eLearning video doesn’t deal with budgets in the millions. Heck, $20,000 is a big-budget production in eLearning! Even with a budget of $20,000, our video frequently isn’t very good. The technical quality of the video might be great, but technically great and beautifully shot video doesn’t necessarily engage a learning audience. Why? Why doesn’t money buy engaging eLearning?

There are many reasons, but perhaps the biggest might be how we think about the creation of training videos. I believe a lot of people in our industry do think about the creation of video, but more of us need to understand and work in the mindset of a Hollywood writer, producer, or director. Creative cinema style and out-of-the-box thinking are what’s needed to make great and engaging become the norm rather than the exception.

In many ways it’s more difficult to make good training video or motion graphics than it is to make a good Hollywood movie. There is no limit on subject matter for movie making. The story gets whatever creative freedom it needs to create a film. But even given that, most Hollywood movies aren’t very good! They don’t make money, and money is the point of the movie industry.

In our case, we get the subject matter, and then it’s our responsibility to put that information into a script that has all the learning objectives baked into it, and after that to make a video from the script. In many ways, the result might be more like a documentary, but it’s also like a movie. Our job is to devise media that learners need to help them get their jobs done better, and we need to devise creatively. Unlike the entertainment industry, we do this mostly alone or perhaps with a small team. We also have another challenge when we create eLearning; we have corporate standards, compliance, accessibility issues and many other concerns that we might feel cramp our creative style. It’s not easy to write good eLearning video. Finally, since we mostly have to do all the production jobs, writing, scouting, shooting, and post production, we’ve got far more responsibility than any one person in Hollywood. So why is Hollywood generally better?

It’s about the writers

The best Hollywood movies are clever, saturated with ideas, and enjoyable to watch. And they tell stories. And they’re frequently prescient about styles and society to name a few things movies are good at. We don’t want to live in Blade Runner-land, but other futures can have both a Pollyanna-like feel along with a darker side. Movies frequently predict the future of things. A movie made in 1985 did a pretty good job with new ideas and things to come. Back to the Future Part II went forward waaaaaaaaaaaay into the future, all the way to 2015. Wait! We’re already there! And the writers got a lot of it right. Except for hoverboards and some other minor things, but they got some really big swipes correct. And it was a fun story. So why do Hollywood writers seem better at telling stories?

In Hollywood, the writers really make up the story. The actors, director, sound, lighting, music, and post production people (editors, CG artists, etc.) are the ones who bring it to life. Writers in Hollywood are unfettered. They can think of anything or have their characters say anything or do anything. It doesn’t mean the idea will ever see the klieg-light of day, but it does mean the writers need to be creative, all the time.

In our eLearning space, writers are usually instructional designers. Instructional designers have more constraints, but still... The “but still…” means that, as an instructional designer or developer we might get an assignment, but it doesn’t mean we have to put the instructions for “How to Operate a Grinding Machine” or “How to Adhere to Corporate Governance” or whatever into a video as a verbatim regurgitation of the knowledge. You won’t really be a subject matter expert (SME) on the topics you need to design, but you can learn a lot about your subject. And you CAN try to put yourself in the SME’s shoes.

Why not make up a story of how the grinding machine makes a part that instructs us on how the machine is used and what the parts are used for? Or show governance issues in a humorous light. Those ideas could fulfill the need as well as making the resulting instruction engaging. The training doesn’t have to be in every single word, but we can tell a story around what is needed. That’s the way writers think about what they’re writing about. What Hollywood writers do is find their muse.

Finding your muse

Their muse? Maybe this is the most important part of creativity. Finding your muse. We all need to be inspired. Your muse is what inspires you to be creative. How do we find our muse? Or your inspiration? The first thing to ask yourself is, “What do I like to do for relaxation?” Are you a gamer? Do you spend a lot of the day on Facebook? Sometimes our muse is a friend. You talk to them for ten or fifteen minutes and bounce around ideas. And you get more ideas. It doesn’t matter how you find your muse. Do what you like for 10 or 15 minutes, but have in your front-of-mind the problem you’re trying to solve. That’s it. One time you’ll hit on an activity that makes you crazy with ideas. That’s your muse … for today anyway.

Why is this a good thing? Not all eLearning is edutainment. Not all edutainment is even appropriate for eLearning. But if you look at the things that inspire you the most, your answer is in there. Take a subject, apply your muse to it. and voila! You’re telling a story. A muse is personal. I like to say that I look to the Python (Monty, that is), the Firesign Theater (who is that?) and Wile E. Coyote. OK, they’re unusual sources. But that’s the point for me. I might take a topic and think about how Monty Python would tell the story. (As an aside, John Cleese started an educational training company after Monty Python dissolved. Video Arts is one of the best [if not the best] video training companies in the eLearning space. Started in 1987, they’re still around today and with good reason.) What if you’re thinking that you have the need to create videos with a serious intent? My muse might start out in the funny zone, but it quickly morphs into whatever it needs to be.


Maybe the best way to explain finding your muse is to describe how I found my muse for a few projects. It’s a bit personal, but what the heck, I’m happy to share.

Bioterrorism and Public Health Law

This project for the University of Michigan School of Public Health started out as a 25-page tabletop exercise. Or so I thought. The school wanted me to take video of the students doing the exercise and publish a PDF of the 25 pages. Boring. There was nothing about what they wanted that could possibly make it interesting to anyone. They had to read the exercise online or print it out in order to do the exercise. It was already a story. I didn’t know it was a good one until I took the document home over the weekend and started reading it. By the time I got to the second page, the hair on my neck started to go up. My muse started telling me this was a lot like a sensationalist news story.


The storyline is about a man who was admitted to a hospital with a rash that looked like chicken pox. It turned out to be smallpox that was the weaponized virus spread by aerosol (Smallpox does not exist in the wild any more). The point of the story was to teach public health officials their legal responsibilities and limitations in the face of a public health emergency, in this case a contagious disease and quarantine, and how to deal with people who won’t obey the public health laws. So I was off to the races. Since this is about the inspiration and not about the perspiration, I hope you enjoy the solution of how we made a sensationalist news story and still teach. There were seven days of segments that progress through the disease and all segments were punctuated by questions that showed competence. This is the very first segment. By the way, there’s not a physician under the age of 50 who could recognize a smallpox rash because there hasn’t been a case of smallpox anywhere in the world for almost 40 years.

Reflections on the Experience of Cancer

This was a hard video to make and figure out on several levels. First, I didn’t have any idea how I wanted to present this to its intended audience: cancer patients and their families. But we had 13 people lined up to talk to us and each of them was going to be asked the same group of questions that spoke to their journey through the disease. While our crew was doing the interviews, one fact kept on coming across; every one of the patients we filmed had at least six months when their thoughts wouldn’t stop coming. Many of them described it as their brain exploding or white noise in their head all the time. My muse started to talk to me … finally. Also, it seemed like everyone the patients knew came at them with advice and comments. Everyone they knew was talking to them at the same time. So the patients told me how to make the video. It starts out with white noise, which never quite disappears and after the titles, everyone is talking at once. Cancer patients got it. Others didn’t. Cancer patients have told me this is a true reflection of the stages they went through during the course of their disease.

History of Amber Lager

This one was fun. I had worked in the wine business (it was mostly training … OK, tasting too … a lot ;-) for a number of years. I met Bob Mack at an eLearning conference. He is one of the top 10 people in the world in the beer industry. The breadth of his knowledge of craft beer and the beer industry is amazing. He developed Beer Spy and created the basic curriculum at Beer U. It was already a good fit. We’d both worked in various tiers in the beer and wine industries. It was a good fit. Bob decided we would start with a project about Amber Lager. Amber Lager was invented by two young men in the early 1840s. They had traveled Europe and England trying to find out how English brewers made their beer so pale in color compared to the almost black continental beers. They stole samples of beers and ales with a hollow cane. Really. They purloined samples of lighter colored barley. In short, they were beer spies.


Of course, the James Bond spoof came out of that. I think Bob came up with the idea of James Bond. I was stuck on the Pink Panther, and he was a detective. I just bounced away from there. We found out that a GoPro fits neatly inside a bottle of beer so you can pour beer all around it.

 Now it’s your turn

These examples demonstrate how I found my muse for a few of the projects I’ve done. Finding your own muse will happen differently. When I began writing this article, I thought a lot about how to describe the feeling I get when I’m in the creative zone and the creative juices are cooking. I also tried to figure out how I got to that feeling. Along the way, I realized that I don’t have just one muse. I don’t believe anyone does. I realized the best way to describe my muses is to describe the way I got to the ideas embodied in these projects. I was fascinated by how clearly I remembered the details about how I got to the starting point of a project (the 10 percent inspiration) and the details of how I actually made the project after the inspiration came to me (the 90 percent perspiration). However you do it, it’s the right way. Just find your muse and creativity will follow.