercial for the Dollar Shave Club. Not allowed to watch YouTube? Watch the same video here on Vimeo.

Put on your headphones — inappropriate language is bleeped out but could still offend.

The video was so effective that the influx of traffic knocked the Dollar Shave Club site offline. The commercial has been featured in several publications as an example of highly effective, low-budget marketing.

Now for the “training” version

What does the Dollar Shave Club guy want us to do? He wants us to go to his site and sign up for his service. Let’s look at how an instructional designer might try to inspire the same action.

Here’s the training version, without audio. Many elearning developers would have a narrator read the screen to you, but I couldn’t make myself do it.

 
What does the Dollar Shave Club guy do differently?

Here are just a few differences.

1. “I think you’re smart.”

The Dollar Shave Club guy uses a fast pace, he mocks other commercials because he knows we see them as dumb, and he lets us draw conclusions rather than telling us everything explicitly. He says, “I think you’re smart,” and that makes us like him.

The training version plods and spoon-feeds us predigested information. It doesn’t let us draw any conclusions on our own. It says, “I think you’re dumb, so dumb that I have to lead you by the nose through the most basic of information.” Who wants to be told they’re dumb?

2. “I’m an actual human being with a personality.”

The Dollar Shave Club guy really is the Dollar Shave Club guy. He’s talking about his business. He’s also an underdog in the world of shaving products, and we tend to root for underdogs.

Who’s the person behind the training version? There’s no one there. It’s the tiresome Omniscient One, the faceless, personality-free voice of the nobody who knows everything. It’s no underdog, it’s Big Brother.

Also, in the video we meet Alejandra, a person who’s real and therefore memorable. In the training version, she’s replaced by a forgettable abstraction, an “order fulfillment position.”

3. Surprise!

The Dollar Shave Club commercial is one huge surprise filled with many smaller surprises. Big surprise: “This can’t be a real ad! Wait, it is!” Smaller surprises: Everything else.

The training version, like most training materials, has zero surprises. It’s a dry, predictable conveyor belt of dry, predictable information.

Objections

You or your stakeholders might already be saying the following.

“We don’t have that kind of budget!” It’s not the budget, it’s the ideas. I’m not saying, “Produce a funny video commercial.” I’m saying, “Treat your audience like they’re smart,” “Use a real person with a personality,” and “Don’t be so predictable.”

“But we’re not selling anything. The comparison is unfair.” Marketers want to inspire a specific action. It can be “Buy the razor,” but it can also be “Sign up for our email list” or “Test drive our car.” Just like marketers, we want people to do something. We want them to encrypt emails, use the 5-step Difficult Conversations model, stop standing on chairs to reach high shelves… Marketing has tested a bajillion ways to get people to act, and we should steal the good ones.

“Obscenities are a low form of humor and we could never use them.” I’m not suggesting you use any obscenities. I’m suggesting you look at the larger picture, such as the three ideas listed above that separate lively marketing from conventional training.

What do you think? What ideas can we steal from marketing? Do you know of any elearning that applies any of these principles? Let us know in the comments!

If you thought the commercial was funny and would like to use humor in your materials, you might like my post How humor helps.

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How humor helps + Powtoon review

I recently created a funny (I hope!) cartoon to motivate people to learn more, and it motivated me to learn more about how humor can improve learning.

If you don’t see the cartoon below, you can watch it here.

(If you’re a blog subscriber and are reading this in your email or RSS reader, you should see a link to the ebook at the bottom of this post.)

The cartoon is a trailer more than a “teaching” tool, since it just touches on the main points. Its design comes straight from marketing: Remind them of the pain they’re feeling, tell them they can get the cure, and ask them to act. The same pattern would probably work in any training trailer to boost enrollments.

In a recent LinkedIn discussion about the cartoon, Megan Torrance reported that in one of her projects, elearning modules with a funny cartoon trailer had twice as many signups as modules without the trailer.

The same type of cartoon could be used when a client wants “awareness” but can’t identify any behaviors that actually require that awareness. When a “course” must be created regardless of its usefulness, a cartoon would at least be more fun than an information dump.

What research says about humor

I poked around Google Scholar and found studies that seem to agree that (relevant!) humor in teaching can increase retention, motivation, and comprehension.

The use of positive humor can also increase the likeability of the instructor. This could be especially helpful in corporate elearning, where the “presenter” is often faceless and personality-free.

The article “How Laughing Leads to Learning” offers a readable summary of some research and makes several points that are relevant to corporate training. Thanks, Matthias Herrmann, for pointing it out. My main takeaways from the article:

  • Humor appears to reduce anxiety by decreasing the effects of stress hormones.
  • It appears to improve motivation and recall.
  • It should be appropriate to the audience and sprinkled here and there rather than applied with a firehose.

I’d add that humor is surprising, and surprises are memorable. As Julie Dirksen explains in her (funny!) book Design for How People Learn, “If something is exactly the way we thought it would be, there’s really no reason to allocate mental resources to reinforcing that thought or idea.”

Finally, humor often uses analogy, exaggeration, emotion, vivid imagery, and unique sounds, all of which probably make the content more memorable.

Design decisions for the cartoon

Narration: I could have uploaded narration to the tool I used, but I thought, why? What would it add? So I didn’t add it. Plus, I’m not a fan of narration, as I’ve probably made clear in this blog (like in this post).

Pacing: The quick pacing is more marketing style than training style. Even when it’s just offering the high points, training tends to be a lot slower because … why? I actually wish that elearning developers would speed up, which is another reason for my burning hatred dislike of narration. It’s ironic that we easily digest quick messages from marketing but then design elearning that plods.

Powtoon review

I made the cartoon with Powtoon, a web app. You edit and save your work online and export the files as MP4s. Although you can upload audio and visuals, all the content of my cartoon is provided by Powtoon.

Pros:

  • It’s intuitive — the timeline is simple; it’s easy to change entrances and exits.
  • The stock characters and animations inspire you to use humor.
  • There’s a decent supply of images within each “style” of images.
  • It’s easy to preview and export your cartoon.
  • Non-artists like me can easily create cartoons.

Cons:

  • You can’t change music files in the middle of a cartoon or fade the audio. I had to make two cartoons and join them in iMovie, where I also edited the audio.
  • The shortest interval on the timeline is one second.
  • The range of character styles is limited but will likely grow.
  • Other users report that it’s hard to sync narration. If I wanted to add narration to the cartoon (when pigs fly), I’d record it separately while watching the cartoon and then connect the cartoon and audio in a video editor.
  • I noticed some visual artifacts when editing, and when I exported a cartoon, it often had a random audio glitch that re-exporting usually fixed.

More thoughts on humor

I think we have a bajillion opportunities to make things lighter and more memorable without offending someone somewhere, but all I hear when I mention humor is fear. I’ve got some tips for incorporating humor in this early blog post (along with the dramatic front page of the tabloid Elearning Informer).

What do you think? Is this kind of cartoon too risky? Why don’t we use humor more often?

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