In the previous post, How to Start Creating Conversation-Driven eLearning, I described how I use conversations between two characters to deliver eLearning content. In this post, I’ll explain how to write and structure the conversation. My next post will discuss options for multimedia with conversation-driven elearning.
In the introduction of the story, show how the learner is facing a challenge. That problem is one that can be addressed through your training. Maybe your character has been dealing with an angry customer, students that are disengaged in class, or a project that is behind schedule. Your character needs new skills: how to respond to customer objections, how to motivate students, or how to get a slipping project back on track. This character is facing a moment of need. If your audience faces a similar challenge, they can immediately see that this training is relevant because they want to solve this problem too. Your character seeks help from a mentor.
In my conversation-driven coaching and mentoring course, the main character, Michael, is a newly promoted manager. He struggles to coach one of his employees on how to handle a difficult client. You can see the moment of need, and hopefully learners can identify with the struggle. (Email readers, if no video appears below, try watching it on YouTube.)
If you want to see the rest of this course, you can purchase it from Cine Learning Productions, who graciously granted permission for me to use this video.
Don’t Make the Learner Dumb
One temptation with this style is making the learning character an empty vessel with no prior experience or knowledge. The mentor explains something, and the learner simply nods along, basking in the superior knowledge. If you do that, you might as well write it with a single traditional narrator. Instead, treat your learning character (and your learners) as adults with prior knowledge and experience. Let your character figure some things out and make intelligent guesses.
Just like a good teacher or trainer, the mentor character can ask questions of the learner character to draw out information. The answers can be wrong sometimes, just like in real life, but they should be reasonable guesses that your audience might make. Asking and answering questions also helps with the next point.
Don’t Talk Too Long
Don’t let your mentor lecture for multiple paragraphs at a time. Neither person should have a monologue. Listen to conversations where someone is explaining something. The person learning interjects regularly with questions or affirmations of understanding. Add dialogue to show your learner is actively listening to the mentor. Have the learner reflect back what they heard from the mentor and connect it to something they already know or share an example.
Skepticism is Good
Does your audience automatically buy into everything you’re training on the first try? Maybe, but often they are skeptical or resist. Let your learner character be a little skeptical too. The character can voice some of the objections your learners might have, allowing the mentor to address those objections. Over the course of the training, your learner character will become less skeptical. You may be able to get skeptical audience members to feel less resistant as they see the change in the character.
Here’s an example from a conversation between two doctors discussing the treatment of addiction.
Tom: How many of our patients do you think have problems with alcohol or drugs? It can’t be that large of a number.
Deborah: I’ve seen estimates that the lifetime prevalence of alcohol use disorders is about 30 percent of the total population.
Tom: Thirty percent?!? That can’t be right.
Deborah: It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? I couldn’t believe it either. That includes both abuse and dependence though.
Tom: I never would have guessed it was so high.
[A little later in the conversation, after a few more statistics on the impact of addition]
Tom: Wow, I didn’t realize what a significant issue this is. I must treat patients all the time who are dealing with addiction without even knowing it.
Deborah: That’s probably true.
Tom: But is this really something we should be dealing with as primary care physicians? Aren’t counselors and specialists really better equipped to handle these issues?
Deborah: We should refer patients to specialists when they need extra help. We need to address it here first though. We’re still the people our patients see the most. It’s even more important that we do so now with the Affordable Care Act.
Tom: Why does that matter?
What Else Do You Need?
I’ve heard from several readers already that this technique is one they can apply to their projects. If you’re thinking about trying this strategy, what else do you need to get started? Ask your questions or tell me what else you want to know in the comments.
When I create scenarios for learning, I keep these four elements in mind: characters, context, challenge, and consequences.
The main character of your scenario who drives the action should generally be someone similar to your learners. Even if the main character isn’t named and the scenario is in second person (What do you do next?), the role of that character should be familiar to your learners. Give your main character a goal that aligns to the learning objectives and that your learners share.
The other people your main character interacts with should be typical and mostly realistic, with perhaps a little exaggeration. If you’re doing customer service training, think about the different types of customers employees interact with. If you’re creating manager training, the other characters might be employees and coworkers.
The context is the background for the situation. This is often implied by the training, especially if the scenario is part of a larger course. The context isn’t just shared with words. When you add a photo background for a scenario, you show learners the context rather than telling them. Your learners’ work environment should match this context. It’s easier to transfer learning to a similar situation than one that’s radically different.
Your characters face challenges in the scenario. Those are the points where learners have to make a decision or take an action. The challenges are where the learning happens. Think about the frequent obstacles: faulty technology, impatient customers, or a limited budget. Common mistakes are good challenges to include. If sales associates often forget to provide a recommendation at a specific point in the sales process, include that point in the scenario. Give learners a choice to make a recommendation or not. You might also include challenges that happen less often but are critical to address correctly. Sales associates won’t often have to deal with a customer so angry that they threaten violence, but it’s important to know how to handle that volatile situation.
Especially in branching scenarios, the feedback should be part of the scenario rather than something you just tell them. A customer gets angry, a patient refuses to follow your recommendations, the technology continues to malfunction, or you run out of budget two months before your project is finished. Show learners the consequences of their mistakes rather than just telling them. You might also provide coaching or instructional feedback, especially for novice learners, but don’t neglect the consequences of their actions.
While this isn’t a complete list of everything you need for scenarios, these are elements I see people omit or downplay. Which of these four elements do you find most challenging to incorporate into your scenarios?
Interested in reading more? Check out all my posts on storytelling and scenarios.
We all stand on the shoulders of giants who have shared their ideas before us. My list of the 4Cs overlaps with concepts in Michael Allen’s CCAF (Context, Challenge, Activity, Feedback) model. I do prefer Consequences to Feedback, as designers too often assume feedback is only verbal (although Allen explains otherwise in his great books). While I didn’t have Tom Kuhlmann’s 2009 post in mind when I wrote this, I came across it again recently. I’m sure I did read this many years ago when it was first written, and I suspect his “Challenge-Choice-Consequence” model was somewhere in my subconscious as well.
This is post number 1000 on my blog! Thanks for reading!
When you use voice over for elearning, do you want it to sound natural and flowing, or do you want it to sound stiff and didactic? A great voice over person can make a good script more engaging, and a great script sound fantastic. However, if the script itself is completely stiff and unnatural, there’s only so much a voice over person can do.
One common problem in writing for voice over is overly complex sentences. Extremely long sentences, especially without pauses for breath, are hard to read aloud. Even sentences that are appropriate and effective for reading online may feel clunky in narration. Content from SMEs often includes sentences which are too long and complex for voice over. You may need to break up or rewrite sentences to make them flow better.
Rewriting Complicated Sentences
For example, take this sentence on reasonable accommodations for disabilities. Try to read it aloud yourself.
Original: “The employer’s obligation under title I is to provide access for an individual applicant to participate in the job application process, and for an individual employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of his/her job, including access to a building, to the work site, to needed equipment, and to all facilities used by employees.”
That wasn’t written for voice over, but it’s not that far off from content I’ve seen in voice over scripts in the past. This sentence is 57 words long. That makes it long enough to be challenging to read aloud. It’s also so long and complicated that it’s hard to understand as a listener.
The first step I’d take to rewrite this is breaking it up into two sentences after “his/her job.”
Rewrite step 1: The employer’s obligation under title I is to provide access for an individual applicant to participate in the job application process, and for an individual employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of his/her job. This includes access to a building, to the work site, to needed equipment, and to all facilities used by employees.
The first sentence is still 38 words, but just breaking it up is an improvement. To flow better, I’d rewrite and restructure it further. This is 51 words total, so a little shorter than the original.
Rewrite step 2: Employers are obligated under title I to provide access for individuals to participate in the job application process and for employees with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their jobs. This includes access to a building, to the work site, to needed equipment, and to all facilities used by employees.
Of course, this could even be rewritten further to be more conversational. Although this is 53 words total, it’s now four sentences instead of one.
Rewrite step 3: What are your obligations as an employer under title I? First, provide access for everyone to participate in your job application process. Second, support employees with disabilities so they can perform the essential functions of their jobs. This includes access to buildings, work sites, needed equipment, and to all facilities used by employees.
Not Just Simple Sentences
However, you can take it too far. In a recent discussion on LinkedIn, someone argued that scripts should be rewritten to “short, simple sentences.” You might think that simpler is always better. Too many simple, short sentences can sound choppy and unnatural though.
I can use simple sentences. I use a noun, verb, and object. I do not use dependent clauses. I sound like a robot. This is boring and repetitive.
When I say “simple sentences,” I use that phrase here with linguistic precision. A simple sentence has a single clause; that means no compound or complex sentences. If you use only simple sentences, then you can never use an “if-then” statement. You can’t add more variety, and you can’t sound natural without compound sentences. Being concise doesn’t have to restrict your grammar. A 60-word sentence (especially one without any place to breathe) doesn’t belong in a voice over script, but coordinating conjunctions certainly do.
Variety in Sentence Structure and Length
When we talk, we naturally use a variety of sentence structures and lengths. If you want your scripts to sound conversational, use a combination of short and reasonably long sentences. Watch out for sentences that are too long and convoluted, but don’t be afraid to use compound and complex sentences that flow well.
Interested in learning more about voice over scripts?
- Voice Over Scripts: Writing Style Tips
- Formatting Voice Over Scripts
- Voice Over Script Pitfalls
- Voice Over Script Review Checklist
Once upon a time, there was an instructional designer who created a branching scenario for training. Her client was excited about the approach, her SME was always available and helpful, and her technology worked perfectly the first time, every time. The learners loved it, and the instructional designer won an award. Everyone lived happily ever after. The End.
Sounds like a great fantasy, right? But how engaged were you with that story? Was it realistic? Could you identify with the character and her situation? Do you care what happens to her?
Honestly, that story makes me want to yawn. It’s just boring.
Stories and scenarios for learning are more engaging when they show the characters facing challenges. Think about any great movie or novel. The main character always faces obstacles. Harry Potter faces Voldemort , as well as the Dursleys, school, and other challenges. How he overcomes those challenges is what makes those stories compelling.
When we use stories for learning, the challenges should mimic the kinds of issues learners will face in their real workplace. You don’t need an evil villain in your story, but you do need obstacles to overcome. Take the example of creating a branching scenario. You might hit a number of obstacles as an ID.
- A client or manager who wants a traditional linear course rather than a branching scenario.
- A SME who insists on a content-heavy course, isn’t available, or struggles to provide scenario examples
- Technology that’s clunky or doesn’t work well for scenarios
- Limited budget
- Short timelines
- Writer’s block or trouble coming up with realistic scenarios
You might start by brainstorming challenges like the list above. You probably won’t include all the potential challenges in a single scenario since that would be too complex. Therefore, you’ll need to pick and choose the challenges that make the most sense.
- Frequent Obstacles: What obstacles or challenges happen most often? What problems are your learners most likely to face?
- Common Mistakes: What are the common mistakes people make? What are the typical misunderstandings?
- Critical Challenges: Are there challenges that happen less frequently but create serious consequences if they occur? For example, a hazmat spill may be uncommon, but there may be significant, even deadly, consequences for not following the proper response procedure. If a mistake or problem could put lives or safety at risk, include it in the scenario.
Select your challenges to meet the requirements above. During the analysis phase, I often ask SMEs what mistakes or misunderstandings are common. Ask your SMEs follow-up questions about the consequences of those mistakes. Those challenges become decision points in your course; the consequences become the intrinsic feedback showing learners the effects of their choices.
If you create scenarios for learning, what issues do you face creating challenges? Leave a comment and tell me about your experiences. If you’re having trouble, we can try to work through the problem together.