Postproduction: 11 Tips for Effective Onscreen Text

Socrates said, “Know thyself.” I say, “Know thy users.” And guess what? They don’t think like you do.”Joshua Brewer

When you’re writing onscreen text to support your online course, you have to remember beginner’s mind. What does someone who doesn’t know this subject need to see?

Teleprompter with online course text  It’s easy to put up the wrong points, too many points, or too few points. In last week’s blog, we discussed the parameters for successfully using online text. This week, let’s talk about how you make onscreen text that is visually and conceptually effective. Here are 11 guidelines.

  1. Don’t crowd the screen.
  • Leave plenty of white space.
  • Show only what we need to see to comprehend or reinforce your point.
  • If there’s a lot of text, slow readers will still be reading when you’ve moved onto another topic, while fast readers will zip ahead of your speaking pace and then let their minds drift to something else.
  • Stick to the most vital words and drop whatever’s extraneous.
  1. Use black font on a white background as your first choice.
  • White font on a black background might look cool when you’re prepping it on your computer, but it’s hard to read.
  • The font should be sharply focused. Blurry font is content suicide.
  1. Use other color fonts only if they provide meaningful cues to relationships among your points.
  • For instance, you might put all geographical terms in blue instead of black to help students identify them quickly.
  • Perhaps you’d put all terms that will be on a test in red.
  • Never mix red with green, since anyone colorblind will find them indistinguishable.
  • In general stick with good old black font. It might seem boring, but if we don’t have to think about it, we can focus on the content.
  1. We are used to reading from left to right, so left justify the text unless you’ve got a good reason for centering something.
  • For instance, if you’ve put up full screen text with sections, you might center your heading and subheadings to make them faster to scan.
  1. There is ongoing debate about whether serif or sans serif fonts (without the small extra lines) are better onscreen.
  • You can find persuasive arguments either way but the studies actually seem inconclusive.
  • Don’t mix the two.
  • Don’t use fancy fonts. Fonts like Apple Chancery or Bradley Hand are fun but useless for quick scanning.
  1. Use a large enough font that it can be read easily. We shouldn’t have to squint at the screen.
  • We’re scanning, so your font must be a bit larger than normal to help us read quickly.
  • 14 point is good; 12 is the minimum.
  • Experiment with the right size font for the type of font you’re using.
  1. Use italics only for proper titles—that is, to convey specific information, as italics are harder to read than non-italicized text.
  2. Bold font is also harder to see, so use it sparingly if at all.
  • You could use it to create a hierarchy of importance, with the most important word or point in bold.
  • You could use it to help identify something. For instance, if you were demonstrating how to scan poetry, you might use bold to show the long syllable in iambic pentameter.
  1. We associate underlining with website links, so don’t underline important onscreen terms. Use bold or make the font larger if truly necessary to show some relational hierarchy.
  2. All caps are hard to read, however, as is all lower case.
  • Use an initial cap in bullet point lists; it makes scanning easier.
  1. Your text has to be on the screen long enough for us to read it, but not so long that you’ve moved onto different points.
  • If you don’t have time to show onscreen text because you’ve moved to a different point, don’t put it on the screen!
  • If it’s a critical teaching point, then you should restate it to emphasize its importance and to give students a chance to hear it again. This will buy you time to put it on the screen.
  • Match the pacing of your onscreen text to your pacing as you speak.
  • Time how long it takes you to read what you have identified as going onscreen; you need at least 3 seconds to scan and absorb, as well as to make the edit work.
  • On the other hand, you don’t want us staring at text so long that we read it over and over until we are bored.

Every choice you make visually should answer the question: Does this make it easier or harder to absorb the point? Remember, the student doesn’t know what you know. Craft your onscreen text with the user in mind.

Tune in next Friday for Issue #21 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” Let’s look how graphics can help—or ruin—your online courses.

Want to learn how to make great online courses? To get your free copy of “12 Steps to Killer Course Content,” and weekly tips, click here.

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course:

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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