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Documentation and e-Learning (Part 2): Show, Don't Tell

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By Dave Powell, Documentation Manager, SyberWorks, Inc.

For several years now, I’ve been writing poetry. The local poet who taught our class showed us a huge variety of poetic “forms”: ABeCeDarius, Acrostic, Anaphora, Ars Poetica, Blank Verse, Crown of Sonnets, Eclogue, Haiku, Internal Rhyme, Nested Word, Ode, Pantoum, Rondelet, Sestina, Shape Verse, Triolet, Villanelle…just a few of the thousands of poetic forms out there. And the drumbeat mantra that helps to differentiate all of them from plain old ordinary prose is: “Show, Don't Tell.”

The following short poem helps to illustrate the concept:


(Inspired by the phrase “--a hat of wind” from “The Death of the Hat” by Billy Collins.)

Autumn brings Earth
to the harvest dance,
her amber locks tossing
under a hat of wind.

Her olive-skinned fields
flowing into silk-stocking streams,
and wildflower tulle twisting
over twirling heels.

An indigo sash circling
her sunset neck,
and her star-flashed eyes
daring Winter to cut in.

(Copyright 2009, Dave Powell)

If one simply told readers what the poem is saying, it’d be a bit of a yawn: “It’s autumn… yellow leaves toss in the breeze… fields are green…streams flow…wildflowers twist in the wind…it’s sunset… stars appear in the evening sky…and winter is near.”

But a poetic picture that shows the same thing using the animated image of Earth as a dancer helps readers savor the raw facts, internalize them, and perhaps even enjoy their delivery. All of these aid in remembering, which is key to successful training.

“Show, Don’t Tell” also applies to user documentation. When I arrived at SyberWorks a few years ago, the existing Web Author User Manual told readers about Web Author’s features and controls, but said little about how to use them to build online courses. So I wrote a completely new manual that shows users-step-by-step-how to create online training through Web Author.

Manual Table of Content

And lo-and-behold, our internal customer-support people started to use the new manual to train both new customers and themselves.

Some companies have stretched the “showing” idea as far as it can go…through something called “Docs without Words.” Hewlett-Packard and IBM were among the first to create picture-book manuals, which were mostly show with little tell.

Quick Step Picture Book

I’m not sure this would work well for SyberWorks’ manuals. But I am noodling ways to use the idea to shorten them (and maybe even to inspire more users to crack ’em open).

And “Show, Don’t Tell” applies just as well to e-Learning.

As you prepare to create any new training, first outline the raw facts you want students to learn. And instead of simply telling them those facts on course pages, think of interesting, creative ways to show students what you want them to internalize…perhaps even (as in poetry) using as few words as possible. Active Images, Flash movies, and animated Web Demonstrations are all wonderful tools for doing this.

For example, this kind of interactive activity helps students learn more about the relative sizes of fractions:

But you're the course developers…You can think of more!

Need some inspiration to get your creative juices flowing? Just microwave some popcorn, curl up in front of your favorite PC, free your mind, and watch some of the thousands of educational videos on YouTube and iTunes. Heck, if it would help, you might even try poetry.

About the Author:

Dave Powell is Documentation Manager for SyberWorks Inc., a privately-held supplier of e-Learning software and training. For the past 15 years, he has written award-winning marketing collateral and user documentation for hardware/software companies like PictureTel, 3Com, Philips Medical Systems, Polaroid, and SyberWorks. Prior to that, he edited and wrote for publications like Computerworld, Infosecurity News, Networking Management, Digital Design, LightWave, Popular Computing, Harvard Business Review, and Leaders. (During that time, he also served as an author and Editorial Advisor for Sesame Street.)

About SyberWorks

SyberWorks, Inc. is a leader in providing Learning Management Systems and custom e-Learning Solutions for Fortune 1000 corporations, higher education, and other organizations. Located in Waltham, Massachusetts, the company serves the multi-billion-dollar e-Learning market. Since 1995, SyberWorks has developed and delivered unique and economical solutions for creating, managing, measuring, and improving e-Learning programs at companies and organizations in the United States, Canada, Europe, and other countries.

SyberWorks, Inc.
411 Waverley Oaks Road
Building 3, Suite 319
Waltham, MA 02452

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