Finding the Right Voice for Your Courses

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“Hey, are you ready for some first aid! Want to splint sprains and bandage boo-boos? Want to leave your audience in stitches? Then, you’ve come to the right place! Welcome to the Fun with First Aid course where what you learn goes straight to your head and you won’t need aspirin!”

How would you feel if you had signed up for a first aid course at your community centre and this was the first thing you saw in your course material? Personally, I’d be asking for a refund as I was walking out the door. What’s the problem? The voice is wrong for the audience and so is the tone! In this article, I’ll explain the difference between voice and tone, and you’ll learn why finding the appropriate voice and tone for your courseware is important to its success.

Finding the Right Voice for Your Courses

Voice and Tone, What’s the Difference?

The voice you use in your courseware should represent the client’s image and the nature of the content. For example, if your client is a corporation where formal communication is important, your writing needs to reflect that “voice”. The vocabulary, pace of phrasing and personality must match that of the entity sending the message. Imagine if Smokey the Bear had said, “It is strongly suggested that campfires be extinguished in a timely and safe manner so that the surrounding forest is not endangered”, rather than “Only you can prevent forest fires”. We might not have much standing timber left!

Tone, on the other hand, is what you do with that voice. In the case of corporate communication, the voice can be officious, but the tone can be friendly. For example, “All employees must comply with Standard 77AZ02. If you have any questions or concerns, please speak with Stella Parsons in HR”. You still have the directive, but you also have polite instructions for those who need more information. The notice could easily have read, ““All employees must comply with Standard 77AZ02. NO EXCEPTIONS!”

Finding the Right Voice

Content

What are you teaching? This is the first question you should ask as you are thinking about the course content and its design. Are you teaching concepts or facts? If you are, your voice should be an expert one that uses correct terminology and speaks in a more formal style. This type of voice works well for compliance-based content or for training that explains rules, regulations or legislation.

Content that teaches processes or procedures can be written a little less formally. Use shorter sentences and keep the language as simple and straightforward as you can. You want the learner to focus on what is being taught rather than reading content peppered with jargon and long, complex sentences.

Where safety training is concerned, a firm voice should be used. Safety training is always serious, so keep the jokes for another course.

Audience

The voice you use when you are speaking to children is different from the one you use when speaking to a police officer. So, why should you use the same voice for all learning audiences?

It’s important to know your audience before you start writing your learning content. You need to consider:

  • Who the learners are: Check the demographics of the audience. Are they older, experienced employees or new hires? Are they management, the rank-and-file, or both? What is the general level of education? Is English their first language?
  • Personality traits: Generally speaking, a management-level audience will be more serious than an audience comprised of junior-level employees. As you probe the demographics of your learning audience, you’ll learn about its personality.
  • What a conversation would sound like:  One of the rules of good writing is to write as you would speak. If you are having a conversation with a CEO, your speech would be more formal than it would if you were talking to your neighbour. A course for daycare workers would read a lot more differently than a course for elected municipal officials. Keep your writing conversational but remember to make it appropriate to the audience.

Using the Proper Tone

The type of content and audience also influence the tone of your courseware. For example, a course used for onboarding new employees should be written in a warm, friendly tone and may contain video or animation. A business controls course for branch management will require language with a more serious tone and use charts and graphs to get the message across.

Narration also help establish the tone for a course. If you use an off-screen narrator, make sure that he or she has the right rhythm and expression for the content. You wouldn’t want a customer service course to be narrated by Walter Cronkite, nor would you use Betty White to narrate a course on firearms safety. Hire professional voice actors for your narration.

Graphics such as charts, photos and drawings also help set the tone and should be appropriate to the audience and content. Sometimes, a humorous picture or cartoon can lighten the mood even though the course content may be of a serious nature. For example, you could use this photo as an introduction to a course on preparing a car for repainting:

But, use the right picture. For example, this graphic:

may be more appropriate for a course on kitchen knife safety than this one:

Choose your visuals with the tone of the course in mind.

More Tips for Choosing the Right Voice and Tone for Your Courseware

Here are some other things you should keep in mind to help you use the proper voice and appropriate tone for the courses you create.

  • The client’s brand: Clients spend a lot of time and money developing their brand and protecting it and the image it represents. Just ask Coca-Cola.
  • The desired course outcome: Considering what the course is meant to achieve allows you to connect with your audience. For a course on working with seniors in a nursing home, it may be best to use a warm and inviting conversational tone. This provides a relaxed approach to the content and will help to encourage learners to use what they’ve learned to make the seniors comfortable. For a course that is meant to change the learners’ behaviour, such as a course on the dangers of impaired driving, a serious but not overly dramatic tone is what you need, lest you wind up being compared to the ending of the 1936 anti-cannabis movie “Reefer Madness”.
  • Your own personality: One of the rules of instructional design is to never say, “What I do”, “What I recommend” or “In my opinion” in courseware content. No one cares because you most likely are not an SME. However, you can let your personality show through in the voice and tone you use in your writing. If you really care about the topic, let some of that show through as it helps with learner engagement. Use your sense of humour where appropriate. Even though the end-product is not “yours”, leave your mark on the content you create.
  • Audio effects: Music, sound effects and narration can all help set the mood of the course and help to establish its voice and tone. Use these devices to draw the learner in and to enhance the learning experience. Here again, consider the audience demographics when using music and choose the right music for the right age group. If your audience consists of learners with special needs (hearing or visual disabilities), you may not want to use music as they may find it distracting. Christopher Pappas has some great tips on using audio in eLearning.

Conclusion

When you think about the voice you use and the tone your content needs, think about how you speak with others. Simple speech with a happy tone is great when dealing with babies or toddlers because they understand your intent even though they may not understand every word you’re saying. When you talk with friends, your voice is relaxed, and the tone is casual. With clients, you probably speak more formally with a friendly, business-like tone because it’s natural.

And that should be your guide as you try to find the right voice and tone for your courseware. Be natural, be sensible and, above all, make it sound as though you know what you’re talking about. Your learners and your clients will appreciate it.

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Peter Exner

Peter is an Instructional Designer with BaseCorp Learning Systems. He has been writing and creating learning materials for just over 20 years and is still relatively sane. When he’s not working you can find him on a golf course or on a sunny deck with his trusty Martin D-28 guitar in hand.

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