Our Creative Director, Jesse Kingsley, used to be a pool attendant in the 90s. He talks fondly of the position; halcyon days, simpler times, all sprayed with chlorinated water and discount confectionary from the pool kiosk.
The other day, I was having lunch at my desk, when Jesse came up to me and said: “Gary Sweet was my swimming teacher”. I lifted my head up from an exquisitely baked chicken pie and told him that I once had a parking altercation with the lead singer of Dexys Midnight Runners. A weird stalemate developed where neither of us knew which story was better. That’s when our Head of Business Development chimed in with a story about dating Sting’s cousin’s daughter.
Later that day, Jesse wondered if Gary would remember him if they ever met on the street. I asked Jesse if he’d done anything out of the ordinary during the swimming lessons, and he said no, he hadn’t. But then he smiled and said: “Yes he would remember me! Because back then, my last name was Beaver!”
Brian Cho sits behind me at work, and calls himself The Brian. He’s the kind of person who strolls into meetings he’s not invited to and contributes like he’s organised the meeting, while everyone else sits there, too polite to say anything.
The other day, I was having lunch at my desk, when The Brian swivelled around on his chair and said: “Callum, I got your email about looking at your friend’s website and I wanted to know more about your relationship with her. What does she mean to you?” I told him she’s one of my closest friends on the planet. To this, The Brian replied: “Then I will make sure I give it my complete attention”.
When I gave my friend The Brian’s feedback, I told her what he’d said, and she teared up and said: “What a lovely man, he must be great to work with”. I nodded, took a sip of my drink and ordered a tin of sardines.
Sometimes we forget the profound nature of simplicity. We get lost in the drive to complicate projects because there is a belief this makes them look more refined and intellectual. However, it was Charles Bukowski, who said,“Simplicity is always the secret, to a profound truth, to doing things, to writing, to painting. Life is profound in its simplicity.”
One of the greatest challenges when writing eLearning modules, is to maintain a level of simplicity, without falling into a mire of patronising statements. Keeping the writing simple in a module is paramount to the engagement of the learner. This can be as simple as substituting the word ‘paramount’ for ‘key’.
How often have you had a conversation with somebody who inserts huge pauses in the conversation because they’re desperately trying to think of a smart word to use? It’s unnecessary, annoying, and when they do eventually say ‘conflagration’ instead of ‘fire’ I find myself praying for a Taser.
Using simple words to populate simple sentences is an underappreciated art form, and we should all re-embrace the art of simple syntax. A sentence that is simple and direct will always win the day because it’s easy to grasp, and if it’s an instruction, it’s easy to act upon.
Once I’ve finished a first draft of a module, I trawl through it searching for complicated sentences that I can simplify. And by doing this, I refine the writing into a comprehensive whole that is easy to understand. Each sentence should only need to be read once. Having to re-read sentences is time consuming for the learner, and indicates that the module is not doing its job properly.
Think about some of the great opening sentences of books that are simple, yet profound. One of my favourites is the opening line of Naked Lunch by William Burroughs:
“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves”
Or the opening line of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22:
“It was love at first sight.”
These simple sentences set a tone that no complicated sentence could do. They immediately convey a sense of voice, pace and atmosphere, without having to be verbose or bombastic. Ernest Hemingway called these ‘true sentences’ and by this, he did not mean they reflected a philosophical truth, but the sentence was true in the sense that it said exactly what it wanted to say. No more and no less.
So, when you write your next module think about the profound nature of simplicity and make sure you avoid the unnecessary clutter of sentences that distort meaning and interrupt the natural flow of syntax.
Making your point clearly the first time round is an invaluable skill in this life.