Issue #7

How to create a clear and engaging content outline for your online course

8 min read
In this Article

Tick. Tick. Tick. All you see is that awful cursor flickering on your screen to tell you what you already know…

You still have a blank page.

When you sit down to outline a course it can be a bit overwhelming. You have a million and one ideas. But where do you start? What should you say? What’s going to be the most helpful for your students?

So often we have a tendency to want to fill the page with fancy gimmicks and crazy adages, when really, your students just want results.

Solve a problem

So before you write a lesson plan you have to start with two things.

  1. Who is this for?
  2. What are they struggling with?

Ultimately your course is about solving a problem- as much as it may be about teaching them how to use XYZ.

They don’t know how to do something. You do. And you need to figure out a clear way to communicate it.

To identify the problem you are solving, start with these 5 action items:

  1. Identify your target client: Who do you already know that is someone you consider your ideal client?
  2. Setup 5 brief interviews: Inside these interviews you will get an opportunity to get one-on-one attention with 5 of these target clients. This is where you'll really start identifying the core issues they are having.
  3. Ask your target clients anchor questions: There is a fine line you have to walk when interviewing your target client. You don’t want to ask leading questions that are too specific, or broad questions that end up leaving you in left field because they are in no way referencing your expertise. The key here is to identify their pain points (the things they are struggling with), and how you could potentially help them.
  4. Find commonalities: Compare notes from all your interviews and see what common things are coming up again and again. Where do people need the most help?
  5. Focus the problem and solution: With the common themes in mind how can you build a course that will help solve their problems and lessen their pain? Are there specific areas you need to make sure you cover inside your course?

Find the steps

With your two main questions answered, now is time to get clear on the steps. If “Sam” wants to go from A to B, i.e. their current location, where they don’t know what to do, to this fancy schmancy destination, how are you going to get them there?

Keep in mind your students are taking your course to fast-track their results. So how can you both teach them everything they need to know and allow them to skip steps along the way. Write out all the steps. Generally there should only be 3 to 8 clear, concise steps to get there.

These steps – they turn into your modules.

Example of online course models

Give them the roadmap

Inside each module there are going to be things your student needs to know to progress on to the next step. Don’t assume anything about their previous knowledge or experience. Break down a single step into smaller bit size chunks that give them the literal roadmap.

While there is no limit to the amount of lessons you can have within each module, be mindful of a couple of things:

  • More isn’t always better – sometimes it just breeds confusion and frustration
  • People like it bite-sized – if each lesson could only be 3-15 minutes long, would you break it up even more so people could skim through and find what they need faster?

So yes, I did just tell you to not make too many. But also to break it up (I know you like to stuff it all in).

And while every course includes different tasks, lessons and teachings, here are a couple things that should be included in your modules:

Have their cake and eat it too

Don’t be that teacher – you know that one that practically puts you to sleep – with monotone voices, advanced concepts, and way too much theory. Instead before you plan out your course think about how you can give them those tiny bites or mini-wins along the way.

Remember why you got these people here in the first place? They want to solve this problem. They want to have their cake and eat it too. So allow them to taste victory along the way. You need to give them mini-wins– tiny bites of what it will be like if they actually make it to the other side.

Allow them to visualize what life is like when they finish this course. Your content doesn’t have to be crazy long and your slides don’t have to be overly designed as long as you are delivering quality content.

For example:

  • A course on photography: Have your students get out and take pictures right away, even if they don’t totally get what ISO is, or how to set up their camera.
  • A course on vegan cooking: Give them a shopping list so they can come prepared to their first lesson already having all the right ingredients in their house.
  • A course on productivity: Have some systems in place they can copy and paste so they are ready to get started right out of the box.
  • A course on writing: Have your students sit down and write for 5 minutes in a quick exercise (they’ll feel like they are tackling something, even if it isn’t ultimately a piece they keep or edit).

Give the people what they want

In an online space it’s so easy to feel disjointed and alone from the rest of the world. And when taking a course online that isolation can be broken if we strive to foster community instead. It is your job as the instructor to create an environment ripe for feedback and discussion.

Consider allowing your students to not only interact with one another but direct future iterations of your product.

For example:

  • Include a Community or Forum: Allow your students the opportunity to not only ask you questions but enrich their peers inside a community such as a Private Facebook group, Slack channel or online forum
  • Be open to comments, questions or concerns: If your students run into trouble throughout your course consider ways you will allow them to connect with you – perhaps through comments on individual lessons, emails or even live chat
  • Pre-Sale, Pre-Sale, Pre-Sale: Can’t totally gauge exactly what your students are after? Sell them on the general idea. And continue to revise your lesson plans while dripping out content after selling your product. (I did this on a nearly $100k launch and it was the best decision I ever made to make sure the content was perfectly tailored to our ideal customers.)

Relevant references

As you write your lesson plans, you are bound to have that lightbulb moment. Ya know when you remember that FABULOUS quote from that book you were just reading, or a blog post that your students would go gaga over.

It’s so easy to have these elements slip through the cracks, and by the time you are uploading your final materials you forget to include them. So make sure for every lesson to have a reference section. There you need to go ahead and track down the necessary links, awesome quotes or perhaps one of the following:

  • Crazy actionable TED talk
  • A how-to blog post
  • Relevant guest experts
  • Affiliate links
  • Anything you referenced or promised inside your video lessons

KISS – Keep it simple stupid

At this point you should know the main objective of your course. You should have defined all the modules and all the lessons. But now you need to think about what you will actually teach in each particular lesson.

For each lesson you need to:

  1. Define the medium: Video (of just your face), Video (slides & audio overlay), Video (walkthrough of an app, software or service), Video Combo (all of the above), Quiz, Written Text, Worksheets, etc.
  2. Outline talking points: what will you cover inside each lesson
  3. Organize your ideas: how can you take that outline and organize it in a way so that you are creating concepts and rules rather than just thoughts – perhaps it is a formula to copy + paste, rules to follow, or hypotheticals for illustrative purposes
  4. Title your lessons: title your lessons so your students actual want to complete them – make them mouthwatering, sexy, and click-worthy

Now that you have your course outline locked and loaded – it’s time to start creating!

Download ConvertKit’s Online Course Outline Template to take the next step in your course creating journey.

Abagail Pumphrey

Abagail Pumphrey is the co-founder of Think Creative Collective. Together, Abagail & Emylee, help overwhelmed creative entrepreneurs build a productive, profitable and sustainable business from their passion. When she’s not recording a podcast for The Strategy Hour, teaching on a webinar or launching an online course you can find her arranging fresh flowers, snuggling her rescue beagles or trying a new healthy recipe.

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