Content Writer’s Guide: Simple Tips to Hook, Engage and Teach Trainees

By Mukta Raut

A good eLearning course makes a complex concept easier to understand and to act on.

But eLearning courses don’t always turn out that way. Despite good intentions and earnest efforts, sometimes something seems to be missing. As any instructional designer knows, the course is always more than the sum of its parts. When the parts lack finesse, the course doesn’t work.

Examples include instances where visualization doesn’t fit the content or screens with too much text. Maybe the language feels stilted or the layouts look sloppy when you’re three screens into the course.

This article is a kind of toolbox, or even a handbook, that outlines some basic devices that can tackle frequently encountered challenges of content design. We’ll take care of these one challenge at a time.

Too Much Content On the Screen…And All of It Is Important

We generally chunk and group related content and present it as a cohesive unit. However, translating this on a display may seem too verbose. The dilemma then is what can you remove from the display when all of it is important? (Assuming you have asked yourself some hard questions and realized that all of it actually is important.)

Content Lab:

Here’s an example of what we could do to overcome this challenge. The following content relates to how to arrange store shelves to attract consumers:

Visual guidelines provide a strong, clear graphic message to the customer. To optimize the planogram (a diagram or model that indicates the placement of retail products on shelves in order to maximize sales) of an outlet, brands need to be placed left to right in order of premiumness. Note that you will place standard brands on the left and premium brands on the right.

In a linear arrangement, brands must be placed from bottom to top in order of premiumness. Sometimes though, the shelf will not have enough space to stock complete brand families. In this case, ensure that brands of the same families are on adjacent shelves close to each other. Also important are shelf branding and its sync with product placement. The top shelf of branded shelves must display the same brand as shown in the display on top of the rack. The higher the shelf share, the closer the outlet is to becoming a perfect outlet.

To get a higher shelf share, it is important to focus on hotspots. A hotspot is an area, location, or point within an outlet which attracts disproportionate consumer eyeballs. Leverage hotspots for communication, branding, and other such activities. Some other hotspots are the “visibility diamond” and the counter. Additionally, there are different kinds of guidelines that pertain to various types of signage such as those for the main facade, any other outside branding, in-shop branding, and non-permanent point-of-sale material or POSMs.

Options:

Break the content up into headings: Overall, we can see that these visual guidelines can be categorized into the following areas: Planograming, shelf-branding, and signage. A straightforward way to redesign the screen would be to use headings: Visual guidelines provide a strong, clear visual message to the customer.

Planograming. To optimize the planograming of an outlet, brands need to be placed left to right in order of premiumness. In a linear arrangement, brands must be placed from bottom to top in order of premiumness. Sometimes though, the shelf will not have enough space to stock complete brand families.

Shelf share and sync with product placement. The higher the shelf share, the closer the outlet is to becoming a perfect outlet. To get a higher shelf share, it is important to focus on hotspots. A hotspot is an area, location, or point within an outlet that attracts disproportionate consumer eyeballs. Leverage hotspots for communication, branding, and such activities. Some other hotspots are the visibility diamond and the counter.

Signage. Different guidelines apply to various signages such as the main facade, any other outside branding, in-shop branding, and non-permanent point-of-sale material or POSMs.

  • Use bullets for large chunks of paragraphs: Shelf-branding guidelines
    • The top shelf of branded shelves must display the same brand as shown in the display on top of the rack.
    • Leverage hotspots such as the visibility diamond and the counter for communication, branding, and other such activities.
    • Higher visibility share of the focus brand has a bigger impact on the perception of the brand by the customer.
  • Make the content scannable: When information is easy for learners to read through (scan), they are more likely to get to the core message at a glance. When we make information scannable (easily readable), it reflects the most intuitive way we consume content in daily lives.
    A good way to do that is to make the key terms bold: The top shelf of branded shelves must display the same brand as shown in the display on top of the rack.

Too Much Content, Not Enough Relevance

When we have to abstract a screen’s worth of content from a 40-page document, what we select or leave out makes a lot of difference in earning a learner’s indifference or interest. A good way to establish relevance is to convert clichés into something meaningful.

Content Lab:

You are working with company-related information that you must design in a way that provides an overview of the business to customers. Too many slides talk about how, “Company A has effective technological solutions that have been designed on breakthrough technology.” This sentence means little. The solutions were effective according to whom? What is the breakthrough technology?

To transform this company information into something a learner actually cares about, we could add in details. For example, “Company A has technological solutions that have impacted the ROI of 50 companies and more than 6,000 users.”

Technical Content, And It All Reads Dry

At times we script courses on subjects we don’t know much about. In such cases there is a tendency to detail out every nut and bolt in fear that we might leave out something. Alternatively, we may omit something fundamental. If the technical content is for technical experts, the challenge can be even more complex. In a sense, you are preaching to the converted.

For example, an automobile designer doesn’t need to be sold on the importance of knowing the definitions of booster nomenclature or other components of a brake system. You, however, are the novice who believes that every word written in the SME manual is imperative. Of course, it’s the rare SME who will disagree with that.

However, the risk of alienating the learners is high when you start teaching basics they already know.

Content Lab:

Here, consider using a pre-test to tease out what learners actually know about the subject. Or even check whether learners can apply their existing knowledge to a new domain. For example, can engineers apply their knowledge of automobile systems to a project management crisis? Or can learners with prior knowledge of personal finance apply their knowledge to corporate taxation?

Ineffective Images

For a picture to be worth a thousand words, visualize one core idea and not the thousand. Ineffective screens have ineffective images—some that are direct and others that are metaphors; some that directly relate to the content and others that make oblique references to the content. The way we get such visual chaos is usually because we want every word on the screen to have a pictorial depiction.

Content Lab:

Here are some things that can pare down the busy-ness of a screen:

  • Script the details such that you reduce the number of elements. Visualize no more than three items and visualize those strongly.
  • Instead of many disparate elements, converge the elements into a composite infographic. This works because it is easier to get our heads wrapped around one big idea than many smaller ones.
    Let’s say you would like to depict the following information: “A limited way to approach our existence is to regard the human species as more important than the amoeba, the fauna, the animals, or the starfish in the sea. Instead, human beings are another dot that stays connected to the other forms of life.”
    One way to do this is to create two composite images that convey the central theme of this message. For the first, we could use a pyramid with an icon of the human being right at the top and different species forming each layer below. For the other, we could show an image where all forms of life are arranged in a circle, and the human being is just one more dot in the circle, connected. A pyramid indicates hierarchy. A circle indicates connection. It’s never the image—it’s always the idea.
  • Refrain from segregating content into boxes. Consider alternative methods such as proximity and clustering, typography, and content to categorize content. This cleans up the space.

But what if the screen looks too empty?

  • Try a front-and-center layout and integrate the text and image. This doesn’t need to apply only to diagrams or process or organizational charts.
  • Also, it’s important to remember that a minimalist screen is better for the course than one that is filled with unnecessary visual clutter.

What if the information is just legal or accounting guidelines?

Consider using meaningful icons along with labels. For example, a course on finance usually has a lot of content that pertains to documentation regarding operation costs and revenues. Instead of simply putting in a number of moneybag or currency icons and folders, you can differentiate them. The icons can be yellow for costs and green for revenues.

The Scenario Scene

Scenarios allow the learners to try on a concept for size. You should design them to get learners to explore a world, make a few mistakes, and get a sense of what the repercussions are of getting it wrong.

If we have to script a scenario about teaching negotiation skills through a character, Marlene, who has to get the right price from the shipping vendor for her shipment, there need to be enough details for learners to care about Marlene and her problem.

Content Lab:

  • For scenarios to work, the level of detail is important. There should be enough detail so that learners can relate to the world in which the scenario is based. However, if a scenario has too many details, the scenario’s objective is likely to get lost.
    We definitely want to know Marlene’s designation in the company, a bit about the vendor company, the products for which Marlene is scouting around for shippers, and some sense of the business reasons to understand exactly why the shipment cost is important for the product. However, we do not really need to know the fiscal details of either company or the number of their employees.
  • Use realistic dialogues and visual cues. Pay attention to what characters on screen are wearing, the weather in which they operate, and the words and jargon they use.

Most importantly, don’t lose track. The scenario was set up for a reason. Marlene was supposed to negotiate her way to a more competitive price without losing the vendor’s services or compromising her business’s interest. Any incident that helps Marlene on this track needs to stay. Anything that does not help, you need to leave out.

Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine

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