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What course designers can learn from popular fiction

Whether you are a popular fiction reader or not, I'm sure you're familiar with at least some of them. The Help, The English Patient, Me Before You, Gone Girl, The Da Vinci Code, Game of Thrones were all bestseller books before they were adapted into movies or TV shows.

These are all different genres and appeal to diverse audiences, but they have one thing in common – they captured the attention and imagination of readers. They stay with them for a long time.

This is the goal of every learning endeavor, so course designers can take a few cues from successful fiction authors.

Drop the scaffolding after the house is built

It takes a lot of effort and time to do your research before designing a learning module. It’s the same for authors – whether they have to do their homework on historical periods, medical procedures, or the legal system.

However, one of the most common advice successful authors give is to know the intricacies of your subject, but don't stuff all that information in the book. Scaffolding is essential when building a house, but nobody can admire the building if scaffolding is still there after the construction is done.

Leaving out most of what you have learned during your research does not equal wasted time. It takes a lot of information to simmer down to what is truly relevant. Consequently, the end product will be more valuable because of it.

Read more: How to make sure you deliver what the customer needs as a knowledge entrepreneur

Delete the first chapter

Another common piece of advice is that once they think they have finished a novel, they should go back and delete the whole first chapter. This is due to the natural tendency to give more information about the setting and characters than what the reader needs to know. Popular fiction needs to be “grabbing”. If you have to read one-third of the book before really getting into it, the odds are that book will be dropped after the first few pages.

The situation may be slightly different in e-learning because people will often be in the position where they have to push through. Engagement, however, is the key to information retention, and it depends on the course designer’s capacity to get the audience interested from the get-go.

This can be achieved either with the help of a compelling “What’s in it for me” section or, again, with an inspirational story. If your course starts with an extensive explanation about how the material is constructed or the detailed history of the subject matter, see the heading of this paragraph for advice.

Read more: 4 Awesome ways to incorporate stories in your online course

Formulas are your friend

When you are doing Geometry, you need to know the exact formulas to calculate various things. Of course, if you forgot them, there’s always the option to figure them out the long way, but it’s a lot more time-consuming (and frustrating) than applying what has been known for centuries.

Popular literature is pretty much the same. The public has spoken, and they want certain stories, told in a certain way. You can’t have a thriller without a good villain, a mystery without a likable (at times grumpy) detective, and it’s not called romance without a happily ever after ending. Sure, once in a blue moon, somebody writes something more unique, but for the most part, those bestselling novels have more similarities than differences.

Turning to online courses, there are certain acquired tastes and expectations as well. If your goal is to be a successful entrepreneur and sell lots of courses, take a look at what others are doing well and follow in their footsteps. It’s not a matter of copying someone else's style. It’s about finding your place in a market that is already thriving.

Read more: Why you need a competitive analysis for your e-learning business

You are your best brand ambassador

If you read a recent book that you really liked and want to thank the author, it’s very easy to do so. Pop-lit authors are public-friendly. They know that communicating with their audience, offering sneak-peaks into the creative process, and talking about upcoming books are all needed for effective marketing. Book signings and themed conventions are also very popular moneymakers.

Odds are your courses are mostly online, so you can’t offer signed copies, but there are other ways of interacting with your audience. First of all, establish points of presence on social media and make sure you communicate with your followers there – post articles, answer questions, run contests, and host giveaways.

Read more: 4 Effective tips for driving up sales of your online course through social media

If your budget allows, offer small swag items – stickers, pens, mousepads, notebooks, and so on with your logo or your mission statement on them. If one particular phrase in one of your courses stood out and resonated with your audience, you can also use that. Think Humphrey Bogart's “Here’s to looking at you, kid” in Casablanca.

Closing thoughts

Popular fiction may well never be in line for a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but it has something that any e-learning entrepreneur craves: a big audience. Hence, it’s not a bad idea to take a page out of the best-selling author's book and work it into a successful online course design.

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