Clear writing and good advice are in hot demand. Thanks to YouTube, Udemy, Instructables, and the like, people are clamoring to learn at an unprecedented pace. But learning remains a challenge! Because of the sheer abundance of content, finding someone who is willing and able to actually impart true wisdom is like striking gold…
Good training content speaks for itself, and usually demonstrates an oft-elusive combination of strong guidance, empathy for the reader, and a respect for their pursuit of knowledge. Some training resources do it well — like this amazing blog post — but many fall short of the mark. One determining factor: the quality of writing.
Which leads to the obvious question of what makes good training copy? How can you weave good writing practices into your own instructional content?
It’s About The Content
While tutorials are all about content that doesn’t mean you can forget about style! It does mean it’s important to pay especially close attention to your information and the manner in which you convey it to the reader, however.
Avoid Surprises By Utilizing Clear Structure
Writing to entertain involves surprises, but when you’re writing to instruct you want to avoid surprises. The more you help your reader understand what they are about to learn and the manner in which it’ll be explained, the better they’ll be able to trust that you’re taking them on a helpful, educational journey.
At the most basic level, this means you should always ensure that you have a clear and informative introduction. Within thirty seconds of reading, aim to convey to your reader exactly what they’ll have learned by the end of the tutorial or lesson. When you start a new section, it’s a great idea to return to your structure, reminding readers where they are in the overall learning process.
Increase Complexity Gradually
This is where empathy comes in. Understand that your reader will likely begin their journey with a basic understanding of the subject matter. That’s why the best tutorial content starts by introducing simple concepts first, and then progressively building on those ideas.
Let’s say you wanted to teach someone fly-fishing and they’d never held a fishing rod before. It’d be pointless to explain the finer points of casting technique until you’d placed the fishing rod in their hands and explained how the reel worked. It’s the same deal for any concept you plan to teach: Start simple and build concepts so you can increase the complexity later in the lesson or tutorial.
Consolidate The Learning Process
This gets back to the basics you likely learned in high school English: Say what you’re about to explain, then explain it, then summarize what you just explained. Repetition isn’t redundancy. Far from it. Revisiting the same concepts repeatedly gives your audience the best chance of absorbing your ideas and actually learning from your information.
Don’t Forget About Style
Good content is as much about the trainer as it is about the content. Imagine Obi-Wan Kenobi imparting his wisdom while wearing a purple velour tracksuit, a fanny pack, and a YOLO baseball cap. All his advanced Jedi knowledge suddenly loses some of its mystique, right? So too with instructional writing. Style matters.
Talk to Your Audience, Not at Them
Avoid impersonal, third-person writing at all costs. Sure, you’re writing about knowledge, but your reader wants to have a relationship with that knowledge, and, for that matter, with you. The easiest way to achieve this is to forget that you’re writing. Discard the idea that sitting at a keyboard and turning ideas into words is some special, abstract process.
Instead, imagine that you’re talking directly to your student while a scribe writes down everything you say. You, the trainer, are the speaker. The scribe is just the freelancer you pay to keep notes. Dividing your brain this way can help you eliminate barriers you might be building between you and your students.
Pro tip: use the pronoun “you” a lot.
“You’ll want to avoid sticking your screwdriver in because it’ll send 10,000 volts up your arm, and probably send you clear across the room.”
is a lot punchier and more memorable than:
“Insertion of the screwdriver will result in severe electrical shock to the technician, with the possibility of serious injury.”
Ditch the impersonal talk.
Write like you’d carry on a conversation and your reader will feel like they’re listening to you speak instead of reading. This change in style will then keep them engaged and interested.
Maintain Your Authority
This might seem oddly counter-intuitive given the suggestion that you favor personal over impersonal writing, but it makes sense. By analogy, picture Obi-Wan Kenobi again, this time in his full Jedi regalia. Now, imagine he’s getting ready to deliver his Lightsabers 101 seminar. All his eager Jedi students are sitting in the classroom, rosy-faced and giddy with excitement to finally get their hands on their first real weapon.
The venerable space mage casts his eyes knowingly around the room. He draws in a deep breath. Everyone leans forward to hear his words of space wisdom and he explains he had one too many bean burritos for lunch and that he may need to leave the classroom in a hurry… if you know what he means!
Be personable. Be relatable. But always be the teacher. The magic of imparting knowledge requires a certain power exchange, where the trainer holds themselves a little apart from their students. Your writing should maintain that same subtle separation, that same air of authority. After all, you are the expert.
If you find yourself apologizing and dissembling in your writing (or divulging something compromising about your personal life or digestive challenges) delete that sentence and start over with conviction and authority. In other words, believe in yourself and your position of expertise and your readers will too.
To sum it up, here are what can be referred to as The Three Knows: Know your content, know your audience and know yourself.
If you can achieve these three states of knowing, your content and style will fall into place. And remember, if in doubt, just channel your inner Obi-Wan (but maybe ditch the bean burritos and purple velour tracksuit).