How to recognize elearning bloat

When stakeholders think every detail is equally important, the result can be bloated elearning.

This hilarious YouTube video shows what I mean.

To fight the enemy, we have to see it

My favorite writing teacher used parody to help us recognize and remove bloat. Here’s a small example.

The following statement is sort of Apple style–minimal and direct. Your assignment is to rewrite it, packing in as many words and details as possible.

Before

Don’t bring your cat to work, because some of your colleagues could be allergic.

After label

Here’s one possible rewrite:

All staff, both exempt and non-exempt, should endeavor to observe a complete ban on feline companion animals in the workplace at all times, due to the fact that much of the human population experiences an allergic histamine reaction to cat glycoprotein. Your observation of this ban is appreciated.

What happened?

By examining how we bloated the statement, we can begin to recognize bloat in our own materials. So let’s look at the damage we did.

  • Instead of speaking directly to the reader (“don’t”), we spoke in the abstract (“all staff…should endeavor”).
  • We redundantly defined “all” (“both exempt and non-exempt”).
  • We over-elaborated “cat” (“feline companion animals”).
  • We chose words with lots of syllables (“endeavor,” “feline,” etc.).
  • We unnecessarily pointed out that a “complete ban” is in effect “at all times.”
  • We replaced one word (“because”) with five (“due to the fact that”).
  • We got overly scientific. Probably a stakeholder said, “We have to say what they’re allergic to!”
  • We added an unnecessary and fake-sounding thanks that has no real subject (“is appreciated” by whom?). Probably a stakeholder said, “We can’t just issue an edict. It sounds too harsh.”

Of course, bloated prose is just a tiny symptom of a bigger problem: too much information. In a future post, I’ll share a technique that can help you keep your courses lean and focused.

How much bloat did you pack in to your rewrite? And how do you persuade your stakeholders that some of their details should be cut?

Share
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

Comments

  1. Great example, Cathy – that video can’t possibly get enough play.

    Sadly the “Microsoft Way” is what we see in most eLearning…

    And bloated writing is epidemic in business. I believe my most valuable class in college was a journalism class where I learned to truly embrace the red pencil. I’d write my draft article, pleased with the results. My professor would turn it back with a single-word comment at the top: “Shorter.” So I’d trim it down and resubmit. What did she give back to me? “Shorter.” Back and forth we’d go until I thought I couldn’t possibly remove or shorten one more word. Yet still – “Shorter.”

    That process was a revelation.

  2. wendy phillips says:

    Oh so true and one of my main missions when creating ‘stuff’ along with using space (white or otherwise) and images effectilvely.

    I find keeping the tone conversational really helps to get rid of bloat – speak to the person at the other end of the medium as though they were right in front of you and you quickly realise what is plain silly and can be removed from your content!

  3. Sadly, the video says it is no longer available. And, I have a feeling it tells the story perfectly!

  4. Marty, thanks for reporting your problems with the video. It’s working for me at the moment. If your workplace restricts YouTube, it’s possible you’d get some sort of “not available” message. Or maybe the video went offline briefly and is now back.

  5. Chris, I’ve also got journalism training. I think a lot of what we learned from our journalism teachers could be applied to elearning. It’s a shame that instructional design programs don’t seem to spend much time on developing a tight writing style.

  6. Wendy, I agree that “white” space can make a huge difference, and speaking directly to the learner is a powerful approach. One of the simplest and most effective changes we can make is to rewrite something so it says “you.”

  7. I ran the cat exercise through an ADA compliance filter and it added this mandated addition:

    “In compliance with ADA mandates, seeing-eye cats, individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability to perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself are hereby and forthwith excluded from this otherwise complete ban.”

  8. Paul–And we haven’t even run it by Legal yet!

Scenario design online course

Learn more