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Compassionate language in e-learning

Do you remember when you were ‘the audience’?

When you were asked to complete a course of e-learning within the allotted time and with a pass mark of greater than or equal to 80%? For me those were mostly depressing times.

People in positions I hoped I would one day attain, contently circled the training room ‘supporting’ the learners. In effect, they were swatting away questions and comments on their content like they were trying to keep flies off their precious e-learning cake. And often, they officiously ‘invigilated’ exam conditions for the assessment at the end of the course.

My suspicion is that the atmosphere I remember existed mainly because the L&D people were very proud to be in the position of ‘knowing more’ than the learners, and they occasionally gave in to temptation and let themselves feel superior. This suspicion stems from the fact that when I finally got a job as a trainer, I felt exactly like that for a while.

It was until a colleague gave me a piece of professional advice I really appreciated and hold dear to this day:

“It’s not about you. Get over yourself.”

I took this to mean that if it’s not about moi, it must be about the learners, and that the only thing that matters is to help them get to grips with whatever subject they need to understand at any given time. Forget your ego, curb your desire to impress, and facilitate a learning experience that is as close to ‘ideal’ as it can be.

One of the simplest ways to enhance e-learning is by using compassionate language. Language that makes the learners feel good, not the content writer. It’s easy to want to ‘set yourself apart from the crowd’ by appearing as ‘erudite’ as you can, but you run the risk of coming across as smug. Even if it doesn’t confuse your audience, it’ll put them off or make them feel less-than.

“Alright, alright” I hear you say. “Enough of the derision! Give us solutions, not problems!”

What can we do?

Most of all, view your learners from a position of compassion. Encourage them when things don’t go as well as they hoped. Make them feel good about their learning journey.

Compassionate? How so?

The idea of compassionate language means different things to different people, particularly when talking about elearning.

Like all language it’s forever changing, evolving and will always be something to aim for, rather than an exact goal to achieve. #aspirationaltarget

Just remind yourself that your aim is to write elearning content for everyone. It’s easily achieved when it’s motivated by compassion for your learners.

Compassionate e-learning supports, guides and encourages learners, removes barriers to understanding and allows for mistakes without judgement.

Linguistic separatism

Yes, I made up that expression, but it says what I mean. Call it ‘linguistic separatism’, ‘linguistic arrogance’ or simply ‘using complicated words and sentences to set yourself apart’.

Thing is, it’s not clever to try and elevate yourself by overcomplicating things. It just makes you look uncaring and elitist.

The absence of linguistic arrogance is the clever thing. If we return to the idea of considering your learners from a position of compassion, simplicity is key. It’s also quite challenging sometimes.

We know that there’s no requirement for jargon (the more people understand the content, the better). While it might seem like a good idea to use proprietary terms to make elearning speak the ‘company language’, it’s a good idea to get rid of as much jargon as possible. Jargon is intimidating. It confuses your learners and makes them feel stupid.

When I tried to come up with an example to support my argument, one book immediately came to mind: ‘A brief history of time’ by Stephen Hawking.

The linguistic clarity, beauty and wit Prof. Hawking used to explain how the universe works is simply stunning. With the addition of a few charts and the odd diagram here and there, Hawking managed to not only make me enjoy physics(!), he made me feel like I understood it. He made me feel excited to have learned something I didn’t think I would understand. This felt good.

“Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity’s deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.” Stephen Hawking

How can we do this?

Make learners feel included

When people recognise themselves in a course, they will remember more about it. You’re creating a personal connection, which increases retention. Include everyone you can. Mix it up and keep it fresh. Don’t forget the straight, Caucasian guy in his mid-thirties, but don’t forget the gender-fluid person in their sixties, either. People won’t forget a course more easily because someone from an ethnic group different to their own is referenced in a positive way or is included as a character. However, seeing themselves represented on screen makes people feel part of something, especially if they belong to a minority group.

Here are some easy things you can do:

  • Include characters from minority groups
  • Check understanding, rather than assessing knowledge
  • Use encouraging rather than judgemental language, even when things (quizzes etc.) go wrong!
  • Wherever possible if learners fail a task, encourage them (don’t judge them) in the feedback
  • Use mentor characters to support your learners

Below are two very different ways of giving feedback if a question is answered incorrectly. The question was “How many German states are there?”.

Why? What will this achieve?

Our aim should be for learners to feel like they’re influenced by, not controlled by our courses. If used correctly, compassionate language in e-learning encourages learners to build a relationship with the content. Respect for our learners requires that we don’t preach or impose guilt. It encourages involvement in the content and removes feelings of intimidation.

What isn’t warm and kind?

We’re trying to make learning content accessible to everyone. To exclude anyone from that is ‘anathema’, …I mean… we shouldn’t do it.

‘Warm and kind’ should not mean silly, infantile or embarrassing – it just means dropping the pretence of being better than anyone else and encouraging learners to succeed. Making things purposefully childlike will come across as patronising and turn learners off, leaving them feeling inferior.


‘Treat your learners like you’d like to be treated.’ ‘Put yourself in their shoes.’

You’ve heard those statements a thousand times. It’s just that it’s much easier to repeat them than to act according to them.

Viewing your learners from a position of compassion might make your job a little more challenging because you have to think more deeply about the relationship between audience and content, but it might just make the learners’ task a little easier. And who can argue with that?



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