One of the big challenges in writing any kind of learning material is taking ‘official’, corporate-sounding language and turning it into language that people actually want to read that will help them to learn.
Maybe you are given a policy document, or a bunch of PowerPoint slides put together by the Subject Matter Expert, and you have to turn them into a meaningful learning experience – not always an easy task, especially if writing isn’t your natural forte!
So here are 3 ways you can do it more easily, consistently, and without too much effort.
1. Use the first and second person, instead of the third person.
What does that actually mean? Who are all these people? Quite simply, the first person means I and we, the second person means you, and the third person means he, she, it and they. Here’s an example.
“It is expected that employees will arrive on time for work and stay until the agreed finish time, unless they arrange otherwise with their manager.”
“We expect that you will arrive on time for work and stay until the agreed finish time, unless you arrange otherwise with your manager.”
Do you see that the second example is just a bit more personal? You can still get the same message across, and the tone can still be as directional as you need it to be, but it just becomes a bit more relatable. It’s one person (or group) talking to another person, not an organisation talking to a worker bee.
Here’s another example, a real one I just changed in a document I’m reworking for a client.
“It is mandatory that team members keep a copy of their current police check reference number details, their insurance number and their current registration number on their persons at all times when providing services at any customer site.”
“You must keep a copy of your current police check reference number details, your insurance number and your current registration number on you at all times when at a customer site.”
2. Use the active voice more and the passive voice less frequently.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of passive. It’s a very useful grammatical device and it has its place. But when you’re trying to make your writing more personal and human, passive can create a barrier because it deliberately de-emphasises the person (or thing) who did the action. Passive either moves that person to the end of the sentence, or leaves them out altogether.
Passive: “A decision has been made by the committee.” “A decision has been made.”
Active: “The committee has made a decision.” “We have made a decision.”
You can see that, in the passive example, the committee is either at the end of the sentence, or missing from the sentence altogether.
In the active example, the committee is upfront, or, even better, represented by the word ‘we’.
In the first example I gave at the beginning of this article, “It is expected that….” you can see another instance where the person doing the expecting has been removed from the sentence.
When I rewrote it, I put the person back in, and made it not just he/she/they, but we. “We expect that….”
Both options are grammatically correct, but the active option is just a bit more like natural speech.
Note: I don’t hate the passive! I love it. But you just have to know when to use it. I will talk more about this in another post.
3. Create a person – for your case study or to be your narrator.
Case studies are a great device in eLearning, and they can be equally useful in other kinds of instructional design.
The case studies I like to read best have a specific person in them. Here’s what I mean.
Instead of the case study saying, “This happened, then this happened, so what should happen next?” it might say, “Kylie was sitting at her desk when this happened. She responded in x way, then this happened. What should Kylie do next?”
It is so basic as to be almost ridiculous – you just pick someone’s name and add it in.
But it instantly creates an image of a person in your mind, someone you can visualise and go on a little journey with, even for just a few moments. (You can also be creative with the names you choose in order to represent a diverse workforce.)
Of course, you can extend this idea to last for the whole duration of an eLearning module. Because following a person (or people) through a story is a great narrative device that makes a learning journey more enjoyable.
It also takes the heat off the learner since with this setting, they will merely go along with the characters as they experience things and make mistakes.
For a really good example of this, and if you’ve got a bit of time, check out the Type 1 Diabetes Network’s free online learning module.
One other device I’m enjoying using at the moment is the Narrator.
I’m helping a client to improve an induction handbook, and, as with many of these kinds of documents, the material is fairly dry.
The client wanted the handbook to represent a bit more of the culture of the organisation – friendly and welcoming – so I created a narrator whose picture and commentary appear at various points throughout the text.
Her name is Vivienne. She is a representative of the average employee, and she ‘talks’ to the reader like an ordinary person, providing comments on the text in a very conversational way.
Using a narrator is also a great way to shift the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ feeling that business documents can have, because the narrator brings the reader in to become one of the ‘us’.
So why am I suggesting all these things?
- To make your writing sound more like natural speech.
- To help you create a slightly less formal and less intimidating tone (a better learning environment).
- And to make the learning experience more enjoyable and effective by helping the learner relate to the content on a personal level.
It’ll be more enjoyable for you, too.
Because YOU are not a robot.
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About the Author
Natasha Reddrop is a learning & development professional with fifteen years’ experience. She runs a business writing consultancy (Grammar Debugged) which offers training and support to help people improve their writing skills. She also specialises in instructional design for both eLearning and other learning formats. Find out more about Natasha on LinkedIn…