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The professional scribbler - how to make your words work harder

written by Rebecca Trigg

There’s a famous quote - “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”. According to the all-knowing Google, this was first said by a Frenchman in 1657 - but it’s just as relevant today.

We’ve seen a big change in e-learning over recent years – a move from traditional, layered, PowerPoint-like content to responsive e-learning. Responsive content re-sizes depending on whether you’re viewing it on a desktop, tablet or smartphone. With it comes a necessary change of learning design and authoring style. We’ve had to find new ways of presenting information, with less reliance on written text and more focus on visual content. Complex data is often presented visually with infographics and we’ve truly embraced video as a learning channel.

That doesn’t mean we can discount words completely – after all, they do an excellent job of communicating! But we do need to get wiser about how we use them. Smaller screens like phones and tablets mean there’s simply less space for text.

This isn’t a bad thing – as an audience, we’re used to information being conveyed quickly and efficiently. We don’t have time to read pages of guidance. If you want to change part of an appliance, you’re more likely to watch a YouTube video of someone else doing it, rather than reading an instruction manual.

And the success of Twitter shows us that we only need 140 characters to get our message across. Society is getting better at cutting to the chase – and learners expect the same from online training courses.

So how do you make sure the words you choose are pulling their weight? There’s no room for slackers any more – if you’re on the e-learning screen, you’ve got a job to do.

Here are five tips for making your words work harder

1. Work those titles

Page titles, headers, section titles - these all take up valuable screen space. So make them work for you – use them for key messages. Avoid dull headings or page titles like ‘Introduction’, or ‘Summary’. Grab attention by turning titles into bold, impactful statements – “Transparent cultures perform better” or “We always act with integrity”.

2. Write tight

There’s plenty of specific advice about this online, but try and tighten up your writing. Use the active voice (‘Experts follow a process’ instead of ‘A process is followed by experts’). Get rid of unnecessary words (especially ones that don’t change the meaning – like ‘quite’, ‘really’, ‘very’, or ‘just’). Write short sentences. Avoid overly complex words when simple ones will do (‘after’ not ‘subsequent to’). Try not to have more than a hundred words on each screen – tell learners the important stuff, then signpost any further information.

3. Simplify policies

Work with colleagues to reduce complex policies down to a phrase that captures what it’s trying to do. Netflix’s travel and expenses policy famously only has five words – ‘Act in Netflix’s best interests’. Make it memorable and meaningful. It could be ‘Travel like it’s your own money’ or ‘Act like an owner’. Find a way to get your main message across and emphasise that.

4. Use carefully selected images

A picture really is worth a thousand words. Take some time to find the right one to amplify your message. Stock images are like garnish – don’t let them waste valuable screen space. Photo shoots are great value for money; if you plan well, one shoot will give you tailor-made content for many courses.

5. Use audio or video if you've got a lot to explain

If your audience are likely to be viewing content on smartphones or tablets, consider using video, animation or audio to get your message across. Detailed, written case studies can be hard to read – instead, how about interviewing someone who was involved? Or perhaps you’re working on a topic that’s dull or tired? If so, animation can be a great way of bringing salient points to life. If your budget is limited, you could use a selection of stills in a timed slideshow along with a voiceover telling the story.

More reading: Risky, not reckless – pushing the boundaries of compliance training at Channel 4

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