As an ID, you create courses that people need to take. The problem is, even though the knowledge is good for them, we know they don’t actually want to take the course. You want people to love your eLearning, but I swear, sometimes getting people to take their training feels like getting kids to eat their vegetables.

So sometimes, we need to be like the parent who hides their kid’s vegetables inside a chocolate cake. If we do enough of the right things around the knowledge, our learners will love the course and benefit from the knowledge. The difference is these tactics actually support the learning experience, not just mask it. And no cavities!

Make Sure Your Course Has Personality

Have you ever gone to a party and gotten stuck talking to somebody while your friends wandered off having fun with people you actually like? All the while you’re stuck talking to some nerd telling you in great detail all the reasons why Star Wars is better than Star Trek? What a nightmare (because…duh…Star Trek is WAY better)! Well, this can be how it feels to be a prisoner in an eLearning course with no personality.

When it comes to adding personality into your courses, there two main things to consider: the narrator and the script that they’re working from.


Courses with at least some narration, perform better than courses without it. And when it comes to adding narration, I would almost always recommend a professional narrator over a DIY approach. In the grand scheme of eLearning costs, professional narration is extremely cheap, and it can really add to your courses’ professionalism. There’s also more to great narration than a “good sounding voice.” The ability to read without sounding like you’re reading, matching tone to content, proper leveling and noise reduction, etc. So, using a professional can actually bring more value than recruiting Susie from Customer Service, just because she sounds good over the phone.

And speaking of a DIY approach, please don’t consider using text-to-speech in place of a real narrator. Trust me, I like robots as much as the next guy, but I don’t want to hear him narrating my course. Even though text-to-speech has come a long way, it still doesn’t sound realistic. In almost every instance where we’ve experimented, users get more distracted by the robot voice than any benefit it brings from time savings.

The Script

The other area having to do with personality is the script. We know a lot of our narrator’s personally. They all joke about how clients request a “conversational tone” even though their script reads like an encyclopedia. To sound conversational, you need to write conversational, and that starts with the Instructional Designer. There’s an art to taking complex material and writing it using everyday speech. As long as you align the overall tone with the company culture, your script should be as casual as you can make it. This helps users connect to the information by making it feel approachable, and not like a dry and boring lecture.

Looks DO Matter

Let’s face it, as superficial as it sounds, we’re all attracted to attractive things. Beauty being only skin deep aside, if something doesn’t look good, we assume it isn’t good.

This mentality extends to your eLearning projects as well. If your course uses stupid looking fonts, or a hideous color scheme, or it looks like it’s from 20 years ago, it undermines the course’s credibility. An attractive, polished presentation garners respect that ugly courses never could.

Beyond the negative implications of ugly courses, there are positive benefits to a beautiful course. Our society is becoming more visually focused every day, so good looking courses help with engagement. If a course looks cool, we start off with the opinion that it’s cool. We’re still responsible for MAKING it cool, but sometimes starting off with the right mindset is half the battle.

Don’t overlook the fact that your course visuals are intertwined with the course personality as well. Make sure your visual and vocal tone are aligned, and mesh well with your audience mentality. If your course is full of jokes (*cough* like semi-relevant Sanford & Son memes) and your audience expects a serious, straight-forward approach, you’re going to lose them.

Add Realistic Activities

In our last article, Why Did My eLearning Course Fail, one of the reasons we included was the course being too passive. Naturally, the way to combat a course that’s too passive, is to add more activities. But just adding activities is only half the issue. Those activities need to be realistic and relevant for them to resonate with your audience.

Simulating Real World Activities in Articulate Storyline

Drag the marker to identify duplicated ideas

For example, we created a course on Six Sigma Yellow Belt certification. One of the activities was supposed to simulate a group brainstorming session. To utilize the strategy, each person would write a description, and then the group would identify any duplicate ideas across each description. For the eLearning, we simulated the descriptions written by other users. Then we created a drag-and-drop activity for the user to circle the common themes. This took a social, pen-and-paper activity and translated the spirit of it into a keyboard-and-mouse (or touchscreen) activity. By adding the realism and relevancy of the actual activity into this exercise, it brought the challenge to users in a way static or passive content never could.

Branched Scenarios Can Add Realism

Another way to add depth and realism to your courses is with scenarios. Depending on your needs, budget, etc., scenarios can represent all sorts of flavors and complexities. But branched scenarios are a great way to simulate real life situations, if you have the time, budget, and the technical and subject matter expertise. We’ve talked many times about how to make scenarios more effective, but most of all it requires being real enough for learners to connect the scenario to experiences they’ve had in the real world.

One thing that’s unique to scenarios is their ability to present benefits and consequences to learners in organic ways. In life, nobody jumps out with a sign and says “Incorrect, you gave the wrong answer.” In most real cases, we determine what we did wrong by interpreting people’s reactions to our choices. It’s the nuance of these gray areas where real learning takes place. In a simple course, it’s possible to just guess / memorize the correct responses. But requiring users to interpret the meaning of a response to guide their subsequent reactions; that’s actually applying skills.

International culture training that graded performance on each business trip

International culture training that graded performance on each business trip

For example, we created a course for an international company that helped train global employees on various cultures. We simulated several business trips and presented users with situations they would encounter in various societies, where the company had foreign offices. The user conducted meetings in each country, and needed to make choices in various circumstances. Surrounding characters would react accordingly, and the user would need to adjust their behavior based on those reactions. Each trip was scored and tracked based on how much trust they built with the people they interacted with.

Use Variables to Simulate “Memory”

Have you ever had someone ask you a question, and then obviously get distracted before you could even answer? How annoying! It’s frustrating to feel like we just aren’t being heard. This happens all the time in eLearning courses. The narrator asks us a question, and 2 seconds later…poof…they don’t even remember what they asked us. Kind of defeats the purpose of giving meaningful answers. But if we incorporate variables into our courses, we can create the illusion of memory.

For example, we created a course on a company’s information firewall. In addition to content explaining the firewall and the intricacies involved, it had tons of specific scenario questions. However, not all questions were relevant to all learners. So during the course, the narrator conducted a series of mini-interviews. These interviews were designed to segment the questions and funnel only the relevant ones to each learner.

memory in eLearning

The narrator “remembered” questions appropriate for this user

We designed the course with a SUPER casual tone, and made everything totally conversational (and not the encyclopedia kind of conversational). By combining this tone and personality, with a memory, it actually created the illusion that you were talking with the narrator as a real person. Learners loved the character, connected with her personality, named her, and genuinely enjoyed a compliance course. How often do you hear that?

Software Training

Software training obviously isn’t a strategy to employ in your typical eLearning course. However, software training is so often done HORRIBLY, that I felt compelled to add it to this article. While I’m a huge fan of eLearning tools like Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate, they are also what has facilitated terrible software training. This has happened in much the same way that PowerPoint empowered people to bore us to death with cheesy animations and endless bullet-points. Too often lowering the barrier to entry ends up creating more bad designers.

Good software training can come in 2 forms, which are actually at opposite ends of the production value spectrum. One strategy is full-on software simulation, and the other is more YouTube-style screen-casting. Unfortunately, today’s common eLearning development tools  encourage the creation of crappy “Captivate-style” software training. Don’t get me wrong, both Storyline and Captivate can create great software training, but their out-of-the-box auto-capture feature encourages the tear-inducing, follow the callout box style courses.

Typical "Captivate-style" captioned eLearning

Typical “Captivate-style” captioned eLearning


If you have the time and the budget, software simulations can be a great way to teach and evaluate software proficiency. One caveat for even considering this approach, is ensuring the software you’re training is static enough to justify the work effort. If you’re training on a new product that is still fluid, edits and revisions will kill you. In that instance, DO NOT use simulations, at least until the product stabilizes.

But in the right cases, simulations can be great! They allow you to train “a day in the life” type situations. These evaluate not only the physical execution of how to perform the correct steps, but also how those steps fit into a larger procedural workflow.

1st place winner in Articulate's Guru contest

1st place winner in Articulate’s Guru contest

For example, robust Customer Service training could consist of simulating the actual job. First, you could play audio of a call coming in from a customer. Based on the call, the learner needs to respond by going to the correct screens to look up / record information. This demonstrates not only how to perform actions, but when those actions should be performed.


Unlike simulations, screen-casts are actually one of the easiest styles of software training you can make. Lots of tools can record your screen as you use the software, and some can even add talking-head video via your webcam.

Articulate Replay showing desktop and talking head video

Articulate Replay showing desktop and talking head video

Despite this style of training being passive on it’s own, it is often deployed in an environment where users expect to “follow along” with their own software. For example, have you ever had a tech issue with your computer, that you looked up on YouTube to resolve? You watch the video in one window and mimic the steps on your own in another. (This is much easier if users are running a dual monitor setup.) This approach brings interactivity by performing steps in the real environment, without the development time to simulate the activities.

But even if users cannot perform the steps in their own software, this approach can still be viable. Because this style of video has a person talking in everyday language, often visible onscreen (talking head), it feels much more personable than typical eLearning. This connection is what helps create the engagement, despite the simple production. The added benefit of this style is the agile development. As long as you keep videos short (which you should do anyway) updating when software changes can be much faster than other options.

Love Your eLearning

While not many users will say they love their eLearning, that’s mostly because they haven’t taken the right courses. So, like adding cheese to your broccoli, incorporate some of these strategies into your courses, and you’ll definitely have your users coming back for seconds.