‘I acknowledge that I have read and agree to the Terms and Conditions.’
How much would you trust a doctor who simply had to tick a box to prove their medical abilities? What about a banker, or a plumber?
How many of us tick a box when trying to get to something online, without looking at the small print?
You intuitively know that reading something (or claiming to have read something) is different not only from having done it, but also vastly different from being able to apply it.
We are currently seeing a skills gap in the workforce; not a knowledge gap. You might have noticed that knowledge has never been more easily accessible, reproducible and multipliable. But does this mean people know what to do with it? Not without some guidance along the way.
While learning text is incredibly useful for spreading information, it comes with some pretty hefty drawbacks.
Simply put, our capacity for concerted mental effort is limited. When processing information is easy, our brains can run on auto-pilot for quite a while. But when learning takes concerted effort, it doesn’t take long for our focus and willpower to dwindle. We rarely take this into consideration when we give out PDF explainers, policy documents, webinar recordings and the other endless resources that learners are bombarded with.
Because text is easy to spread, we often don’t give it a second thought. We place responsibility for understanding on the reader and we assume that because all the information is there, learners will process it all and draw out the reasonable conclusions you want them to. Moreover, they will act on the messages in a way that you want them to should a situation or risk arise.
Sometimes knowing someone has skim-read your content is good enough, but if you are looking to implement a key company behaviour change or teach a new skill that needs to be quickly transferred, it simply doesn’t cut it.
So how can you make your words count? How can you inspire people to read, carry on reading, internalise it and then apply it when they need to? Here are a few tips that require a little extra thought but can help create a deeper understanding of your content.
1) Grab their attention…
First impressions are everything, so start big or in a different way to that which is expected.
Which of these makes you want to keep reading?
On page 13 of the weekly report, there is a mention of clause 17 of the Act and its application to workforce retention…
Whatever you do, don’t look behind you. Just keep running…
2) …then hold it
Alas, life isn’t all fun and games. Sometimes you need to convey large amounts of technical information without much wiggle room. Whether you have this constraint or not, I would consider making your text as easy to read as possible. If you’re short for time, try an online editor for a quick scan of basic improvements.
To maintain engagement throughout, try building in regular context words. These are words that boost emotional engagement, and most of them can make your content more engaging without changing its core meaning. A good example is speaking to the reader in the first person, making them feel seen. That’s right, I’m looking at you!
3) Shake things up
Can you hear me?
How about now?
Just because you can see something, doesn’t mean you’ve really seen it. It’s always good to create breathing space in your content by breaking it up with images or video, but there are also lots of ways to play with the text itself.
Or why not add little surprises along the way that encourage the reader to pay close attention to every word.
4) Leave them wanting more
If a sentence drags on for too long, and is comprised of lots of subsections so that it feels like it will never end and whenever you think it will end it turns out to have yet more content that you’re not sure you should care about which is in addition to the fact that you’ve got to pick up your kids from school and you’re wondering what’s for dinner, it is (understandably, because it is almost dinner time after all) easy to get somewhat distracted – although some people will have an incredible resilience and will find themselves able to power through but by the end of the sentence they may find themselves wondering, ‘what was it all for?’. This would be their right, and no one should blame them for feeling frustrated at the length of this paragraph which does go on considerably past a reasonable length and may not lead to both a deep understanding and motivation to learn more; you may find that by the end of this paragraph, you rather need a break from reading altogether.
Tiring, isn’t it?
If you want to keep your learners’ energy levels up, don’t barrage them with a block of learning text that is difficult to digest.
5) Keep them hanging
We really enjoy suspense…
….or do we?
We also tend to remember information we’ve had to work for better than information that is handed to us on a silver platter.
What would that look like?
Well, I’m glad you asked: it could look exactly like what I’m doing now; asking a question to get you thinking, then giving you the content I want you to remember.
Letting your learners sweat a little before understanding something can be beneficial. But it must be done right: learners need to feel understood and guided by the text, not left behind in a trail of dust (and words).
So there we have it, my top tips for spicing up the written word: grab their attention, then hold it; shake things up and leave them wanting more. These should help you go a long way past knowledge transfer and into the land of connecting with your learner.