What we learn from fiction writing.

Sometimes we read a learning text, and our reaction is Yeah, Yeah.  It sounds okay, but is it relevant?

Have you ever felt this?

The text feels stilted and lacks flair.  We’re not grabbed.  We’re not enchanted.  We feel like clicking out with the excuse, “We’ll finish this tomorrow.”

How can you add pizzazz to your design so people can enjoy reading what you’re trying to teach? How can you establish credibility so people become involved and want more?

Those who write fiction use the concept of “Show, don’t tell” because they believe it gives the story impact.  With very little adjustment you can use the same concept in your instructional design so your audience don’t question your content.  Instead, they get embraced by your words.

Let me explain:

An example of “Show, don’t tell” in fiction.

In the book “All the light we cannot see”, Marie-Laure, one of the characters, is a blind girl.  Initially, author Anthony Doerr doesn’t tell us she’s blind.  He lets us experience her world of smells, sounds and touch first.

She hears:
She can hear the bombers when they are three miles away.  A mounting static.  The hum inside a seashell.

She touches:

She can open the left-hand shutter and runs her fingers up the slats of the right.  A sheet of paper has been lodged there.

She smells:

She holds it close to her nose.  It smells of fresh ink.  Petrol, maybe.

And then we read the visual details making us realise Marie-Laure is blind:

Marie-Laure hesitates at the window in her stockinged feet, her bedroom behind her, sea shells arranged along the top of the armoire, pebbles along the base boards.  Her cane stands in the corner; her big Braille novel waits face down on the bed.

Anthony Doerr could have just written that Marie-Laure is blind, but the description of her world is more powerful, allowing us to experience the story as if we’re Marie-Laure.  The sensory details draw us into the story.

The idea of showing lets fiction readers experience a story by sharing sensory details and describing actions.  Telling speeds up the story by eliminating details.

Showing requires more words than telling because descriptions of actions and scenes are longer than simple statements.  Sharing details slows readers down, while telling speeds up the story.

Too often we see training initiatives as telling rather than inviting learners to “live” the story.

As trainers, we’re mentors to our readers.  We build our credibility by sharing our advice, and encouraging learners to remember our tips and implement them.

The most powerful way to do this is, of course, to show and tell:

  • Tell learners your tips
  • Show with an example or scenario how your tip works in practice.

Telling and showing is the double-punch winning technique of writing training that “sticks”.  After all that’s the objective of good e-learning.