My client was puzzled.

He had new software for his HR team

The supplier had provided a manual (and charged for it)

Despite this, managers bombarded the HR staff with phone calls and made many mistakes

We finally concluded that the problem was the legalese used rather than everyday language.

Here’s some tips to use to keep your writing for learning clean.

Know Your Audience

Knowing who you are writing for is critical for effective instructional design.  It’s more than knowing who the content is for; its understanding that audience thoroughly.

The better you can understand your learners the better you can meet their needs.

Keep It Simple

Short, simple sentences with common language are generally best for everyone.  The aim of plain writing is not to “dumb down” your information but to ensure that it is easy to read for your audience.

Make Sure It’s Readable

The Flesch Reading Ease Formula  is considered one of the oldest and most accurate readability formulas.

This formula calculates how easy the text is to read.  The formula considers the number of words per sentence and syllables per word.

Speak Directly to Your Audience

No matter how many people may read your document, remember you are only speaking to one person at a time.  When your writing reflects this, its more economical and has greater impact.  Speaking directly to the user – as in the following example, makes the information more personal so it feels more applicable.

Unclear and Impersonal:

“Completion of Form 1082-A and supervisory approval, prior to filing the promotion application to HR and entering the action in the system, are required for managers wishing to request promotion of employees”

Flesch Reading Ease: 8.8

Clear and More Direct

“To Promote an employee:

  1. Complete Form 1082-A
  2. Obtain your supervisor’s signature on the form
  3. Submit the form to HR
  4. Enter the promotion in the system using the job aid

Flesch Reading Ease: 63.5

Organise the Information

People read to get answers, so provide the information to them quickly using the “BLUF” concept: state the Bottom Line Up Front

Clearly state what the course is about and what it will help the learner achieve.  Anticipate questions so you can clearly answer them.  Most importantly, answer the question, “What’s in it for me”.

Use a table of contents in complex documents so readers can find what they need quickly.

Use headings and subheadings to organise content, break up blocks of text, and make it easy to find information.  Using white space can also break up text and help learners find information quickly.  Charts, graphs, and images provide at-a-glance visual information.

As Cathy Moore advises, “focus on the minimum that people need to know to complete the activity”.

We’re writing a learning narrative for a Modlette.

Sometimes we feel distracted

We focus on writing for the learner

We pick our words with care

We pay attention to punctuation

We try to avoid poor grammar and spelling

But do we forget the basics of writing well for our audience.

In his book The Sense of Style”, Steven Pinker, a psychologist and linguist, writes:

“The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.  It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows . . . they can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualise a scene that to her is as clear as day”

To my knowledge no research exists to determine the reasons for bad writing, and I’m not sure how easy it would be to measure.

But Pinker might be right.

Because we all assume too easily that learners know what we mean.  Doesn’t everybody know that!

What is the curse of knowledge?

Have you ever had a conversation with an expert and wondered, “what the hell are they talking about?”

I remember when I went to buy my first computer.  The salesperson, a young man full of enthusiasm had me hypnotised.  He talked of CPU’s, hard drives, graphic cards and an SSD card, and he spoke in such general terms that I struggled to keep up and didn’t understand a single thing about the item he was trying to sell me.

It’s called the ‘curse of knowledge’.

I used to think the ‘curse of knowledge’ was something that happened to experts only.  But in a way, as trainers and communicators, we all act as experts.  We have knowledge we want to share, and we know something about this subject that our learners don’t know.

And that’s where ambiguity and misunderstandings sneak in.

It can happen to all of us.

What science says about the ’curse of knowledge’

A lady named Elizabeth Newton presented a paper for her PhD in 1990.

Newton divided people in her experiment into tappers and listeners.  The tappers would tap out a song and the listeners would have to guess what song it was.  The research earned her a PhD at Stanford University.

After tapping a song, the tappers were asked how many of the listeners would get it right.  They thought that one in two songs would be guessed correctly.

The truth?

Only 1 in 40 songs was guessed correctly.

As writers (and speakers), we’re all tappers.  We’re all overly confident that we’ll get our message across.  But the truth is that we often fail.

Why is this?

The tappers knew what song they were tapping.  While tapping, they were hearing the words of the song in their minds, so it seemed obvious to them which song it was.  But to listeners, it wasn’t that obvious.  They could only hear the tapping . . .  not the words the tappers could hear in the minds.

As trainers and communicators, we’re often overly confident that listeners and learners will know what we mean.  But our messages may be hidden between the lines.

Next week I’ll tell you how to avoid the ‘curse of knowledge’.

Last week I wrote about four types of bland words:

If you didn’t read last week’s article which leads into this one, here’s the link Bland words

This week I’ll show you how to add flavour to your words.

To spice up your content, remove chewy words and add strong flavours:

Let’s look at some examples of flavouring bland content.

Example 1:  There was a crazy Kiwi who designed our on-line programme

Weak word:  There (doughy)

Chef’s advice: Chop off and rewrite.

Tastier option:  A crazy Kiwi designed our online programme.

Example 2:  The ultimate guide to developing good writing habits

Weak word:  Ultimate (stale)

Tastier option:  A lazy guide to developing good writing habits.

Example 3:  In my opinion, this training is pretty good.

Weak Phrases:  in my opinion (chewy) and pretty good (low nutritional value)

Chef’s advice:  chop off the chewy phrase and add value.

More flavoursome options:

In the second sentence the word she is fine because we know it refers back to Judith.  When you use a words like it, she, or them, always ensure you’ve told the reader already what or whom you’re writing about.

Example 4: She was creating her Modlette on Sunday

Weak words: was, she, her (doughy)

Chef’s advice:  chop off and rewrite.

Tastier option: Judith illustrated her Modlette on Sunday.

She wrote her training on Sunday.

In the second sentence the word she is fine because we know it refers back to Judith.  When you use a words like it, she, or them, always ensure you’ve told the reader already what or whom you’re writing about.

How to Make Stale Content Sizzle and Shine

When a chef develops a new recipe, he doesn’t know how many spices to add.  How many drops of lime juice?  How many spoons of fish sauce?  Coriander leaves? Chillies? A hint of ginger.

To find the perfect balance of flavours, he tastes, adds spices and tastes again.

With writing for learning it’s the same.

Read your content aloud.  Hear how it sounds and spot the bland phrases.

Sprinkle with your favourite words.  Try a few exotic spices.  Stir and taste again.

To create your signature dish, experiment with different flavours until you’re happy.

Then you will have learners who are happy and engaged and will enjoy.

You work late at night to finish your Modlette.

But in the morning when you read your written passages the writing sounds bland.

You can’t send it for approval like this.

What happened?

Have weak phrases sneaked into your writing?

Will your learners be bored and switch off?

Weak phrases are very sneaky and can easily spoil your narrative.  The most experienced instructional writers have to stay vigilant; and edit their drafts with a sharp knife and a selection of spices.

Turning bland text into sizzling readable content may sound difficult, but it requires only two simple steps:

  1. Like a chef tastes a dish before serving, you need to know when your content lacks flavour.  You have to spot weak phrases.
  2. And just like a chef grinds a little extra pepper, sprinkles a few coriander leaves, or drizzles extra lime juice, you need to balance the flavours of your writing too.

Sounds hard?

It’s not.

Let’s start with spotting bland words first.  And then, I’ll tell you how to add more flavour to your writing.

4 must-know types of weak words

Type 1 : Chewy and tasteless

Like pineapple peel or walnut husk, you don’t want these words to turn up in your narrative.  They slow down your learner without adding meaning.  Chopping off is the best advice.

Examples:  Very, actual, in my opinion, really, just

Type 2 : Stale words

At one time these words were strong and powerful.  But over time, they’ve lost their meaning – like stale bread.

Examples:  ultimate, stunning, amazing, wonderful

Type 3 : Doughy words

These words have some taste, but aren’t flavoursome.  In moderation, they’re OK, but use them too often and you get a pizza with a doughy crust and no toppings.  The cook’s advice is to use with care.

Examples: them, it, there, he and other pronouns.

Is, are, was, and other forms to be

Type 4 : Words with low nutritional value

A coke quenches your thirst and appears to give energy, but its nutritional value is low.  A fruit smoothie sounds healthy, but may have a lot of sweeteners added.

Words with low nutritional value are similar, they seem to have meaning, but their meaning is weak.  For instances:  What is a good Modlette?  Do you mean it’s entertaining, engaging or meets its objectives?

Or how do you define a successful trainer?

Do they have lots of work, make a lot of money or inspire people to learn?

Words like good and successful are problems because they can be interpreted in many different ways - they’re not specific enough.

More examples:  nice, bad, effective.

Tune in next week when I will tell you “How to Add Flavour to Your Words”

Uh oh.

June feels stuck.

She has a contract to write some text for training Modlettes.  She really wants to impress a new client.

But she’s very afraid her text will be boring that she can’t get started.  She’s afraid her text will be like a bland chicken dish without salt, without chillies, and without herbs or spices.

Who’d enjoy eating that?

June would prefer a tasty, tangy chicken.

How can she introduce a dose of creativity?

Analogies give learners a look into your life, and you can draw your inspiration from many different life experiences such as parenting, gardening, travelling, or sports.  Each topic gives you can opportunity to share stories outside your normal expertise and to become more human in your writing.

For instance, in the Modletter on “Writing for Clarity”, the introduction explains the concept of umami:

“Have you heard of umami?

It’s the 5th taste.  It is often translated as a savoury taste; and soy sauce, steak, mushrooms, broth, and even some cheese all have umami.

I used to think it was a strange idea.  How can mushrooms be similar in taste to a sizzling steak?  But once you learn to detect umami, you start to appreciate its tantalising power.

A good writing style has umami too.  But what is it?”

This was my opening paragraph and it was meant to increase the reader’s curiosity for what might have appeared to be a dry (ish) subject.

At the conclusion of the Modlette I used the following to reconnect the learner with the connection to the main topic.

“Umami comes from the Japanese word umai . . . deliciousness.

Kazu Katoh, a Japanese chef, said about umami:   “It’s something that’s kind to the body.  It’s about feeling good after eating.”

Isn’t that what we strive for as writers, too?

To write something not just nutritious but also delicious to read . . . something that sticks in our learner’s minds . . . like the taste of a mature cheese or a mushroom risotto or a stir-fried beef with ginger, broccoli, and fish sauce.”

Dream up your own analogies

To come up with an analogy, start with giving yourself permission to have fun.  Create a sense of play to look for connections between two completely different topics.  To make an analogy work, compare things at the same level – a process to a process, or a thing to a thing, or a role to a role.

Boundaries can make us more creative, so consider to focus on one specific domain for your analogy, such as gardening, cooking, travelling, sports or art.  Choose a topic you know well so it’s easier to come up with similarities.

Make learners crave for more

Twenty years ago, I was consulting to Heineken in Mainland China.  We were travelling back to Guangzhou, and stopped at a small village for a meal.  We had Peking Duck.

How, almost 20 years later, I still remember that duck.  They only had chopsticks and I struggled to eat it.  But the smokiness, the spiciness, the sweetness, the stickiness I can still remember.

A good analogy can make your writing memorable, too.

Learners will look forward to your next training Modlette.

Happy cooking.

What if you were in a classroom and the trainer answered every participants’ comment by saying “Right” or “Incorrect”?

If this went on throughout the session imagine how confused the participants would be.

So, why is this one of the most common types of feedback to user responses in eLearning?

How can we overcome this?

If we are thinking of maximum learning transfer (and why would we not be?) then we’re giving up a great opportunity when we forgo informative feedback and instead resort to corrective feedback.  Corrective feedback informs the learner whether their response is correct or incorrect but gives no explanation.  We need to close the feedback loop with more constructive information.

Let’s consider come options.

As the title implies, explanatory feedback presents an explanation as to why a response is incorrect.  This means there is a response to every response in a multi-choice quiz.

You can apply explanatory feedback to any learning experience.  Especially where errors are caused by misconceptions or a lack of knowledge or skills.  If you use multichoice questions regularly to monitor learning progress you can catch and recalibrate learner’s perceptions.

An analysis conducted by Clark and Mayer (2016) reports a more positive effect for explanatory feedback compared to no feedback.  They conclude that there is strong evidence that explanatory feedback increases learner satisfaction, learning efficiency and leads to better learning than corrective feedback.

Using scenarios and simulations, you can allow learners to explore and make real world decisions while learning in a safe environment.  For example, in an emergency medicine training course, the choice of one drug results in stabilising a patient.  The choice of another drug results in seriously high blood pressure levels.

In a Customer service course, one response will satisfy a Customer and another might leave a Customer angry.  An explanation of the effects of all answers provides a very positive learning experience.  (

What about correct responses?

Why not give participants positive feedback when they respond correctly?

In the previous section positive feedback comes in the form of a successful outcome: a patient recovers or a Customer is satisfied.

Using explanatory feedback, there is evidence that positive feedback can reduce uncertainty if learners were unsure of the correct steps to solving a problem.

 Use your Modlettes multi-choice options to motivate as well as test your learners.

Start today at

Ever got lost in the bush?

Ever stared at a map, wondering where the hell you were?

Or you were arguing with your walking companion about whether to turn right or left?

Getting lost in training content makes learners feel bad, too.

But there’s one big difference.  When you were lost in the bush you were determined to find your way out.

Learners are less determined.  Their minds start wandering and they give up.

We try to simplify our message.  We do our best to write with clarity.  But when our audience read our content, they get confused.

Learners are in a hurry.  If it’s something they’re not so keen on (e.g., compliance training) they get easily distracted.  So, we must make our training content so simple, so crystal clear, that even semi engaged learners get hooked.

Communicating with clarity is probably one of the most difficult writing tasks.

Our efforts get easily sabotaged, without us being aware.  We try to communicate too much.  We try to impress with our knowledge.

When you follow the 4-step method below, your content becomes clearer, simpler and more persuasive.  Learners remember.  They take action.  They change their behaviour.

Step 1: Clarify your destination and define the shortest route.

Plan your content first:

Irrelevant ideas lead learners astray.  Keep your content on one simple and clear message.

Step 2:  Set up signposts at each junction

Travellers get lost when they have no clue of where they are.

With your learners, it’s the same.  They want to know where they’re heading next.

Firstly, learners need to get an instant feel of what the session is about as soon as they arrive:

Join Christy’s Journey to Recover Bad Debts

Secondly, add sign posts at every junction to keep on track:

In our next slides we will learn the benefit of the 5-step call.

Without signposts learners lose interest in your content.  Good signposts keep them engaged.

Step 3: Avoid vague route descriptions

Back in the day we didn’t have GPS’s and sometimes we had to ask for directions.  Some of us will remember.

Let’s compare two route descriptions.

  1.  At the third road, turn right.  Then at the second junction, turn left.
  2. After about 300 metres, you’ll see a church at your right.  Immediately after the church, turn right.  Go straight at the first junction.  Then at the second junction (this one has traffic lights), turn left.

The second description is longer, but its more concrete.  That’s why its far easier to remember.

Writing for instruction also needs to be concrete to be understandable:

Abstract language baffles your learners. 

Vivid language makes your message memorable.

Step 4 : Simplify your words.

“Write to express, not impress” - Gregory Ciotti

At school, we received praise for using complicated words. And that's how we become our own biggest enemy when it comes to writing with clarity.

If we want readers to reach our destination, then let’s find the simplest route.

Would you rather go to a sunny beach?

Or, would you go to a place where a big sphere shines full of hot gas comprising hydrogen, helium and small amounts of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and more.

Difficult words make our learners tumble.  Long sentences wear them down.

So, use simple words and short sentences to communicate your message.

Now go to "Start a Free Trial" (top right hand corner) and show yourself how easy it is to write compelling and seductive learning.

When writing for learning our toolbox is limited.

We can’t use body language

We can’t shout!

We can’t even bang on the table to add weight to the message.

We only have our words to communicate our message with passion.

But written words can be powerful.

Want to learn how?

Step #1:  Write with clarity and substance

How can you hold a learner’s attention if you use weak writing that rambles, rattles and prattles?

Writing with substance is not about writing longer articles with longer words.

It’s not about the word count.

Its not about putting in every little detail about the task we are trying to teach.

The opposite is true.

Often long written spells lack substance, too many unimportant ideas compete for the learner’s attention.

Substance is about adding value, exceeding the learners value expectations and moving beyond the echo chamber of repetition.

So how do you write with substance?

Step #2:  Boost your authority with these content ideas

Focusing on a narrow topic may feel scary.  Do you have enough content?  Will your training module seem flimsy?

No time to panic.

And don’t start adding stuff and semi-related trains of thought.

Instead, use the content thoughts below to turn flimsy into persuasive and authorative content

Examples demonstrate how you translate theory into practice.  Examples breathe life into your content by making abstract concepts concrete.  Want an example?  Learning Conversations

Statistics are not everybody’s cup of tea. A Some find them boring.

But it’s a mistake to ignore numbers.  Because numbers add substance to an argument.  They show you know your subject.  They make your material more factual.

“Research by Xero Group (2016) shows that only 37% of sales reps read emails that are sent to them

Statistics boost your credibility and appeal to people’s rational side.  But be careful: don’t let the numbers undermine the clarity of your message.  Only add research results and other numbers if they help clarify your ideas.

Can’t find any statistics to support your statements?

Try using quotes from well-known experts.  A quote shows you are familiar with other work in your field.

Strategically selected quotes support your teaching.  They help you “borrow” other people’s authority to support your own.

Step #3 : Inject power into your words

Does power make you think of dictators, bullies and other dominant personalities?

As Sally Hogshead explains in her book “How the World Sees You”, power lives on a spectrum. Power’s gentle side manifests itself in the parental nudge and in the sports coach, who motivates you to train harder.

Powerful training inspires learners to TAKE ACTION.  Effective instructional writing encourages learners to want to implement the learning in the workplace.


Read this paragraph aloud:

"Your job as a trainer is not simply to write tutorials that share tips, facts, and advice.

A useful tip that is not implemented is like a riveting book that’s never opened.

It’s forgotten and useless.

Instead of acting solely like a trainer dishing out your training notes, you should become a mentor for your learners, a chief of your village, a leader of your tribe.  You should fire up your tribe and jump-start their actions because your learners are waiting for you."

It feels somewhat flat, right?  That is because the sentences are long and the final sentences use “you should” instead of the imperative.

The alternative version below is more inspirational because it uses shorter sentences and the imperative form (“Fire up your tribe” instead of “You should fire up your trial”.)

"Your job as a trainer is not simply to write tutorials.

 Your job is not to share tips and facts and advice.

A useful training that’s not implemented is like a riveting book that’s never opened.  It’s forgotten and useless.

You’re not simply a trainer.  You’re a mentor for your learners, a chief of your village, a leader of your tribe.  Come on.  Fire up your tribe.  Jump-start their actions.

Your learners are waiting for you."

Does that inspire you more?

Let’s face it even good voice over, can be tiring to listen to for long periods.

We get a bigger buzz by listening to the to and fro of two voices.

A change of pace and tone.

It’s easier to write dialogue and you tend to stay away from bullet point lists.

Some studies have found learners can remember information in a narrative form better than bullet points.

What characters should we use?

In a two-narrator episode, one character is the coach, and one is the learner.

There should be a marked difference in the knowledge and experience level in order to drive the conversation.

The job or role should reflect those of your learners.

Some tips for writing conversation-driven eLearning

Don't fall to the temptation of making the learner an empty vessel

If the learner just nods along what should be a dialogue ends up as a traditional lecture

Better to treat your learner as an adult with prior knowledge and experience

Let your character figure some things out and make intelligent guesses

Just like a good coach, the coach character can ask questions to draw out information.

The answers can be wrong sometimes, as they are in real life, but should be as they are in real life.

Don’t let your coach lecture for multiple paragraphs at a time.

Neither person should have a monologue.

Add dialogue going back and forth to show your learner is actively listening.

Have the learner reflect back what they heard from the coach and connect it to something they already know or share an example

“Coach : When handling a Customer complaint always let the Customer feel you are in their corner.

Learner : You mean saying something like, “I understand how you feel.”

Coach: Absolutely”

When training, your audience doesn’t always buy what you say.

So, let your learner character be sceptical too.

This character can voice some objections that your learners might have.

Over the course the learner character will become less sceptical so sceptical members of your audience will feel less resistant as they see the change in character.

Here’s an example of a manager having a conversation with a new accounting assistant.

“Tom (manager):     We make regular phone calls to follow up our delinquent debtors.  Are you comfortable with that?

Robyn:       I hate asking people for money.  I never used to ask my little brother to pay back money he’d borrowed.

Tom:    We believe that cash flow is the life blood of the business and our Customers should be reminded of our terms of trade.

Robyn:      But don’t they get angry if you keep asking them for money.

Tom:     Some do, but it’s usually a frustration caused by their own inability to collect their debts.

Robyn:       I’m a bit nervous, will there be any training?

Tom:     We have an excellent eLearning course that you can do.  There are different conversations that you can listen to so you can become more confident.

Robyn:     That could be the confidence boost I need.

This conversation is the introduction to a course on debt collection.

Do we believe the Goldfish myth?  "That today’s people have a shorter attention span than a goldfish."

This theory is often put forward in training and development circles to justify low learner engagement and retention.

But how can this be?  It’s nonsense and I challenge anybody to measure a goldfish’s attention span.

According to a 2018 Prezi study, 56% of professionals rate their ability to give a piece of content undivided attention as greater today than one year ago.

So, how do your e-Learners feel about being credited with the attention span of a goldfish.

According to Chris Willis, Director of Product Content in a virtual session at HR Com’s Inspire Conference:

5 Things Your Remote Learners Want You to Know:

  1.   I think training is boring
  2.   I wish learning were easier to access and take
  3.   I need training that’s relevant to my job
  4.   Don’t train me on what I already know
  5.   I’m willing to learn, but you need to make it more engaging.

Let’s consider some of these statements.

In the Prezi study I mentioned above, 49% of professionals admitted they've become more selective about the content they consume.

This is important for points 1 and 5.  We have all experienced some type of stale, boring training in our lives.

Employees hold preconceived notions about training – its your job to challenge those notions and develop a learning solution that will engage them in unexpected ways.

Learners need to be engaged and motivated before they can apply higher-order creative thinking skills to the content.  They’ll understand the information and be better able to apply it to real-life situations they encounter at work if they think deeply about the content during training.

How Can I Engage My Learners?

Conversational scenarios, engaging narration to videos, or even a quirky character can add some stimulating dialogue and draw learners in.

In the same way, a relevant story can be the hook that catches an otherwise reluctant audience.

Your Learners Expect Great Visuals:

In this world of addictive mobile games and amazing special movie effects, your course must look good.

Pre-built templates and stock pictures libraries provide a good start and an easy way to put together a design that stuns.  Even better are pictures from your company or industry.

When delivering training to remote learners, these elements are even more critical.  Today’s learners are dealing with more distractions than ever and they need engaging, relevant content that will help them succeed.

Sign up for a free trial with Modlettes ( and get access to the six media that will help you create engaging eLearning.

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