The Authentic Voice in Learning

I’ve been cyber-quiet this past month as I take some time to transition into a new career phase. The most important thing I’ve gotten from this valuable experience is time. It is so easy to get caught up in the next project, the next curriculum, the next deliverable, until there is no longer space to appreciate all of the inspiration out there.

So I did what a lot of people do when they have spare time (or are procrastinating!): I aimlessly surfed the web. I was not looking for anything in particular. It was more that I wanted to spend some time really experiencing digital content, or rather as a learning strategist, to eat my own dog food. While some content was crunchy, others left a bad aftertaste and heartburn.

One of the main things that struck me again and again was tone of voice. Most courses had a similar style: a second-person narrative that is instructive, rather than conversational in tone. Likewise, the structure was a generic format repeated across all modules: overview, learning objectives, step-by-step content, then a summary. A multiple choice question or drag-and-drop might be thrown in for some spiciness. Other than that, a very predictable and formulaic experience.

Obviously, there is much to be said about clarity; learners should not have to interpret or intuit content. Consideration should also be made for global content with ESL audiences. I also greatly appreciate how standards allow for the rapid creation of content, especially for large companies with high learner demands. Lastly, as a former English Literature graduate, I am passionate about strong writing and grammar. I also have an open love affair with the Oxford Comma.

At some point, has the over-reliance on style guides and templates rendered content sterile, and perhaps, unpalatable to the modern learner?

In a digital environment, the tenuous relationship between learner and facilitator is drastically altered from the one in the classroom. The learner is in supreme control of the interaction and can click close at any time. Hours spent online also means that the learner is not only extremely finicky, but has a very astute BS detector for content that they do not have an affinity for. They are also extremely adept at the triangulation of data – seeking out comments, filtering for likes, and distrusting sources they do not share values with.

This begs the question of whether the style and tone adopted by much of the learning content out there really resonates or is simply white noise.

Here’s a very interesting parallel tale:

A few weeks back, a video featuring musician Pharrell Williams and an then unknown artist, Maggie Rogers, went viral. It was a clip from a Music Masterclass at NYU. Students presented their songs and Pharrell provided feedback. When Maggie Rogers’ song “Alaska” is presented, there are a few things to note:

  1. The song is in a raw and incomplete format
  2. Maggie speaks honestly about her musical journey towards creating the song
  3. The classic expression on Pharrell’s face pretty much says it all.

Not only is “Alaska” a phenomenal piece of work, what really resonates in this video is the authenticity. There are no filters or constructs. It is an open exchange of ideas and collaboration without prefabrication. More critically, viewers contributed actively to the refinement of the song via their comments and likes on various platforms such as Sound Cloud and YouTube

This is an extreme example, but there is a definite trend towards authentic and unscripted content. Consider James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke or Reddit’s AMA (Ask Me Anything). These experiences are appealing because they that have not been rigidly pre-planned or controlled. They say to the audience: we will show you a peek behind the curtain to establish a stronger relationship.

So what does this mean for learning design? For a start, challenge some of the artificiality in content voice. I am frequently presented with canned, corporate speak, copy that really does not engage. It sounds much like “This innovative tool will allow for real-time collaboration to break-down communication silos and yield transparent metrics”**. Contrast this with, “You can use this tool to view and comment on everyone’s projects”.

I would also question whether every piece of learning content needs to have the same voice. Yes, there are standards that must be met and a good copy editor is worth their weight in gold. That said, if a learner is going through hours of content, find ways to engage with tone. Write to captive, not to inform. If you are doing the latter, then what you have is a User Manual, not a piece of learning.

Lastly, quit striving for perfection. Awhile ago, news sites started to employ the “Report a typo or error” button. As speed to publish is critical, it is a fine balance between flawless writing and meeting the ravenous appetites of the audience. No one likes to spot an error, but with rapid authoring tools, content can be fixed post-launch. It is more important to push out the information to meet needs.     

No learner likes to feel pandered to or as though they are being fed content that has been strained and mashed to a pulp by marketing or communications. Respond by trusting your learners to be mature colleagues who are savvy enough to see-through corporate rhetoric. A loosening the grips of the style guides and structure just might add a human element your learners will respond positively to.

**not a real piece of content