6 Strategies For Developing Human Interest Technical Writing

How To Develop Human Interest Technical Writing

There is little or no guidance on how to stimulate human interest. Some people have a talent for lively and interesting writing, even when the content is not intrinsically interesting, but most of us do not! However, you can learn strategies for developing human interest technical writing.

Many of these strategies have been summarized and synthesized within the ARCS Model of Motivational Design (see John Keller, 2010). This model has four categories (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction) that encompass most of the elements of human motivation, but the first two (Attention and Relevance) focus on principles, strategies, and tactics that can be applied to building human interest.

These strategies come from many backgrounds including psychological research, communications research, and successful practitioners’ experiences. From all of this, I have distilled 6 groups of strategies that you can apply in your own writing! They begin with analysis and then continue with 5 groups of techniques.

1. Establish The Need 

Good design begins with the identification of a need; a gap between what the current situation is and what would be desirable. So, ask yourself, “Do I have human interest deficits?” Is the content of your lesson too dry, technical, or boring for your audience? If not, leave it alone because it is not advisable to try to motivate people who are already motivated. You will just bore and irritate them. If your audience is intrinsically interested in the topic, then they just want meat, no dressing! But, as is more typical, if your lessons could use some sauce then continue with the remaining five strategies.

2. Use An Effective "Lead"

Journalists and TV commentators know the importance of capturing their audience’s attention from the first moment. In contrast, technical writers, including Instructional Designers and eLearning writers, often begin with a list of learning objectives and a content outline. How boring is this?

Instead, open with something that captures interest and stimulates inquiry. This can be quite simple and even brief. For example, I know that students can feel intimidated by the idea of designing lessons to be motivating. They might think that it requires a “creative personality” and they do not consider themselves to be humorous or creative. However, the motivational design process, like other systematic design processes, is quite procedural. Thus, I would begin this lesson with an activity I call “Forethoughts”. I might ask, “Do you expect that motivational design will be mechanistic or artistic?” After a brief discussion, I would tell them that they can choose their answer after we finish the lesson on this topic. Then, you proceed with technical content to guide and inform the learning. However, do not make the mistake of using frivolous or irrelevant information and jokes to stimulate interest. To create human interest technical writing, your interest-generating activities must be relevant to be effective.

3. Use Sequencing To Draw In The Audience 

The sequence in which you organize topics and content in eLearning is determined to some extent by the nature of the content. Knowledge or skills that are pre-requisite to other parts of the lesson must usually be taught first, and there are various logical orders to present information such as alphabetically, temporally, or geographically. But, it can also be possible to use motivational principles as a basis for sequencing.

One approach is to present details that will be most interesting to the audience first, and follow them with necessary but less interesting information and procedures. For example, there is a procedural sequence to overhauling an engine from a car. It begins with all of the pre-requisite tasks of preparing for removal of the engine from the car, or gaining access to the component parts of the engine, and then doing the actual overhaul. However, the most interesting part of the job is taking the engine apart, doing the overhaul tasks, and then reassembling it. Instead of teaching the whole process in the actual linear performance sequence, it is much more interesting to have the engine already removed from the car and teach the actual overhaul process. The basic principle here is to try to find a personal connection between the audience and some aspect of the content and to teach that first if possible.

4. Use Human Interest Language 

Create human interest by using personal names and pronouns instead of third person or references to mankind in general. Also, use quotations, rhetorical questions addressed directly to the reader, and gender specific words. These are examples from the guidelines provided by Rudolph Flesch, who produced a formula for calculating a human interest score for text as well as his more famous readability test. His human interest test is based on the proportion of personal words and sentences.

Other characteristics of human interest technical writing include commands, exclamations, and grammatically incomplete sentences that require the reader to fill-in the meaning from the context. For example: Instead of saying “It is necessary to determine why the completion rate on this test is only 20%”, say “Eighty percent of the students were unable to finish the test. Why?”.

5. Use Synectic Principles 

What is "synectics"? It is a process for finding ways to make familiar things strange and strange things familiar! Why would anyone want to do this?

It originated primarily in the field of marketing and can be used to stimulate creative thinking to find ways to revitalize a product that has become so familiar to an audience that they lose interest in it. An opposite situation occurs when introducing a new product that might be rejected because of its strangeness. In both situations, there is a heavy use of metaphor and analogy to either create new perspectives or, as in the second case, give a comfortable, familiar aura to strange new products. How, you might wonder, do these strategies apply to adding human interest to eLearning content?

One example is that when teaching the Instructional Design process, you could ask “How is writing instructional objectives like planning a vacation trip?”. The discussion will expand from the narrow purpose of writing objectives to the broader set of steps in systematic project planning as in the Instructional Design process. Another benefit of this analogy is that it helps the students connect an abstract process to a personal experience activity.

6. Use Variation In Your Techniques 

Any tactic, no matter how interesting at first, will become boring after a while. People like variation. But, they don’t like too much variation. They do not want dull routine, but they also do not want chaos.

Let’s assume that you try to do something to capture interest at the beginning of a lesson and you find a technique that works, as the analogy exercise in the previous section. “Wow”, you think, “this is great. I am going to do this again”. At the beginning of a lesson on motivational strategies, you begin the lesson by asking “What are the characteristics of human motivation; is it more like a pile of feathers or a rock?”. Again, an interesting discussion begins and it leads into the topic of state (temporary and changeable) versus trait (relatively stable and unchanging) aspects of motivation. But, after the third or fourth time of beginning your lessons with thought provoking analogies, what do you think happens? The students lose interest. “Do we have to do this again”, they wonder and might even ask. Thus, no matter how successful your approach is, do not do it over and over again.

You might begin the next chapter with a bit of dialog between two students who are wondering why they have to learn that content, or a graphic “map” illustrating the linkages among the various topics in the upcoming lesson. You can also insert attention-getting, curiosity arousing features such as these within the lesson, not just at the beginning. However, a caution is in order. As was stated in the first item in this list, do not overdo things. If most of your audience is well-motivated to learn the content, use only a few of these curiosity tactics to raise questions and guide them into the important parts of the lesson and to sustain their interest.

All of these examples are from my own experience and were effective in the context at the time. Your challenge is to use the groups of strategies as guidelines for building your own set of techniques for human interest technical writing that are comfortable for you. I predict that you will find your own motivation increasing as you come up with ideas for making your lessons more motivating for your audiences!

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Keller, J. M. (2010). Motivational Design For Learning And Performance: The ARCS Model Approach. New York: Springer.

Prof. John Keller is the Keynote Speaker at LEARNTech Asia 2016. LEARNTech Asia 2016 will be held in Singapore at the Marina Bay Sands (16-18 November 2016). The topics he will be speaking on are Keynote – “Reach Them Where They Are: Motivational Design for Multiple Delivery Methods”, Breakout Session – “Genesis of the ARCS-V Model: A Case Example of Creative Design” and Workshop – “Be Motivated and Motivate! How to Identify and Solve Learning Motivation Problems”. For more information on the conference, please visit http://learntechconf.com/.

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