Design Perspectives from Ira Glass

IraGlassIn the world of NPR Geeks Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” is utterly revered. Because I was fortunate enough to see him in person at a recent NPR event in Tampa I got to learn, first hand, why he’s so revered.

Ira, a sharply dressed, wise-cracking, incredibly humble guy, kicked off the evening by talking about the unique power of radio in reaching people’s heads, hearts and minds. Hearing about his life experience as a radio journalist made for an entertaining 2 hours, but I was most struck by his observations about the “design” that goes into broadcast journalism. Through a series of audio samples from traditional media (CNN, etc.) juxtaposed with those from Ira’s show, you could hear the use of good storytelling in the quality of the writing, the use of narrative and humor and music, and the thoughtful editing that constructs a story using pacing, tension, and drama to elicit curiosity, connection, and emotion with the listener.

1. Broadcasting Content vs. Storytelling with Content

Most broadcasting is a fairly boring, passive experience for an audience. Information is reported. Short clips are played and context is interspersed by the journalist. For the most part this style of broadcasting is economical information sharing; not designed to engage you in critical thinking or reflection. It wants only that you sit in your seat and watch and listen…and tune in tomorrow.

Storytelling, on the other hand, is a much more engrossing experience. It’s almost a conversation between the audience, the protagonist(s) and the storyteller. By using a narrative approach – an opening hook that sets the stage, or a question followed by an explanation – and then another hook/question, etc., the storyteller gets out of the way and establishes a cadence or rhythm that brings the listener along. Brief pauses for silence, some interstitial music sprinkled throughout, and even the humorous observations of our protagonists become part of the story’s fabric, because they serve to add depth and complexity and feeling. All of this ambience helps the audience to emotionally and intellectually engage with information in a deeper, more satisfying way.

So what’s the L&D take-away? For me it was the recognition that I spend a good deal of my time trying to steer people away from a “broadcasting” approach and towards a storytelling one. Further understanding the distinction really gives me a good metaphor I can use when discussing the value of creative treatment of material. Does compliance training need to be delivered in the form of a story? Maybe or maybe not. But it’s an option and we shouldn’t be afraid to use the “e” word (emotion) when we discuss learning.

2. Humor Is a Powerful Tool

Speaking of emotion, Ira spoke at length about the importance of incorporating levity into the stories he crafts for “This American Life.” He pointed out that traditional media side-lines humorous content so that everything is neatly segmented like a Toddler’s plate with serious content over here, human interest over there, and a dash of absurd/humorous content off to the side for dessert. It’s formulaic, and trite, and boring.

But with storytelling, humor and levity are powerful tools for breaking the tension and humanizing the characters. Humor, when used well, builds connection between characters and audience and builds curiosity. This is the stuff of deep thinking and engagement.

The L&D take-away? Humor and levity can be challenging to pull-off without coming across as cheesy or contrived. But whether you decide to side-line it, feature it, or avoid it, humor is a powerful tool for creating an authentic human experience and establishing connection between ideas (information) and emotions (behaviors) in our audience. And isn’t that what learning should be about?

3. Make Content Contributors Audition for You

Ira discussed the process they use for finding stories/content and then editing that material for the show. One of the most surprising things was hearing how much time was spent on the process of “auditioning content” and how much of it actually never makes the cut. Turns out, Ira and his team are so good at what they do, people come to them and “pitch” their ideas for stories. Sometimes there’s good alignment between content and format and audience right off the bat. Sometimes there’s some potential and they pursue it. Often they reject the idea outright because the show’s style of storytelling is the wrong approach or  because it’s just not a good fit for their audience. But it’s this process of auditioning and scrutinizing and rigorously editing content that maintains the show’s credibility as a source for information AND perspectives you won’t get elsewhere. It is, in effect, the show’s brand.

While I’ve worked in L&D orgs that were highly sought-after by business partners, and even a few who had the organizational clout to act as a sort of “shark tank” with content contributors, this notion of taking a very editorial, critical eye to content and making it “audition” for its place in the Training Department’s line-up of courses, really resonated with me. How many of us see our L&D role, not as a critical value filter (an editor), but more as a producer whose job is to push every piece of content we’re given, out onto the eLearning stage, regardless of its merit? More importantly, what does your organization’s brand look like?






Why My 8-Year Old May Be Smarter Than Your HR Dept.

Like many 8-year old girls my daughter Hayden is fascinated, even obsessed with horses. Because we live in the ‘burbs in a cookie-cutter master-planned no horses allowed kinda community, the odds of her getting a horse of her own are nil. Hayden understands the practical barriers to horse ownership, but the heart wants what it wants.

Eventually Hayden’s obsession manifested in a new fascination with treating our two dogs, Logan and Scout, like horses. She relentlessly pursued them with curry comb in hand to brush their pathetic excuses for manes. She buffed their tiny hooves (claws) and bandaged imaginary leg injuries with masking tape. She enticed them to come to her with offers of apples and carrots (Scout fell for it every time) and once in her grasp, made them don tiny toy saddles and bridals hand-crafted from folded duct tape.

All of these things – saddling, brushing their fur, taping their little legs – were all superficial activities. Yes, she had the satisfaction of carrying out all of these busy tasks that made them look more like miniature horses, but they were still not behaving like horses and that was unacceptable. Thus Hayden reached the conclusion that the dogs simply needed to be trained to act like horses. Convinced in her ability to mold them to her vision through rigorous training, she stacked pool noodles on our patio to create a horse obstacle course and over several afternoons she cajoled, badgered, and coaxed the dogs into occasionally doing a series of half-hearted leaps over her horse jumps or balancing, ever so briefly, on an over-turned planter. These mini break-throughs were rare. For the most part, rather than feeling inspired to improve their performance, the dogs would seize every opportunity to get away from their oppressive trainer, who always demanded a level of transformation from them that they were unable to make.

Then last week after a particularly fruitless afternoon of training our dogs to be horses, Hayden was forced to admit that it wasn’t working. She came inside sweaty and frustrated with panting dogs trailing behind her. And then she said it:

Mommy, no matter how hard I train Logan to jump over pool noodles he’s still not a horse.

Even as I comforted her, inside I was THRILLED to hear her acknowledge the obvious: no amount of training will turn a dog into a horse. Not only does this have serious implications from a future dating standpoint (no “project” partners, I hope…), but it also means that my 8-year old girl grasps a fundamental truth that eludes many adults I’ve worked with: you cannot train someone to be something they’re not and don’t want to be.

How often do we as L&D professionals encounter adult humans (looking at you, HR) who are convinced you can hire a mutt and, through the power of training, turn it into a stallion? How often do we subject people to relentless training that demands a level of personal and/or professional transformation nearly impossible to achieve? How often do we marvel at the unwillingness of people to transform themselves and then blame the quality of the training they receive?

One could argue that there are no easy parallels between a child’s observation of animal nature, and the world of L&D. After all, we’re focused on human behaviors, right? But I would argue that ultimately it is the human, not the animal, who changed her behavior. Hayden grew to accept the limitations of her dogs. Yes, they’re not good horses, but they are wonderful dogs.

As L&D struggles to provide access to meaningful opportunities and tools, we always need to keep realistic expectations for our audience in mind. Developing talent starts with acknowledging what those talents are. How can we help them identify their goals, their strengths and weaknesses? How can we enable them to plan their future? Sure, training may or may not be an outcome of those efforts, but it shouldn’t be the focus of those efforts – and even my 8 year can tell you that.





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: 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.