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.

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.


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)


You might be misguided if…

2012 was an “interesting” year (yes, with air quotes). In my 2nd year as a freelance instructional designer, I learned a lot about myself and my industry. While I see great promise in technology and, a good deal of momentum for change in how we foster and measure learning and performance in the workplace, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Between debunked learning theories that resurface with zombie-like persistence (hello learning styles!) and the tool-obsessed eLearning economy that insists on claiming that it can magically convert PowerPoint presos into “eLearning”, there’s a lot of misguided thinking out there.

For instance, you might be misguided if:

  • You think you can turn your SMEs into eLearning designers by sending them to Captivate/Lectora/Storyline training. It’s like sending someone to a Black & Decker workshop on how to use a miter saw, and expecting them to emerge with the skills of an architect.
  • Your solution for creating learner “engagement” is to add more things that “fly onto the screen”. Flash, bang, and sizzle are sexy, but more often then not, they’re used to not-so-cleverly mask a lack of well-written, purposeful content. Instead of wasting more time on sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads, provide high-quality, authentic, purposeful information, or even better, opportunities for people to define, create, and share THEIR own amazing content.
  • Your “performance” objective for a compliance course is that people click an Acknowledgment button. Okay, I’m just going to say it: sometimes, paper isn’t the enemy. Sometimes, paper can be used for good and computers for evil. So, let’s all do our co-workers a favor by not forgetting the ease of use of our ole’ pal paper – especially when it comes to certain check-the-box activities.
  • You’ve tried to win over a SME or manager by saying, “I’m no expert…”. STOP undermining your credibility! You can be heard and offer valuable insight and perspective as a learning professional. Not knowing everything your SMEs know isn’t anything to apologize for. In fact, that lack of knowledge puts you in a better position to design learning content, because you’re in a the same boat as the target audience. Do yourself and your org a favor and START owning and nurturing your expertise.
  • You’ve been reduced to being an eLearning/PowerPoint monkeyFeel like you’re on an eLearning treadmill – churning out one click & read after another with no hope of designing anything that actually engages an audience and fosters some learning? You’re not alone.Unfortunately, the reality may be that you end up  designing what the boss wants, instead of what’s needed. BUT if you’ve got a pretty good handle on how far you can safely push the envelope, here’s my two-cents: Gather some data and some supporting arguments to help you build a case for doing the right thing. Sometimes, what the boss wants is limited by their experience of what’s worked before. Let’s face it, we all like to repeat success and it’s the safest path, particularly in a time crunch. Rather than “selling” your boss on design ideas they may not fully understand or appreciate, consider all the factors and then seize upon small opportunities to help him or her focus on new ways to leverage some of your past successes in new ways. Remember: you can be an ally to yourself, your training audience and your boss – or you can choose to remain a ‘victim’. It really is up to you.

Of course these are just a few of the most memorably misguided moments I happened upon in 2012. What were yours? Drop me a line or leave me a comment.

Fabulously Retro Customer Service Training

In my quest to add some creative spin to a customer service leadership program I’m developing for a client, I turned to YouTube for inspiration. While I didn’t find anything particularly helpful with my current project, I did find a new addition to my every-growing list of so-bad-they’re-good training films/videos.

To truly appreciate this film from Bell Atlantic, it’s important to set aside your modern-day notions about things like:

  • Sexism
  • Gender stereotyping
  • The role of social learning in the workplace
  • Customer relationship-building /engagement
  • Employee engagement

You Can Tell by the Teller is somewhat entertaining in a (geeky) nostalgic way – and it also succeeds in making two important points:

  1. Complete adherence to the company’s process should yield perfection 100% of the time, and
  2. If it doesn’t,  it’s probably because you’re a silly girl.

Of course, minus the sexism and the gender stereotyping, how many of today’s customer service training videos/programs handle the concepts, language or process of customer engagement with more finesse?

Authenticity: The Secret Sauce of Learning?

The following is a real outtake over-heard from an actual training class:

“It’s important when you speak to customers that you use your own words and feel comfortable in what you are saying. I’ve prepared some scripts that will help.”

In the language of today’s 140-character driven society, I’m going to label this one as an #authenticityfail.

It’s no small irony that training sends out mixed messages around authenticity, trust, and accountability. Our confusion seems to stem from a lingering problem in our industry: We’ve spent years (falsely) convincing ourselves – and others – that learning is exclusively controlled through the messaging, tone, and language of formal training. The reality is that traditional workplace learning tends to lack much-needed authenticity because learning orgs continue to portray formality as a necessary control for averting potential employee relations disasters à la David Brent…

On top of the fear-mongering around formality/informality, many orgs also suffer from an identity crisis. From the design of training role-plays using highly scripted dialog (typically featuring civil customers with simple dilemmas) to performance support tools that assume all systems operate flawlessly at 100% up time, for years we’ve seized upon training as an opportunity to portray  ideals, rather than reflect and address realities. In the process many of us have earned ourselves a reputation for being excellent internal PR vehicles but not necessarily results-oriented business partners.

Authenticity as the Secret Sauce

I hate how over-used the term “secret sauce” has become but it really seems to apply here because authenticity is the secret ingredient that ties goals to learning and learning to performance. When training and performance support lack it, we don’t engage (more likely enrage!), learning and tools aren’t used or shared, and training fails to deliver results.

With changing workplace dynamics competing for limited resources, our industry can no longer afford to peddle the appearance of authenticity by simply peppering our training with talk of organizational transparency, openness, trust and loyalty even as we:

  • Abandon the needs of learner’s in favor of meeting milestones on a project plan
  • Rely solely on “formal” learning
  • Measure the wrong things
  • Develop tools that don’t help learners with the heavy lifting required of their jobs
  • And, dismiss tools and ideas that support genuine learning and collaboration

Formal learning, by design, fosters adherence to process over independent problem-solving or team collaboration – which is contrary to how we work and live the rest of our lives. Humans are, by nature, social creatures who seek out connections and collaboration through the sharing of personal stories, observations, and best practices. Label it social learning, informal learning, goofing-off, or web surfing but the bottom line is we must accept that one moment of authentic human interaction is worth a thousand words when it comes to learning.