4 Tips for Re-Writing Learning Content

A SME hands you their source material for a critical training project. You thumb through the document and after the title page, a mission statement, the steering committee bios, and a Sun Tzu quote, you stumble upon this:

This training was designed to increase the understanding and the ability of Level III safety auditors to adhere to (company name) standard operating procedures for objectively and efficiently assessing departmental compliance to four key excellence criteria…

Got that? No? Well, neither will your audience. So now what? How do you turn wordy corporate speak into compelling, purposeful content?

1. Speak to the individual

When it comes to writing learning content, information and ideas need to connect at an individual level and it’s our job to transform that raw content in a way that speaks to and with the individual.

  • Imagine yourself in a conversation with one person and use that language to re-convey the ideas. You can always refine it later, but at least you’re starting with an authentic, conversational tone.
  • Ask SMEs to paraphrase their wordy corporate speak. Have them explain it to you in their own words. Then use those words as the basis for rewriting the schlock.

2. It’s all about them

You might disagree with me, but fundamentally, no one cares about your company/business/organization/department - at least not right off the bat. They also don’t care about your mission statement, your CEO’s strategic plan, or your 4 pillars of customer service. People care about themselves. What’s in it for me? That’s what connects ideas to actions. Learning shouldn’t be about what you want to tell them; it should be about what they need to know and do.

  • Focus first on their problems, their needs, and their real-life situations and then you can talk about your great ideas for addressing them.
  • Put your writing through the “we” test. Count the number of times you’ve used “we” words, like we, us, our, or your company name, and then compare it to the number of times you’ve used “you” words. If the we’s have it, YOU’VE got a problem.

3. Avoid superlatives

Typical business writing is riddled with vague superlatives like “excellence” and “quality.” But what do those words really mean? Excellence for one person isn’t the same for another and defining excellence on your terms doesn’t exactly encourage internalization of the concepts or foster new behaviors. If you really want to engage and motivate, stop telling your learners how special and important everything is, and start showing them, specifically, what to care about and why. Provide examples through things like scenarios, case studies, or let them hear from their peers and reach their own conclusions about the adjectives and the adverbs. 

4. Get to the point

I’ll admit it: economy is not my strong suit, but even I know that more words do not equal better content. In a world where we are bombarded with information all day long, lightening the cognitive load is more than considerate, it’s smart. Keeping your writing pointed and purposeful helps your audience focus on the most critical information, shows respect for their time and energy, and increases the odds of the really important bits actually sticking.

Fundamentally, design is about making choices and in the case of that stereotypical bullet-riddled SME slide, the best thing you can do for your audience, your organization and yourself is to step up and ask: What’s really important here? How can we present this information more efficiently? Case in point: Below, on the left is a lengthy list of interesting (and shocking) facts about Diabetes. But what’s the key message hidden in all those bullets? On the right is a more succinct and impactful list that’s a lot easier to read and comprehend.

BEFORE

BEFORE: Too. Many. Words. Ugh.

AFTER: Critical info is called out and we’ve only included the stats that support it.

A Prescription for DevLearn

When thinking about your own professional development needs, does your brain conjure images of PowerPoint training slides and competency models? Do you suffer from feelings of isolation and frustration when trying to convey what it is that you really do on the job? Do you feel overwhelmed by new tools and technology?

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you’re not alone. You may be suffering from PDD: Professional Development Depression; a contagious, but highly treatable form of ambition arrest. If you’re experiencing symptoms of PDD, ask your manager about DevLearn by The eLearning Guild.

Read the rest of this post on The eLearning Guild’s Twist blog.

3 Lessons I Learned from a (Lousy) 4th Grade Teacher

I’ll just come out and say it: my son’s 4th grade teacher was lousy and by “lousy” I mean that she was, amongst many other things:

  • Powerless: Every challenge was met with a shoulder shrug and, “…well, there’ nothing I can do, because that’s a District policy…”
  • A Word Pusher: Lessons were frequently delivered from HER perspective – most often as a lecture – with little participation from the children.
  • Overly Punitive: Drew a few army men on the back of your math homework? Big mistake. Now you’ve been assigned additional homework as punishment.

It’s probably easy to see why my husband and I were left feeling annoyed, aggravated, and alienated.

Fresh for my latest skirmish with the teacher, I decided to participate in one of David Anderson‘s eLearning design challenges, in part to channel my frustration into something more productive. The result is the learning geek equivalent of a “Burn Book.” It’s raw. It’s sarcastic. It’s take no prisoners.

Building_Effective_Parent_Teacher

I hesitated to share this post and this project with the world since it is SO filled with snarkasm (albeit without exaggerating or embellishing upon our experience). And I want to be VERY clear on this point, it’s not my intention to cast a negative light on teachers or teaching. I’m very fortunate to count many friends and family as teachers, and it is their high-standards that have served to inspire my own love for learning. I think it’s fair to say that almost every teacher I know is skilled, open-minded, hard-working, and dedicated to bettering their students lives – a fact I believe to be true of most folks who enter such a challenging profession.

That being said, the reason I decided to share this experience and my sarcastic response, is that I see a lot of the same lousy behaviors in many of the L&D organizations I serve: powerlessness (learned helplessness), word pushing (lecture), and a tendency towards positioning learning as a form of punishment. It’s no surprise since a traditional “school” model of students in chairs, studying and taking tests is how so many of us contextualize “learning.” In the corporate world, we spend a good deal of our time butting heads with executives and SMEs who seem to think that people only learn when they’ve been “taught.” So given what we’re up against, how do we avoid being lousy teachers?

My Lessons Learned

1. Powerless. Is there another department in a typical corporate setting that’s more often seen, by itself and others, as “powerless” then the Training Department? (Okay, maybe the Facilities folks get less love than we do, but it’s a close call…).

When I think of a typical corporate L&D organization, I think about how we often exist in complicated dotted-line reporting relationships to other units such as OD and HR, or how we work directly for specific lines of business (e.g., Sales, Marketing, etc.), for whom training is a necessary evil – a costly means to an end. Such complex arrangements may deprive us of the organizational clout needed to make sweeping changes. Over time, our lack of clout leads us to present ourselves to business partners as victims of the corporate machine: “We’re only allowed to use the branded template” or “We have to include a quiz because that’s the way all of our eLearning is done.” Words like that don’t inspire much confidence, do they?

Assuming your workplace isn’t an entirely toxic environment, you may have more opportunities to influence change. Okay, so influence isn’t as satisfying as being a “change maker” – but it’s a lot better than stewing in your own juices! Where to start? When it comes to reclaiming some power, sometimes you’ve got to fake it until you make it:

  • Think like a learning expert.
  • Talk about benefits to the business (i.e. use more consultative language).
  • Do more prototyping of your ideas to build buy-in with your SMEs.
  • Use more showing and less telling.
  • Present evidence and gather examples from other industries that support your assertions and recommendations.

These are simple ways of projecting a more professional and positive persona, and they can potentially help to boost your credibility. By chipping away at the big changes using smaller changes like ditching the mandatory quiz, writing in a more relaxed/conversation tone, using graphics or creative treatments that are accessible and beautiful, you can help you exert a little more influence over the method – if not set the stage for better results. And over time, a few small wins can add up to greater influence and, maybe eventually, the power you need to be a more effective and valued business partner.

2. A Word Pusher. Imagine I’m a SME and I’ve told you that one of my requirements for our project is that every word of my content must be read by the learner. Disable the next button, I say. FORCE the learner to sit on that screen for at least 2 minutes before they can advance. Add more quiz questions. Make it so they have to pass the quiz with an 80% or higher before they can get credit for the course. If you’re groaning right about now, it’s probably because you can sense the uphill battle looming. If you’re feeling powerless (see above) it might seem easier to just meet my demands and move on, right?

Pushing content (words) at people is one approach to communication, but is it effective? Largely it’s not. But busy SMEs and executives don’t know that. They spend a great deal of their time attempting to control chaos, minimize risk, and strengthen the bottom line. Clear, highly detailed communication is seen as an enabler of performance and the foundation for how they’re measured. The good news? Understanding that is your “in” to stopping the vicious cycle of lecture as “learning.”

Along with applying the techniques I just reviewed for addressing powerlessness, here are some of my favorite resources:

3. Overly Punitive. Ever been forced to go to a training class you thought was a waste of time? You may have heard things from fellow participants like, “My boss sent me” or “I have other things I should be doing.” Invariably people sit with arms crossed, blank expressions, texting on their phones, maybe even answering emails on their laptops.

When people fail to perform, I’ve found that sending them to training is probably one of the least helpful things you can do. It’s not usually a lack of practice, knowledge, understanding, nor an inability to appreciate the importance of their actions. In short, almost none of the things that one could meaningfully address with a typical training intervention.

More often it’s a case of employees not equipped with adequate tools and resources, or who are encumbered with a process that’s heavy with exception-handling and dynamic decision-making and an operating environment that refuses to recognize those realities. Assigning training is not only ineffective, but also demoralizing, humiliating (since it often dismisses their existing level of expertise), and doesn’t fundamentally address the barriers that stand in the way of performance.

*****

And last but not least, whether you’re stuck in a power vacuum, overwhelmed by words, or battling the organizational view of learning as a cure-all/punishment, this experience taught me that finding an outlet for your frustration is cathartic. Write about your challenges in a blog, share helpful links on Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn, attend conferences, webinars, luncheons – whatever it takes to connect with and learn from your peers…and maybe, if you’re up for it, use the tools of your trade to make things better…and not just snarkier. (wink, wink)

 

Is it a Cold or the Flu?

coldvsflu

Repeat After Me: eLearning is a Technology Solution

Dear clients,

In my 3+ years as a freelancer, I’ve worked with many different types of companies and organizations – everything from huge Fortune 500s with a global audience to small, local businesses with less than 20 employees. Helping small businesses gives me an opportunity to collaborate and design affordable, scalable learning solutions and lay a foundation of good practices. Working with my larger clients generally gives me access to more resources and budget, but usually with more creative restrictions. Two ends of the client spectrum, each with their own rewards and drawbacks.

Whether large or small, global or local, profit or non-profit, the one thing I’ve run into over and over again is the fundamental misunderstanding of the skills, details, time, and costs involved in designing, developing, testing, implementing, and maintaining eLearning. And the more complex, engaging, and sophisticated you want your eLearning to be, the more time and resources (and budget) your eLearning vendor (me) may need to achieve your objectives.

So, in the interest of helping you become a more educated consumer, allow me to share some free consulting advice as follows:

1. Spend money on good design.

A designer is not just someone with a nice looking portfolio full of snazzy graphics and sleek animations. A designer is equal parts analytic and creative, a necessity for helping you to identify potential barriers to achieving your goals AND to help design creative solutions to overcome those barriers (solutions that may or may not involve snazzy graphics and sleek animations).

Many clients approach me saying that they don’t need me to design anything; they only want my assistance as an eLearning developer. I’ve learned that this is usually code for “take my PowerPoint and turn it into eLearning through the magic of rapid authoring tools”.

Here’s the deal: in 99% of cases, the source material you’ve given me hasn’t been “designed for learning” – it’s too technical, wordy, passive, or all informational with no practical application. If I merely dumped your content into an authoring tool and published it out, you’d probably assess the results on a scale of unimpressed to deep hatred.

What you really need is a designer to ask tons of questions, to help you define the requirements and the desired outcomes, and to make some informed recommendations within those constraints. You really need someone who, when eLearning is an appropriate solution, is given the time and budget to re-structure, edit, and otherwise transform your content guided by specific instructional intent and not just a budget and a deadline. The visual design elements (i.e. UI, graphics, branding, etc.) are only one layer of the larger design process and on their own can’t give you what you’re looking for.

Bottom line: When you pay for good design you’re buying more than just good looks. You’re paying for the expertise of someone who knows what to ask and how to ask you all of the hard questions so you’ll actually SAVE time, money and agony in the long run.

2. Rush job? Expect rushed results.

Whenever I’m in a gathering of fellow eLearning designers, inevitably the conversation turns to the fact that you, the client, have no idea (or appreciation for) how much time it takes us to design, develop, and launch a decent eLearning course. So let’s just get this out of the way up front: it’s not going to happen in a week or even two. That’s not to say that it’s not possible, but when you make time the primary driver of the project, it forces us to scale back appropriately – meaning minimal complexity and minimal review cycles. In some cases, that’s a decent trade-off, but in others it’s a recipe for a waste of time and money.

For instance, let’s say you have an audience of experienced sales reps with lots of product knowledge but with flat sales numbers. With no design time, all I can reasonably do is take your source content (and your word that you know your audience well), and then use eLearning as a vehicle for giving your audience some basic pointers, maybe a few examples, and minimal practice. But you and I both know that connecting with an audience of experienced sales people is challenging on its own, and even more so when we’re trying to convey techniques to address a nuanced, delicate sales rep/client interaction.

Honing a skill requires practice and an appropriate solution probably needs to be more complex than an eLearning course with some pointers. By letting a timeline drive the project you’re inevitably sacrificing efficacy for the sake of expediency. And I doubt that’s a point you’ll want to use in your defense when next month’s sales numbers still haven’t hit the target and your boss is grilling you about all that money you just spent on eLearning.

Bottom line: Designing and developing an effective learning solution – which may or may not encompass eLearning – takes time. One industry guideline many of us consult is a study from the Chapman Alliance which states that it generally takes 49 hrs to develop every 1 hr of basic, click & read eLearning. That’s just a guideline of course. Your goals may require the use of complex simulations or branching scenarios that push that timeline out, or your interests may be best served by developing another solution entirely. The only way to know is to heed my #1 advice and, by doing so, hopefully avoid stepping into #2.

3. eLearning is a technology solution.

Question: Would you trust a realtor with no prior architecture or carpentry experience, or knowledge, to design and build your entire house by hand? Before you answer that, you should know that this realtor is knowledgeable about selling houses, he’s selected the lot to build your house on for you (it’s a stable lot with good word of mouth that anyone can build on), and he does have access to a tool that is SO powerful and easy to use, it requires no training, experience, or other tools to build dazzling homes. Okay, think that over.

Next question: It’s move-in day and you go to plug in your new refrigerator. As you struggle to push the plug into the new electrical outlet, the entire wall gives way. It’s a load-bearing wall. You call your realtor/builder in a panic and ask him what went wrong. How likely is it that he’ll be able to troubleshoot the source of the problem or fix it since his knowledge is limited to using only that one tool?

Designing, developing, and implementing eLearning is, plain and simple, a technology solution. That means it comes with all the complexities that accompany any other technology including software, websites, custom apps, or new systems. The details that go into designing, developing and delivering a technology solution are mind-boggling. Things such as browser settings, device settings, image and text resolution, individual hardware and software configurations, associated tools and software you’ll need to realize the full benefits of the core software, the use of audio and video, changes to internal processes and workflows to support successful product launch, back-end systems to host your solution – and then, of course, there are always a few users who will fail to recognize the gigantic flashing arrow button on the bottom of their screen is the means of navigating the course. All of these things and more will bedevil even the most well-funded, well-staffed, and thoroughly trained team. In time and with some support, these challenges are usually overcome, but the costs (financial and otherwise) of getting through that process are substantial and not to be taken lightly.

Bottom line: eLearning is a technology solution and you need to be prepared for the substantial cost and work that goes into designing, developing, testing, deploying, and maintaining that solution. If you or your team are uncomfortable with technology, don’t force yourselves to become eLearning experts. Instead, invest some time and money into becoming better informed in the long-term, and in the short-term, outsource the design and development to experts who can coach you through the process.

There is no magic rapid authoring tool that can “design” great eLearning for you. Authoring tools are just that – tools. Some tools are better and easier to use than others. It’s the designer/developer’s skills and years of experience that allow them to make recommendations about how to build a solution that maximizes the use of their tools while minimizing potential problems for you down the road.

There is no design smart enough to outwit stupid. (You can quote me on that.)

There is no LMS that offers 100% up time with an interface so intuitive that a halfwit goat could use and administer it while blindfolded. (If there is, please send photos.)

Take my candor for what’s it worth – free advice from someone who’s been doing this eLearning thing for quite a while now. And whatever path you take, I hope my perspective gives you and yours some food for thought.

Best wishes,

Trina