How learning professionals can write like journalists

At the recent EMEA Totara User Conference in London, Senior Learning Strategist Lori Niles-Hofmann shared her ideas for 10 ways that organisations can transform learning results in her keynote. One of the key points she focused on was the fact that more learning professionals should be acting like journalists, and surface what really matters in learning content with creative storytelling and the ability to craft a compelling narrative. So, if you’re unable to take a journalism course, what are some key things to remember when you want to write like a journalist (without having to learn shorthand)? Our very own qualified journalist-turned-Content Marketing Manager, Kayleigh Tanner, shares some tips from her time in training.

The 5 Ws… and an H

Who, what, when, where, why, how. In a journalism course, the importance of covering the 5 Ws (and one H) upfront will be drilled into you in every single news reporting class. The goal is to cover as many of these points as possible in the first sentence or two of a story, such as:

A fireman claims he spotted the Loch Ness monster yesterday while he was fishing near Brighton’s West Pier. 

In journalism, the art of placing the most important information first is known as the ‘inverted pyramid’ - you want to convey the bulk of the story in the first few lines, with the rest adding colour. Don’t leave the crucial information until the end - if we don’t find out that Nessie was spotted in Brighton, way outside its usual environment of Loch Ness in Scotland, until halfway through, we’re skipping over a huge part of the story! 

A young male journalist using Totara Learn

Crafting a narrative

Many learning professionals make the mistake of making learning too corporate and formal, whereas most people will remember quirky details and stories that they can relate to. Compare these two ways of conveying the same information:

If you are about to have a difficult conversation with an employee, it may help to rehearse what you say before the meeting. Having a couple of prompt words on a piece of paper will help you stay on track.

Barbara is preparing to discuss Alan’s inappropriate behaviour at work, and has invited him into her office. As Alan knocks on the door, Barbara glances at her prompt words, ‘unprofessional language, unhelpful, patronising’, to remind her what she needs to cover.

Something as simple as setting up a scenario with names and a location can help anchor the point of your learning in someone’s mind. If you can tie the fictional scenario to your own organisation, even better.

Know your audience

One of the skills in a journalist’s toolkit is the ability to make their story resonate with a specific audience. Think about the different writing styles you will find in a tabloid newspaper vs a broadsheet vs a glossy weekly magazine - for instance:

Hollywood hunk Alan Smith is selling on his joke shop chain - and with rumours of his bankruptcy circling, he won’t be laughing his way to the bank this time.

Oscar-winning actor Alan Smith has announced that he is selling his chain of joke shops for a fraction of their original cost, citing ‘difficult economic circumstances’ for the closures.

Word on the street is that everyone’s fave film star Alan Smith is shutting up shop on his joke stores. A source revealed that his recent stint out of the limelight has left him a little strapped for cash - so let’s just hope he can magic some dosh out of thin air to keep his struggling fitness lifestyle brand afloat.

This is the same piece of information written for three different audiences, taking into account their different interests and how readers expect to be spoken to. Just because you’re creating corporate training, that doesn’t mean that your audience will respond well to a formal tone. This is where it pays to dig deeper into your company culture and to look at the way people speak in your organisation - if even the C-suite are relatively informal and friendly, it makes sense to reflect this in your training materials, as anything too corporate and jargon filled will feel jarring.

Find a reliable editor

Even the best journalist in the world will have sub-editors working on their copy to ensure that it is as clear, concise and accurate as it can be. The role of the editor isn’t just to proofread - it’s also to make stylistic recommendations and to sculpt your writing into something that will work for its purpose. Writing apps like Grammarly can help identify any spelling errors or grammatical issues, but to take your writing to the next level, enlist the help of a colleague with a knack for getting their point across well. Remember that this person may not even reside in the learning team - great writers can work anywhere in your organisation, so ask around for recommendations, or even think about the way people communicate in their emails - this can be a good indicator of style and flair.

However, a word of warning: the phrase ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ rarely applies to a situation more than finessing copy. Avoid the trap of turning any writing project into ‘design by committee’ - too many different writing styles and competing agendas will inevitably get in the way of the flow and cohesiveness of your writing, so try to limit the number of people involved in the editing and review process.

Borrow from your marketing colleagues

Marketing and journalism go hand in hand - particularly when it comes to the skills you’ll be borrowing as a learning professional. Aside from the writing itself, think about the marketing campaign you’ll create to promote your content to your audience. It’s not enough to write a course and leave it on the LMS - think about how learners will find out about it, how they’ll get there and how you’ll keep them coming back over and over again.

You might consider sending out regular emails or internal newsletters to highlight new content, promote useful existing content or surface interesting conversations on your internal forums. You might carefully craft the phrasing on your LMS to guide people towards the most relevant content, or you might even create physical posters or stationery to sit in the workplace and act as a constant reminder about the available learning. If in doubt, speak to your marketing team - there are likely to be plenty of things you can do to get more people accessing and completing your learning.

Curious about the other 9 essential skills you need?

Download our free ebook about the learner social contract, which covers advice from Senior Learning Strategist Lori Niles-Hofmann about the most important skills for learning professionals to develop today.

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