Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Writing dialogues for e-learning: The “typical” trap

I’ve had a few e-learning writers ask me this question: What is the best way to figure out how “typical” Americans speak? My answer is “This is not the right question.”

Who is a typical American, or British or Indian? There is simply no answer to this question unless you want to open a cultural Pandora’s Box and insist on finding a mythical answer. You may find some commonalities in speech patterns in the people belonging to a certain community or living in a particular region or even a country. But try foisting these commonalities onto a “typical person” and what you get is someone who resembles no one. America and UK are countries with vast immigrant populations and none of these people speak like a “typical person”. In India we may not have many immigrants, but you cannot imagine someone from Andhra speaking like someone from Rajasthan (you may also find some things that are common). And it’s not just the difference in language (Telugu vs. Rajasthani) that I’m talking about but the differences in expression and the manner of speaking. Of course, this is not to say that everyone in a particular state speaks the same way.

You have the species (Homo sapiens), races, regions, nations, states, towns, residential areas, communities, sub-communities, families, educational institutions, factories, offices and real living individuals who belong to any of these spaces—who are different in many ways and common in some. So, instead of asking how a typical American, British or Indian speaks, we must start with figuring out our characters. What is her name? How does she look like? Where was she brought up (find the specific locality as opposed to just saying Bombay or New York)? What are some of her prejudices? How does she react when she is angry? Does she have any particular mannerism or an accent? What kind of humour appeals to her? Who does she hang out with? What is she likely to say in the context that you are building for your scenario?

A word of caution: Don’t just invent the answers to all of these questions (you can invent some but not all). The best way to do this is to spend at least a few days observing your target audience (assuming your characters resemble your target audience). But if you can’t do that, then the least you can do is to get answers to these questions from your client or from someone who’s been with them. If even this can’t be done, then go ahead and invent your characters using commonsense and imagination, and hope that your target audience will be able to relate to them! But by all means, avoid starting with the “typical” person.
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