A lot of workforce training materials are written. This is true if it’s something your workers will actually read. And it’s true of scripts that are used for e-learning training courses as well.
We’ve written earlier about style issues for your written training materials–click here to read more about that. That article includes some simple tips, such as writing at an appropriate reading level, using conversational words, and so on. Later, you may also be interested in reading this interview with Anna Sabramowicz about using storytelling and scenarios in training.
But in this article, we’re going to show you how to format training materials using simple techniques like headers, bullets, and tables to make your training materials more effective. This will apply to materials such as Word documents and PDFs that your employees read but also to PowerPoint presentations and e-learning courses they view on a monitor or screen.
A large block of uninterrupted text on paper or a screen can be difficult to read. The same is true of writing that uses formatting that’s chaotic, random, or cluttered.
But by using simple formatting techniques, including bold section headers, bulleted and numbered lists, tables with clear titles and consistent layout, and more, you can make the information in that written material much easier for your workers to understand, remember, and apply on the job.
There are entire fields of study called structured writing and information mapping that address the issue of formatting your written materials for maximum comprehension. We won’t go into that amount of detail, but will cover a few highlights. You may then choose to study them in more depth on your own (there are even professional certifications offered). But as long as you are aware that formatting your written training materials can help, and know a few simple guidelines, you can begin using them to improve your training materials.
The general idea is to format your written training materials so it’s very easy to scan them and predict what each section is about and/or to quickly understand what each section is about. In other words, you’re using the formatting to make it easier for your workers to identify the information you want them to learn. This allows the learner’s brain to “prime” itself to take the information in.
Below are some general tips for doing this.
Select a font that’s clean and easy to read. Don’t select a decorative font that makes it harder to read.
The same basic rule applies to colors–keep it simple. Black text on a white background is easy to read. Steer clear of using different colors. You MAY occasionally use something like red to draw attention, especially in section headers, but remember to using this sparingly.
The human brain can actively process only a small amount of information at one time. Traditionally, it’s been assumed that “7 plus or minus 2” describes that limit. But more recently, that estimate has been reduced to around 4.
As a result, it’s a good idea to break your long pieces of written (or spoken) materials up inot smaller chunks.
For more about this, check our article about chunking.
Bolded section headers, like the one immediately above, make it easy for your workers to see what’s coming up. That allows them to prepare for the information your section will include.
Allowing your workers to see a bolded section header and prepare for the information helps because we learn by associating new information with existing knowledge that’s stored away in our long-term memory.
Consider using section headers of different sizes and colors to show the organizational structure of your writing (such as the ones below)
FIRST SECTION HEADER
sub-section header 1
sub-section header 2
SECOND SECTION HEADER
Use bulleted lists when possible to show information that is “parallel.” Some tips for bulleted lists include:
Numbered lists also help your employees process information. As you might have guessed, use numbered lists only when there is a true sequence or numerical order to your information, which is another tip to your readers.
Put information that has some form of relationship into a table. Tables make it easy to scan and identify the information you’re looking for, and it also helps to point our similarities and differences.
When you create a table, clearly label the table so it’s easy to tell what information it displays, clearly identify the different rows and columns, and try to present the information within each table cell in a formulaic manner so the information matches the other cells in that row or column.
There you have it. The most important thing you can take away from this article is that the way you write your training materials–not just the words and style, which we’ve covered in an earlier blog post, but the formatting, which we covered above–can make your training materials more or less effective.
You can study this more and get increasingly sophisticated over time. But just being aware of the issue in general and using the handful of tips offered above will really get you moving forward. Remember your goal is to make it easy for your employees to quickly scan your written materials, be able to predict what each section is about and how it’s different than the other sections, and to let them “prime” their brain for the written information they’re about to process.
For more related information on this topic, you might want to check out these two articles:
And before you go, please download our free guide to writing learning objectives.
All the basics about writing learning objectives for training materials.