A new beginning

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If you don’t talk like that, don’t write like that.

This is the second in my series on making eLearning content that sticks. Today I’ll look at writing for voice over. It’s quite long, but hopefully will contain some interesting nuggets for you to snack on.

Writing is easy. We all do it. Most of us do it a lot. We write emails, documents, scripts and, occasionally, blog posts. But writing for voice over in eLearning is not easy.

I’m going to explore some of my principles and then lay down a few rules and tried and tested tips.

Principles

I have a principle that online learning content should be audio driven. It should have a voice, it should be in a conversational style and it should feel like a trusted friend explaining, showing or helping you with something.

If it has a voice, it has to have a personality. Your personality. I see a lot that has a corporate voice. It sounds like a corporate email. It’s so sanitised that it’s distracting and therefore, pretty useless. Your content should sound like you. People that know you should be able to hear you speaking, even if it’s voiced by someone else. Scripts I’ve written sound like me. Maybe a more thought out me without the massive tangents, but still me. (And sometimes, still with the tangents).

I’m also very big on conversational style. I read somewhere that if your brain thinks it’s in a conversation, it’ll perk up and pay a bit more attention. Not sure if this is true, but it certainly feels more personal if something’s written in the way you speak. We talk a lot about conversational style and how we should write in it. This is all good.

But what does it mean?

It means you need to be able to honesty read it out loud, and feel as if it’s you, talking to your friends (who may or may not be listening) about something you care about. If you’re bored reading it, it’s boring. Get over it. And then re-write it.

If you think this is bonkers, try scripting how to do something you know well. Then get your Mum, Dad, Wife, Husband, Children, Significant Other or whoever over, and tell them what you know. Record it and listen back. I bet my bank balance that it’s not the same. It’ll not even be a little bit the same.

So conversational style is about how you speak. It’s not about how you write.

Ok Andy, I hear you say, but what about different audience types? Aha – nearly got me but not quite. You will naturally amend your style for your audience. (Or you should. If you don’t you’ve no business being an Instructional Designer). You’ll explain the same things in different ways to your aged parents, than you would to your colleagues, or a five year old.

Ok, now I’ll move onto the interesting bit…

Rules, Hints and Tips

  • Number one is obvious, but so often ignored: Use short sentences. You don’t talk like that, so don’t write like a Dilbert generated mission statement.
  • Have frequent pauses. Do this in the script to give the Voice Over artist a chance to be able to read it.
  • Don’t use bullets. Ever. They’re not easy to voice as it’s not obvious how you’re supposed to voice them. Remember, you don’t speak in bullets. But guess what, if you have a list, you write it into the script as you’d say it. For example: ‘We do this for three reasons; first to xxx, second to yyy etc. Are you getting the message yet. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it.
  • Read your script out loud. I’m not joking. Even better is to print out two copies and get someone else to read it out loud to you. That way you can make notes on all the awkward phrasing, poor word use or just plain rubbish in your script. I can easily tell if a writer has spoken their script out loud or not.
  • Include instructions to the voice person in [square brackets]. It makes it easier for them. And it’s not an easy job so you want to be nice to the voice talent (even if it’s you).
  • Write numbers as words. This is a personal preference I guess, but I find it easier to flow through a script when I’m voicing something, if I don’t get interrupted by having to translate a number into a word. Call me thick, but there you go.
  • Follow this process: Write, walk away, edit, read out loud, get someone else to edit, sleep, edit, read again, final edit. You need to get over needing to change your scripts. Don’t be precious about it. Let others comment and ask them to feedback on style and tone specifically. But be prepared to have ‘I don’t like the way…’ thrown at you.
  • However, don’t let SMEs dampen your personality (too much). SMEs like to give you content and then moan that you’ve butchered it. Remember, you’re the expert in this, not them. So let them give you the content, you’ll make it work.
  • Don’t write drama, unless you’re brilliant. Bad drama is terrible and hurts your content in so many ways. It’s a fact commonly known that the vast majority of people can’t write drama. So don’t even try.
  • If you have a story to tell, narrate. Tell it in the third person. It’s easier and much less messy.
  • Get personal. Don’t say ‘It was decided’ or ‘they decided’, tell the user who. Those are tricks of the corporate communications to avoid the CEO sounding daft.
  • Words. Use simple ones. Don’t say purchase, say buy. It always makes me laugh when I see a sign on a local minibus that says: “Failure to show your pass will result in a loss of permission to travel.” Loss of permission, really? Why couldn’t it just say “Show your pass or you’re not getting on.” Remember, if you don’t talk like that, don’t write like that.
  • More words. It’s very easy to use the same word a lot. A lot of us have particular phrases that we often use, but don’t realise it. Ask your colleagues what yours are (and be amazed what they’ve spotted) and be prepared to weed out most of them. Not all, this is your script.
  • Contractions. Be a little careful here. If you say it, it’s probably fine. So it’s fine to use ‘it’s’, ‘don’t’, ‘we’ll’, ‘they’ll’ etc. Be careful of ‘there’re’ and it’s ilk.
  • So that’s the list, with it’s hints and tips and the occasional rule. I’m sure there are tons more, so please feel free to add more into the comments. If you only get one thing from this post, remember this:

    If you don’t talk like that, don’t write like that.


    If it rains…

    This is the first in a series of posts about creating content that sticks.  I’ll look at writing styles, treatment types, visuals, design and anything that takes my fancy.  Some of it may be profound, some of it may seem obvious.  Hopefully some of it will be useful.  I’ll focus on online content but I guess this applies to face to face too.

    I’ve seen so much eLearning that leaves me cold with a weak summary or wrap-up.  The summary is supposed to be the energiser, the call to action.  But I often see:

    “In this lesson you’ve learnt”…  (Side debate – is it Learnt or Learned?)

    What comes next is a supposedly thought out summary.  But it’s usually added too quickly.  ‘Phew, I’ve got to the end…’ is the impression that’s given.  It’s often just rehashed main points and too often we waste our good content with a weak ending.  So in fantastically interesting online learning about coats and their uses, we’ll have “In this lesson you’ve learnt all the uses of a coat.

    Why is this important?

    As I said, the summary should be the call to action.  Think about advertising. Think about story endings.  Think about the hooks used and the techniques others use to make things memorable.  The summary or wrap-up should direct users to do whatever it is you want them to do.  It should get the users into whatever it is you’re trying to get them into.

    So how do you write a killer ending to your masterpiece?

    Start at the end.  Write the summary first.  Writing it last makes it seem like an after-thought.  This is something so many Instructional Designers and Writers struggle with.  Surely the main body of the content is king right?  But the last thing the user hears will form a big impression.  A weak ending ruins a good story.  The same is true of online learning.  A weak ending colours the users opinion.  But it is hard to get it right.

    Here’s the rules:

    1. Bring out the key messages and themes again.
    2. Don’t just list them though, put them in the context of the user.  Frame it in their reality.  For example: “So next time you meet a customer…”, “When you open the application…” and “In the next mentoring session”.  This places the key themes outside the content and into their lives.
    3. Don’t introduce anything new – this confuses the user.  They think they’ve missed something and will often go back.
    4. Use the active voice.
    5. Use short, simple sentences and words.  This is true of all writing but so often we stuff our content up with long words and clever sounding phrases.
    6. Make it active, make it a call to action.  This assumes your content has a point.  If it hasn’t, consider not doing it.

    So next time you write, or script; start at the end.  Bring out the key themes and main take-aways. Don’t write “In this lesson we’ve learnt all the uses of a coat.”  Write:

    If it rains, wear a coat“.


    Awards. Are they good for us?

    A leading eLearning awards site lists 10 reasons why you should enter awards in 2012.

    7 out of those 10 reasons are to do with business development.

    Does that strike anyone else as a bit… odd?  Awards should surely be about promoting best practice and providing inspirational exemplars of great learning content. Shouldn’t they?

    But they’re not, they’re about money.  They’re about gaining new business and promoting yourself and your organisation.  Some vendors produce content specifically to win awards, or at least with an eye to making it ‘great’ so that it’ll have a better chance.  Is that so bad?  You could argue that the client with the cash to spend on content that will win awards gains, because they’re getting a superb product.  Maybe that’s true but what about the other clients who in part chose the vendor based on the awards they have, only to receive a not-so-great product?

    I’m not vendor bashing here.  It’s a business reality and if that’s a way to help the business, why not?  If you’re pitching for business then a list of awards your organisation has won is bound to help your cause.

    What I’m interested in is how they make a difference.  I’ve looked for evidence of previous winners but can’t find the learning content that won the awards (or at least it’s very hard to find).  Good examples of eLearning content are difficult to find, so why not make them available for all to see, learn from and aspire to?

    And what about those people who enter but don’t win.  (I’m not a bleeding heart liberal of the ‘everyone deserves a prize’ mindset by the way).  It’s not an equal playing field in many cases, with different organisation being able to provide different levels of evidence and proof.  What happens to the moral of a team, or a sole practioner, who work their hearts out to deliver the best they can.  Only to be told they didn’t make the grade.  They didn’t make the shortlist or didn’t win the top prize.  Someone else is better.  Don’t we teach our children that effort is better than attainment.  Are we rewarding that too?  If so, where?

    Then there are internal L&D professionals up and down the country who put their heart and soul into producing the best they can under difficult conditions and manage to make a small difference.  They should get an award, but never will.  They’ll not win because the evidence isn’t there, or it doesn’t look good enough, or it’s not interactive enough, or it’s not for a client that pays or their boss won’t support them…

    So what difference do they make?  Do they affect positive change?  Not really – what they often do is reinforce the status quo.  If you think about it, if ‘this‘ has won an award, it’s bound to be good, right?  So we should do ‘this‘ too.  I’d love to think I’m being simplistic but I’m not.  If everyone does ‘this‘ then where is tomorrows great going to come from?  This is actually a big deal.

    I wonder what the effect would be of some eLearning awards that awarded unintentional eLearning, the kind that informs, guides, instructs and teaches without ever meaning to.  It’s the you tube video or the simple ‘press the blue up’ instruction from Malcolm Gladwell’s example.  It’s the ad that reminds me to clunk, click or the flash movie that shows me how to get out of a skid.  Now that would be inspiring.  You can’t nominate yourself because you don’t know you’re doing it.  The purpose would be to inspire others, rather than promote self.  Is that where we should go instead?

    Returning to the theme, are awards good for us?

    No.

    No because you’ve got to question the motivation for entering awards.  No because they can give false impressions.  No because they can promote the wrong behaviours.  No because winning awards shouldn’t be why we do things.  No because they don’t affect change.  (They actually reinforce the status quo). No because they don’t make enough of a difference.

    I’ll leave the final word to Bruce Mau and his Incomplete Manifesto for growth, number 26:

    Don’t enter awards competitions. Just don’t. It’s not good for you.

    [Disclaimer: the opinions and thoughts expressed here are my own and in no way reflect the views, opinions or values of the organisation that I work for.]


    Dear Customer, you’re not the most important…

    Would you buy something from an organisation that tells you it doesn’t put you first?

    No?

    Well you should.

    If you think of the most successful organisations, do they put customers first?

    Consider Google, the huge global brand that has revolutionised the way we search, use email, use maps etc. Do they put the customer first?  Well, no.  They don’t.  They put their own staff first.  Think of all the wonderful Google offices, with restaurants and play areas.  They make their staff as happy as they can so they can focus, when they decide to, on doing their best work.  Does that mean they’re always brilliant? No. But they do pretty much own the search market.

    What about Apple, famous for their beautiful and desirable brands? Do they put their customers first? Again, no. They put usability and design ahead of their customers. They produce products that they know a lot of customers can’t afford and that they know a lot of customers won’t like.  And they’ve done pretty well out of that I’d say.

    Finally think of Adobe. Are customers first with them?  No.  With them it’s about producing products that do amazing things.  Photoshop, for example, is hard to learn and expensive.  But it innovates in the marketplace and keeps itself ahead of the game.

    But be careful here, these three, and countless others, have great customer service and produce products that customers want, but the customers themselves are not first.

    Now think of high street banks, who say they put customers first. Do they?  Yes! Well, not really.

    You see, if the customer is first that has implications.  If the customer is first they’re more important than staff.  The customer is more important than the front line support desk worker.  They’re more important than the order management process, the design process and the innovation process.  If customers are first – then you’re going to have unhappy staff and weak process.

    Why?

    If a front line staff member is having a tough time with their boss, are they going to give the best service they can? If they feel de-valued will they stay late to fix a problem? If the managers feel put upon from higher up, will they motivate their staff?  Customers first is a dangerous thing.

    But don’t get me wrong, customers are important.  They should be considered at every stage.  Everything should be designed so they get the best service that can be given.  But that means putting them second, or maybe third.  You see, if you put employees first, then a number of things happen.  First they’re happier.  Think back to Google.  Think of Innocent Smoothies and other notable (but rare) examples of companies that really try hard to make work a happy part of life.  Think of all the extra’s that employees of these companies get.  Think of Netflix and it’s policy of allowing any leave whenever.  This are policies designed to allow staff to be able to do their best work by removing constraints that stop them from doing that.  They remove worries, politics and hassles.  That means staff give their best, and are happy.  When that happens, superb products and customer service follows.

    So the key is to make sure you, as a customer, are in the right place in an organisation you’re doing business with.  You don’t want to be first, because you’ll just get lip service and poor service.  You don’t want to be last, behind employee Indian Head Massage services.  You want to be second or third, behind employees and their support.  If you are, you’ll know you’ll receive a better class of service from a happier employee.

    And if you’re an organisation, you’re going to do better by putting staff first, helping them, nurturing them and removing the obstacles they have to giving their best.  Then you’ll get great products, great service and a healthy bottom line.

     


    Leave IT alone…

    I’m getting a bit tired of the IT department always being the number one cause for complaint in L&D conferences.  Year after year we bleat about how they stop us, how they constrain us, how they make our lives hard.

    I used to be in the IT department. I was one of those constantly blamed. And it’s about time we all grew up and stopped with the tired excuses.  Charles Jennings recently said that we need to get over blaming corporate culture.  He’s right, and we need to get over blaming the IT department too.

    Stakeholder Management 101

    I am staggered that we’re so ineffectual at influencing these people.  They’re only people and they have jobs to do, just as we do.  So the question is this: Have we learnt their language?  “Now wait a minute” you say, “surely they’re providing a service to us.”  That’s as maybe, but the counter question is this: Do we want to get anything done?  If we want to influence people, we need to get over being in the right, and having things done our way.  What we need to do is learn their currencies, learn their hot buttons and learn about them.  We’ll get what we want not by branding them IT people, but by knowing, by building relationships with them individually.  How many of us actually know many people in IT?  By know I mean more than have met at meetings.  I mean have we chilled out with them?  Have we helped them? Have we listened to them?  Not just their work issues, but their personal ones.  Do we know their office politics?  Do we understand their power structures?  What can we do to help them? Can we give them recognition for good work? Can we turn things round for them super fast? Can we make them our best friends by constantly doing nice things for them.  I don’t know many people who will immediately say no when you’ve bought doughnuts…

    We need to move past ‘them’ and ‘us’.  We should move towards ‘us’.  “Me and IT.  We’re close, we finish each other’s sentences.”  That’s what we should aim for…

    All this is basic stakeholder management and it can really help.

    The next thing we can do is learn their language.

    Speaking Foreign

    IT has it’s own language, just as learning has it’s own language.  We know that spouting about theories and pedagogy won’t impress senior management.  Neither does it impress IT people. To get them on side, you need to understand their world. The best way to do that is to seek to understand their language.  So we should work out what FTP is, and know the difference between HTML and HTML 5.  We should try and find out about different browsers and why IE is not so good.  We should discover basic networking and infrastructure design, so we can tell our load balancers from our routers. We should find out about security and network loading issues.  And a real bonus here is that I’m willing to bet your LMS already has loads of basic IT courses on their that you can look at and learn from.

    Why should you bother? Well, if you go to a foreign country, the locals look much more kindly on you if you at least try.  Be honest and don’t try and blag it.  Own up to not understanding fully, and they’ll be willing to share.

    Nuts and Bolts

    As an ex-insider, I can tell you what a lot of their issues are going to be.  So, so often we ignore these, so our ideas and suggestions come, to them, without proper consideration.  These are the main things they’ll be looking out for:

    1. Security.
      Does your product or service introduce some extra complexity that could provide a loop-hole.  Has it been through a technical standards committee that has looked into it?  Does it confirm to corporate or organisational security policies.  A good one here is ports that are required to be opened for it to work.  A port is on a firewall or router and is like a doorway.  Most applications that communicate do so through ports (you may have heard that ftp uses 21 and http uses 80) and most of these will be closed.  And for good reason, open ports can allow hackers in without anyone knowing.  So first of all, get your security sorted.  Ask IT managers about security requirements. Tell them what you’re looking at doing and ask advice.  Be prepared for the “that won’t get past security” answer and just ask for the information that you can work with.  Find out and get back to them.
    2. Support
      This is always a big one.  If you’re putting something new in, or opening something up, who’s going to support it when it goes wrong?  Who pays for it?  What level of support is required (24/7 or office hours, 20 minute response time or 20 day)?  What training is needed for support staff? Who will they report to… The list is long.  The thing is, if you haven’t thought about this, the answer is no.  If you don’t have budget to support it you’re going to struggle.  Oh, and “I’ll do it” (what about when you’re away) or “It’s open source, so we’ll just ask the internet” (really, at 3am after a night out) won’t wash either.  IT is an organisation that gets beaten up even if something’s not their fault.  They’ll want to make sure all the bases are covered.
    3. Network Load/Issues
      Another big one here, and becoming ever more so with greater use of video.  Most networks in organisations are pretty much maxed out already.  They were probably designed when a 10MB email was enormous.  They’re also expensive to upgrade. So if your amazing solution to the organisation’s needs requires lots of bandwidth, beware.  And don’t go with the argument that it all works ok on my home broadband.  That’s just patronising and is asking for a sarcastic reply.  There are solutions to network load issues, streaming video is one, local content cache servers is another, but again, you need to be able to install and support them.  With this, ask them what could work, ask them about different options and don’t go assuming that your content is the most important on the network.  It isn’t.  IT people love to find problems.  But what they love more is answers to those thorny problems…
    4. Budget
      Finally, it’s budget.  Can you pay for it? If you can’t, should you really be asking?  If you’re going to them informally then it’s not going to wash.  If you’re going to them formally without budget then something’s wrong with your planning.  Go armed with costings and a business sponsor.  Failure to do that, will just mean failure.

    Wrapping it up

    “Hang on a minute though, I just want to enable Facebook, or Twitter, or Ning or whatever.  I want the internet and IT says NO!”

    Is it IT? Is it really? Or is it something else in your organisation?  Have you considered the above areas when asking them?

    You see, I’ve never found a problem with IT that can’t be worked out.  They’re generally a human bunch, just like you and me.  If you can speak on their terms, and understand their needs, and answer their questions without rolling your eyes and moaning about them, then you’ll get there.  But that’s the same with any stakeholder. So if you want access to Twitter, or if you want to pilot something on a PC under your desk, get to know them first. Build relationships. Show you’re not a moron who’s going to compromise the company network.

    [In the interests of full disclosure, there ARE some morons in IT who are blockers, who have let power go to their heads and who insist on being right.  But IT doesn’t have the monopoly on them, there are plenty in all areas of life…]

     


    The Bad, The Ugly and the Learnentation

    [Warning: this is a little bit of a rant. You’ve been warned]

    Quality.  Now there’s an interesting word.  We talk about it all the time.  We need great quality this, and superb quality that.

    But here’s the thing.  It’s not what we expect when it comes to online learning.  By ‘we’ I mean the average worker who has to endure eLearning at work. I did say endure. We all know this is true. Let’s get over that.

    What we expect is something that at best isn’t too bad. Even normally it’s probably designed by someone who hates users and at worst, it’s a Learnentation.

    (I hope that word isn’t the only contribution to L&D that I make.)

    A Learnentation is a presentation that’s been turned (or mangled) into ‘learning’.  We all MUST have seen it.  It’s a PowerPoint presentation, full of text and bullets and bonkers animation (to add interest) that’s been put through a ‘design process’ to make it a learning object.  Someone may have (badly) recorded their voice into it and: “hey, I can just show the hapless idiots (Ooops, I mean my valued internal customers) this!”

    Am I ranting?  Maybe, but it’s justified.

    It gets worse though, because now there are tools that’ll add flash interdistractions into the learnentation.  That means it’s engaging. Because the user has to click stuff.  I think we all know my thoughts on this kind of thing, so I won’t go there now.  And we end up with something that has little value other than allowing whoever created it to feel proud at having achieved something and a box that’s now ticked. (Training? Tick.)

    So what is the cause of all this?

    Well, I’m afraid Articulate has a lot to answer for in this one.  They’re mainly responsible for giving tools to people who don’t know better and they think they can create ‘learning’. (To be completely fair, you can get the same effect using Adobe Presenter or even Captivate – producing Presentivates).  They also produced Engage. Which generally doesn’t.  It’s over-used and under thought-through.

    So why am I so exercised by this?  Well the thing is it’s actually harming the cause of L&D. We should be seeking to help people be better, or at least not doing any harm. Instead, we’re standing back and letting people create rubbish and not intervening because: “It’s so important to get users to generate content”.  Is it?

    Is it really?

    When I talked about this at Learning Tech 2010, I talked about review and quality gates with this particular problem in mind.  User generated content is kind of like home movies when you’ve just bought your first video camera.  It’s rubbish.  No, that’s not fair. It’s often completely rubbish.  (Sometimes, about 2% of the time,  it’s great though)

    So what do we do?

    First of all we pry the tools out of the hands of the dangerous. We stop them using it. Yes, I know you’re gasping but there are some that shouldn’t be allowed to touch this.  It’s like the gun argument. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Yeah, but people without guns find it significantly more difficult etc. etc.  It’s the same with tools. Tools don’t produce bad learning. They’re tools. People produce bad learning. But if they didn’t have the tools…  Then, for the misguided, we provide guidance. For the promising we provide support and ideally we’ll show them some grown up tools, or some grown up methodologies to use their current tools.

    Then, we work hard to create a standard that everyone aspires to.

    This is because it’s not only the tools, it’s us, it’s L&D that are letting this happen.  Be honest: Hands up who’s created a learnentation (or a presentivate)?  All of us, probably. But we realised (hopefully) that it’s not valuable and did something about it. Did we?  Well we should.

    Am I saying don’t give users tools to create content? No. I’m saying give them the tools, the support, the guidance and give them a role model and an exemplar.  When you show normal fare next to good fare, the good stuff looks better.  So show them your good stuff and let them aspire to be better.

    And for goodness sake don’t let them think that a presentation can be ‘turned into’ learning simply by adding a voice-over and some templates navigation…

    [Told you it was a rant]

    Now the reasonable bit.  Tools like Articulate can allow skilled and highly creative practitioners to build effective online learning.  Used sensibly it can be used to create engaging and interesting and effective learning objects.  The problem is; there aren’t that many skilled and highly creative practitioners out there…

    [Ok, now I promise the rant is over]