When you were in English 101, more than likely, your professor taught you about the thesis statement, and the structure of an essay, which includes the introduction, body, and conclusion. If you took a journalism course, you learned that every article must lead with a compelling hook that answers “So what?” to engage the reader, Movies and television shows begin with an establishing shot, setting the context of location, era, time of day,and relationship between characters and objects. Each of these are intentional about drawing in the audience and assuming they will infer something as they connect with their background knowledge. It’s effective methodology, leveraged across many disciplines. So why do so many elearning courses begin with, “In this course you will….” followed by three to five bullet points? I don’t know about you, but I skip right over that slide or text block when I’m taking training. We suggest that you reconsider the starting gate for your courses, and design them to capture the learner from the outset.

First Impressions Matter. Make it Count!

It has been said that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. That rings true whether it’s a job interview, meeting the prospective mother-in-law, or opening an elearning course. If we want to engage our learners, we need to use the same techniques that media producers leverage.

Ideas that Catch Attention

Here are a few techniques that pique your learners’ interest.

Start with a Startling Statistic

“The U.S. Secretary of Transportation said that reading or sending a text message takes your eyes completely off the road for about five seconds, enough time to travel the length of a football field if you’re driving on an interstate.” What were your thoughts as you read that? Right. That’s the kind of reaction we want in our learners. Wouldn’t that be a great way to kick off a course overviewing the policy for use of company vehicles?

You could also flip this to increase engagement, and ask this as a question. “According to the US Secretary of Transportation, reading or sending a text message while driving takes your eyes off the road for five seconds, enough time to travel ______________,” followed by four choices. This puts some learner “skin in the game” as they commit to a choice, and adds a discovery or reinforcement when they have an answer.

Begin with a Personal Story

Having a highly visible employee share a personal experience around something related to the content. This ties in the power of the community, storytelling, and the human connection.

Set the Stage

Use the film technique of the establishing shot to set the scene about the character in your program. Imagine reading this: “Jim was an ordinary guy, working in the CSR pool until the day he got the threatening call.”

Leverage Video

With software training, you could create a montage of the improved software functionality contrasted with frustrated users.

Incorporate the Familiar

Start with a problem the learner faces. “Have you ever…..?” is a great way to build empathy and introduce a solution.

How Much Do You Really Know?

Help the learner discover they don’t know as much as they thought about the topic. Include a few questions from the post-test at the outset of the course, selecting key points that are new. When learners get some of the questions wrong, they discover they don’t’ know what they thought they knew. Psychologists call this kind of cognitive knowledge gap the illusion of explanatory depth. They may have some knowledge about the subject you’ll be exploring, but don’t know what you’ll be teaching in the course, giving them a reason to continue. When people discover that they don’t know what they think they know, and are given an opportunity to learn it, they focus on discovery.

Use a Poll

Not every LMS will support this, but if you can link out from your course, you could ask a poll question, then show the statistics of the responses of those who have taken the course so far. People are interested in the thoughts of others.

Create a Specific Path

Lots of the courses we teach are generalized, but may incorporate role-based variations. Focus on the specific learner and his or her role in the company.Target multiple audiences, have the learners select their role at the beginning so they realize they will have focused content. They don’t need to know that 80% of the slides were the same for everyone. Be sure to tie in the interconnectedness of the roles in fulfilling the goals to make your course cohesive.

It Starts Before the Introduction: Titles Matter

While we’re at it, be sure to create a title that describes your course well. Things as mundane as laundry detergent aren’t labeled Soap 101, Soap 305, but are packaged as Tide, Dash, Cheer and All. Why? There’s a subliminal message being sent to the consumer. We want to label our work with enough to identify the content to ensure the learner selects the right course from the LMS, but to provide an idea of what’s to come. I’m pretty sure Release 7.5672 Improvements won’t excite anyone. ‘Nuff said.

Objectives Have a Place

We’ve been advocating that you don’t start your courses with the traditional opening slide listing the course objectives. Before you label us heretics, we agree that objectives have their place. They are intended to help designers determine the scope of of a course, and to plan for the ultimate outcomes that the learner should take away. That doesn’t mean that the learner needs to read them. An architect creates blueprints before a house is built, but the owners do not trot them out when guests arrive at the door to show the great planning that went into it. They open the front door, and let people in. The initial impression that is made on the guests comes from the aroma of dinner cooking in the kitchen, the immediate interior and exterior views, the decor of the the home and the friendliness of the hosts. Similarly, our elearning courses should welcome learners into discovery.

If you want to include objectives, write a short piece with a learner focus that answers the question, “What’s in this for me?” Focus on their outcomes! “When you’ve completed this courses, you’ll be able to xyz.” This eliminates the learner’s need to translate why they are taking the course from a list of bullets.

Context is King

It’s important to remember that attention is fleeting. We live in a society of instant gratification. Our learners are used to switching the channel and jumping to their next song within a few seconds of recognition if they don’t like something. If you want eLearning to be encore worthy, ensure that your first impression engages them, and carries value throughout.

Now that you know…

This is a reproduction from an actual introduction of an actual course we’ve seen. The identity has been stripped to protect those who didn’t know what they didn’t know. Promise us, now that you know, that your courses will no longer kick off in a way that causes your learners to hit the snooze button.

Engagement. That’s what it’s about.

By the way, if your courses do start like this, we can fix that. Call us today and let’s talk.

About Illumina

Illumina is a full-service learning course and systems development firm, serving corporations, government agencies, non-profits, associations, and educational institutions. From a diverse set of customer projects and learning experiences, we offer Illuminating Ideas — practical and thought-provoking comments on various topics for learning managers and development practitioners.