Have I Got Your Attention?

Ever been bored by e-learning? Ever seen an opening screen riddled with bullet after bullet of objectives, with a ‘screen 1 of 98’ counter in the bottom right, as if to say ‘Think you’re bored now? Just you wait until screen 45…’?

We all feel your pain. First impressions in e-learning courses are so often dismal. Designers have a responsibility to make every moment engaging. What can you do in the first few seconds to hook and hold your learners?

1. Drop them in it

Someone once said of face-to-face training that people ‘assume the position’ on entering a classroom environment. It looks like school, there’s someone in charge, so you slump back, take a few notes you’ll never look at again and expect to learn, or contribute, fairly little. Expectations are low all round. Is e-learning the same? Do your learners sit up or slump back? One way of getting people to sit up is to give them something to do, immediately. No explanation, no scene-setting – just put people directly into the action. For example, in a sales e-learning module, create an interaction where the client’s looking down the lens and asking what you’re going to do about your competitor’s offer to match any price you quote. Getting straight into the action can send an important signal that there’s no sitting back in this learning.

2. Tell a story

It’s part of our DNA to tell and learn from stories, and it can be a very effective opening gambit in e-learning. One technique is to borrow from Dickens and use a cliff-hanger. One of the best pieces of e-learning we’ve seen started with an anecdote about a US police officer who had to decide who to pull out of a burning car wreck. He knew he didn’t have time to save all of the passengers, so he had to make a seemingly impossible decision. Here’s how he made it… At this point the story paused, and the focus of the learning – making decisions – was set. At the end of the module, the learner returned to the police officer’s story and he explained how he dealt with the situation, which was a nice bookending approach.

3. Learn from the ad execs

E-learning should look less like training and more like the outputs of marketing and communications teams. They know how to grab people instantly and hold their attention. People who make ads for a living know that you can use visuals, music, statistics and simple but powerful messages to shock, amuse, provoke – and, above all, engage. In a diversity module, we opened up with an image of a black man, and the statement ‘Have you ever felt discriminated against…’ then paused before revealing ‘because of your age?' Most people are expecting a point about race. Think about how you can wrong-foot people and rattle their expectations.

4. Apply peer pressure

One of the oldest advertising tricks is the ‘everyone’s doing it’ approach: 'Look at all of these successful and happy people. They all use the same detergent. You mean you don’t use it? Oh dear, you might want to do something about that…' We think it doesn’t work on us, but it does. Nobody wants to feel left out of a good thing, and our herding instinct soon kicks in. Can your learning take a similar approach upfront? Can you gather success stories from your organisation showing how people who’ve mastered the topic of your learning are benefiting from it? Peer pressure is a great way to get attention upfront.

Make sure the first few seconds of your e-learning gets the heart pumping – and then live up to the expectations you’ve set. If you go too far, and people ask you to tone it down, it's a sign that you’re headed in the right direction.

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