Updated: Jul 14
If you want to teach an audio course, the first piece of advice I’ll give you is to be aware of the enemy.
Because learning how to write for audio isn’t as simple as it seems at first. There are a few skills you need to master in order to get it right. And each of these skills is another strategy to defeat one enemy: Cognitive overload.
For those of you who don’t know this enemy by name, Cognitive Overload is when you are presented with so much information that your brain fails to process any of it. According to the British Council’s site for teaching English:
Cognitive overload is a situation where the teacher gives too much information or too many tasks to learners simultaneously, resulting in the learner being unable to process this information. In this situation, the language processing demands of an activity go beyond the language processing limits of the learner. It produces anxiety and stress, as well as affecting learning.
Cognitive overload isn’t unique to audio learning. It’s a threat whenever you are teaching something new. However, it is even trickier to avoid when it comes to learning how to write for audio. This is because audio learners have less resources to help them process information than visual learners do.
This is because when you teach in a more traditional setting - like in front of a classroom - you're not relying solely on your voice to convey your message. You’re probably using aids like a blackboard, a map or graph, and even just your own hand gestures and facial expressions. All of these are helpful for students who are trying to learn new information. Being able to follow a new mathematical concept on a graph, for example, takes some of the weight off the mind and lessens the threat of cognitive overload.
And most learning situations offer visual anchors. Even when you’re reading a book - you don’t need to keep all the information in your mind at once because you know that you can always go back and reference something if you need to.
However, when you’re teaching over audio you have none of that. You don’t have anything to help you take some of the weight off of your student’s minds. And this can lead to cognitive overload. So when considering how to write for audio, it’s important to always be aware of the threat of cognitive overload.
Here are 5 methods that anyone learning how to write for audio can use to prevent cognitive overload in their listeners:
How to write for audio tip #1: Stories
When mastering how to write for audio, stories are your best friend. They are the number one defense against Cognitive Overload. It’s true that our brains aren’t wired to memorize a lot of information at once...unless it’s in the form of a story. It turns out when information has a cause and effect relationship - like it does in stories - we remember it much better.
This is why a big part of learning how to write for audio is to master this amazing tool. Here are some of my favorite ways to do it:
Open your lesson with a story
This serves the double purpose of capturing your listeners interest off the bat and setting up your lesson as a story. I like stories at the beginning of lessons, because I can really take the time to set up the scene without worrying that I’m distracting the listener from the rest of the lesson.
In addition, having a strong story at the beginning of a lesson gives you something to refer back to throughout the rest of the lesson.
Scan your material for story potential
Don’t have a story that comes to mind? Try again, scan your material. See if you can pull out a story from somewhere.
What makes a good story? Alpe’s CEO and co-founder Yehoshua Zlotogorski likes to use the framework of the 4 C’s:
Are there any compelling characters in your material? Any conflict? A sequence of events? Any complications?
All of these are excellent methods to turn your material into a story.
No characters? Create one!
Not all material contains real human characters. Luckily, with a bit of imagination, you can always create one.
As Yehoshua writes:
It’s easy to think of Characters as people. But a good character, as in one that moves the plot forward in an interesting way, doesn’t have to be a person.
One of my favorite villain characters isn’t a person. It’s a season. Winter. “Winter is coming” is an expression made famous in Game of Thrones, the hit series written by George R.R. Martin. In it, Winter is one of the strongest characters. It drives events forward. - Rethinking Learning, Lesson 4
Once you’ve identified a character, you can use a bit of creativity to make it come alive. For example, I’ve been using Cognitive Overload as a character - a villain even! - to drive this blog post. And if this was an audio lesson, I could take it even further and use ominous music and sound effects (think evil laughter) to further reinforce Cognitive Overload as the villain that we are trying to defeat as we learn how to write for audio.
How to write for audio tip #2: Mnemonics
The next weapon against cognitive overload is mnemonic devices.
I like to use these when there are lists that I want my students to remember. Specifically, lists that need to be remembered in order.
And it’s ok if your mnemonics are a little wacky (you’ll see what I mean in just a second). The goal is to generate something that your listeners will remember, so it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make perfect sense.
Here’s an example:
In the Alpe course Applied Market research, I wanted learners to memorize the market research process. Once they had a clear idea of what the process looked like, they would have a better chance at remembering the information taught in each lesson, because they would be able to put it in context. The five stages of the market research process are: identify the problem, develop a solution, conduct research, analyze and report findings, and take action. Here’s how I presented these stages as an acronym:
[...] I like to call this process ID CAT, which is an acronym for each of the stages. In order to remember this acronym, you can picture a fuzzy tabby cat, holding up an ID card with its photo on it. An ID CAT. It might sound a little silly, but this acronym will help you remember the 5 stages of the market research process. - Applied Market Research, Lesson 1
In the lesson, this section is followed by the sound effect of a cat - “meow!” So, it’s ok if your mnemonic is a little silly or if it doesn't fully make sense. The idea is to give your listeners something concrete that they can remember and refer back to.
How to get your mnemonics to really stick:
Tie it to a strong visual image
Reinforce it with sound effects wherever possible
Review it and refer to it often throughout your lesson/course
This might seem like a lot of work, but I promise that investing in your mnemonics is worth it. Because if you can get a mnemonic device to stick, you’ve essentially won a huge victory over cognitive overload. What you’ve done is helped your learner establish a mental structure for the concept that you’re teaching. This is just as good as giving them an external aid, like a graph or chart, to refer to. And it’s a big part of learning how to write for audio.
How to write for audio tip #3:Review and Repetition
Reviews are another way to fight against cognitive overload. The truth is, our brains are constantly fighting cognitive overload. We encounter so much information every day that it’s impossible to remember all of it. And that’s ok, because we don’t need to remember all of it. Our brain knows that some stimuli are important, while others are completely irrelevant.
And one of the ways we can signal to our brains - or our students’ brains - that a specific piece of information is important is by repeating it often. If you’re interested in the science behind this, I highly recommend checking out Yehoshua Zlotogorski’s Rethinking Learning course, where he dives into the science behind memory and learning.
But for now, I’ll just say that reviews are a really important tool for how to write for audio and beat cognitive overload. In Alpe lessons, we typically include two main reviews - one in the middle of the lesson and one comprehensive review at the end of the lesson.
Formal, consistent reviews are important but so is informal repetition. If there is a term or concept you want your listeners to remember to make sure it’s repeated as often as possible throughout the lesson and the course. Understanding that most listeners need to hear new information several times is a crucial part of mastering how to write for audio.
How to write for audio tip #4: Signposting
I spoke about this in my blog post How to Write Podcast Scripts, but it bears repeating here because it’s an essential part of how to write for audio:
Signposting is one of the most useful rules of how to write for audio. Or actually, of public speaking in general. I’ll show you how with a metaphor.
Imagine that you’re travelling to visit a friend by train. The ride will take a few hours and before too long you find yourself fast asleep. By the time you jolt awake, you realize in a panic that you have no idea where you are. The scenery rushing by isn’t familiar and you're not sure if you’ve missed your stop or not. Thankfully you aren’t panicking for long before you pass a signpost that tells you the name of the station that you're passing. You breathe a sigh of relief. You still have a few more stops before you need to get off.
That feeling of being completely lost and not knowing where you are? That’s how your listeners feel after their attention wanders for a few moments. And you can assume that their attention will wander. This might be because they’re driving and had to focus on a tricky lane merge. Or their attention just wandered, which is a completely natural thing that happens to all of us when hearing someone speak for a long time.
So, when deciding how to write for audio your goal should be to help your listeners find their way back when their attention wanders. Signposting in an audio lesson looks like this:
[...] those four questions I just asked you are meant to help customers pinpoint the exact range they would spend on a given product. The marketer can then study data supplied by an entire sample of users and determine how much their product is really worth. The Van Westendorp’s price sensitivity meter is just one way to help customers determine what they would pay for something.
In that lesson, we were teaching our listeners how to properly conduct market research on customer’s willingness to pay. After going through the four questions, we made sure to remind the listener what the purpose of the four questions is and what they will be used for.
So signposting means frequently stopping to remind your listeners of where you’ve already been and where you’re going. The more you do this, the more the listener will feel in control of their audio experience. This helps them determine if they need to go back in the audio lesson or if they can figure it out from there. Inserting regular signposts is great tactic for how to write for audio.
How to write for audio tip #5: Keep writing really simple
And the last tip I’ll give for how to write for audio might seem simple, but it can actually take some time to master.
And that is: keep it simple.
I’ll draw again on my previous post on How to Write Podcast Scripts, because the information is relevant here as well.
The first rule for how to write podcast scripts is to keep things super simple. On a basic level, this means avoiding complex sentence structures. When writing, there’s nothing wrong with a sentence like this:
Pricing is the job of the marketer because it falls into the category of communicating with customers and giving them the right impression of your product.
If the reader loses track of who we’re talking about when you say “give them the right impression,” they can always quickly glance back and figure it out. However, in audio that’s generally not an option. So, to avoid cognitive overload, I would deconstruct that sentence into its simplest elements:
Price is 100% the concern of the marketer. As a marketer, your job is to communicate with your customers. Price is the most direct form of communication you will have with them. How much you charge says a lot about your product’s value and it’s target audience.
It might look overly simplistic in writing, but this way your listeners have the time to process each part of the idea.
These 5 tips for how to write for audio and beat cognitive overload are methods I use over and over again. Stories are a crucial part of how to write for audio. Mnemonics can make your job - and the job of your listeners! - much easier by reducing cognitive overload. And then regular reviews, repetition, and signposting are all the bread and butter of how to write for audio. And finally, keeping things simple is a basic yet crucial tenant of how to write for audio.