Monday, May 3, 2010

Writing to Educate and Entertain: What Would Stephen King Do?

By Shelley A Gable

When you write content for eLearning, do you think of it as technical communication? Creative writing? Something else entirely?

I recently read an article called "The Write Brain: How to Educate and Entertain with Learner-Centered Writing" by Kathleen M. Iverson in the August 2009 issue of Performance Improvement Journal. Here's how she addresses those opening questions:

By blending fictional and technical writing techniques with learning theory, we can craft written materials that both educate and entertain.

I think this idea can be added to the list of principles we all generally agree with, but that many don't do consistently in practice.

Why might this be?

First of all, this blend of technical and creative writing isn't usually a primary focus when someone new to the field is introduced to instructional design. Much attention is given to the systematic and systemic elements of good instructional design. And while learner engagement is bound to come up, the topic has enough dimensions that a discussion of writing style might not make it to the forefront.

Another consideration is time. Most instructional designers I've worked with are decent technical writers. As long as they have the content that must be trained, they can produce technical writing to support that content with relative ease. For most, a more creative approach might require additional thought and maybe even a group brainstorming session. We should really do these activities whenever we can, but sometimes time constraints make it challenging.

I've been on a learner engagement kick lately, thinking about tactics like storytelling and visual design in eLearning. This article fits right into that.

And Iverson goes on to raise a clever point that prompted me to stop reading and think for a moment:

Imagine if Stephen King were to write training materials or textbooks and how his books would differ from the traditional dry, exacting discourse that we often see.

What an intriguing question. What would someone like Stephen King (or any acclaimed fiction author) make it a point to do if he had to write for eLearning? Borrowing ideas from the rest of Iverson's article and reflecting on my own experience, below are some answers that come to mind.

  1. Maintain learners' attention with stories and scenarios that include foreshadowing, cliffhangers, and other forms of suspense whenever possible.

  2. Write stories and scenarios in a way that prompts learners to care what happens to the characters.

  3. Use a conversational tone that is easy, even pleasant, to read.

  4. Describe situations and procedures in a way that creates an images in learners' minds (visual design techniques can help with this).

  5. Learn from the examples of best selling nonfiction books that use stories to teach, such as Who Moved My Cheese and the Fish! series.

Iverson makes the point that stories written to educate and entertain are brain-friendly. Entertaining stories tend to be meaningful to us, making them easier to remember. If they're informative, they can help create new connections in our brain to retain newly learned information in long-term memory.

What else do you think Stephen King would do?

1 comment:

Thank you for your comments.