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Copywriting for Instructional Design Narration and Role Playing

By Peter Drew

People have learned by listening for thousands of years. This fact hasn’t changed with the advent of computer technology and instructional design. The spoken word can be a powerful part of an interactive online course. An important key to successful integration of spoken instruction into a course is the writing. Let’s examine the script writing basics that will help a narrator or actor impart your course’s information effectively.

There’s a time for talk

As an instructional designer, you determine the methods for delivering the information in a course, the feedback processes to ensure learning has occurred, and the media combinations suitable to stimulate an appropriate level of interactivity. For this discussion, we’ll consider a multimedia mix that includes a narrator who speaks throughout most of the course, as well as several role-playing situations that require a male and female actor.

Let’s take the narration first. Will the narrator simply read the on-screen text? Or, will the narrator provide the bulk of instruction, while the on-screen text consists of highlights or bullet points to reinforce the narration? Either way, the narration will need to time out properly to stay within the time allotted for that particular course module.

A moderate narration pace is about 140 words per minute. A more deliberate pace, suitable for complicated concepts or detailed explanation, is about 120 to 130 words per minute. Use the word count feature in your word processor to determine the total number of words in the script and then divide by the appropriate wpm to get the total number of minutes of narration.

Simple is good and less is more

But let’s back up before we starting counting words. If the narrator is reading the on-screen text verbatim, then is the text written for the ear as well as the eye? Writing for the ear works best when it’s as “active” as possible. Avoid passive constructions, e.g., “When writing a script for an online course, be sure you’re writing interesting material or you’ll be losing the attention of the learner.” Passive constructions are flat, not conversational, and more difficult to follow. Instead, structure sentences with the active voice, e.g., “When you write a script for an online course, write interesting material, so you don’t lose your learner’s attention.” Active voice gets to the point quicker and with fewer words to boot.

Short sentences are more conversational. If the material is complicated and sentences tend to run longer and are less conversational, be sure to break up each sentence into natural “thought groups,” which can be separated by commas or dashes, much as this sentence has been written. Your narrator will appreciate having natural places to take a breath as it would be taken in conversation.

Putting words in people’s mouths

It’s safe to say most people don’t expect to hear elite Hollywood scriptwriting or acting in a role-playing module within an online course. It’s also safe to say you don’t want students giggling at the voice actors’ performances or the lines they’re saying either. Creating a believable and engaging scenario is not difficult. Simply write it the way you’d say it.

In other words, write for the ear, not the eye. Use contractions. “I’ll get the report ready for the meeting on Thursday.” (“I’ll” instead of “I will”) Break rules of grammar if it will make a conversation more natural. “The project? It’s looking good.” (“Good” instead of “well”) Write in “thought-groups,” the way people speak, including the use of incomplete sentences. “Why’d I miss the meeting? Got lost. Couldn’t find the exit.” A good way to make your slice-of-life scenes more realistic is to write out loud and not in your head. Actually have the conversation aloud as you type. You’ll hear what sounds stiff as it comes out of your mouth and you can adjust it as you go along.

The voice actors you cast to play the characters in your role-playing scenes will thank you for letting them speak like people not programmed robots, and the scene will be more believable, engaging, and effective at getting the instruction across the learners.

Time waits for no copywriter

Back to the timing issue.

If, for example, a course module is set to come in at around 45 minutes and a good portion of it is narration and/or role-playing, then timing the script you’ve written is quite easy.

For narration, read out loud for minute at the pace appropriate to the material. Note where you stop in the copy. Using your mouse, highlight from the beginning of the sixty seconds of copy to the point you stopped at the minute mark. Use the Word Count feature under Tools in Word to find out how many words there are in that minute of copy. Highlight the whole narration to get the total number of words. Then divide by the number of words in your one-minute read. That will give you the approximate total number of minutes of narration in the module. Do the same with role-playing scenes. Be sure to read them out loud at the pace you’d like to hear the conversation. With the times you get, you can adjust your copy to the proper length and at the same time reduce the probability that copy will need re-cutting later for timing purposes.

Accurate timing of the copy and writing for the ear will enable your voice talent to more effectively and efficiently communicate your course material, improving comprehension and retention by learners.

About the author
Peter Drew is a member of eLearningVoices.com, the online voice-casting site that specializes in voice-overs for e-learning courses and linear audio and video training presentations. To see the roster of over 40 e-learning voiceover specialists, hear their demos, and the cost-efficient Price Per Produced Minute plan, please visit eLearningVoices.com.