I got a call from a prospective client looking to hire an instructional designer.
“Tell me about what you’re looking for,” I said.
“Well, I have a classroom training program I’d like to convert to online. It’s a course on pregnancy discrimination. Our company has added a ton of specifics about this to our employee handbook, so it’s important everyone’s aware of the new policy. We’ve already got the slides built, so it just needs to be converted to an online format. Everything’s all in the text on the slides.”
I suspect this needs a lot more than just converting existing slides, and I’m not convinced that making people aware of the policy is really going to meet his goals. “Hmm…how is that classroom training working for you so far?”
“It’s OK, I guess. We only have two trainers who can deliver it though, and they just can’t train everyone in the company. We’re spending a lot of money on travel for people to come to our main office too. If we can do it online, we can cut those travel costs, and our trainers don’t have to spend so much time on this one course.”
“That sounds like a great motivation for moving this course online. Tell me about the course itself. Is it mostly lecture, or do you have some activities or role plays or anything?”
“It’s pretty much all lecture. We always avoid doing role plays for issues of discrimination to avoid insulting someone. We don’t want people practicing bad behavior, you know? It’s too uncomfortable to pretend you’re discriminating in front of a room full of people.”
“OK, I understand where you’re coming from. How are you measuring the effectiveness of this training?”
“Just a smile sheet.”
“And how have the results been from that evaluation?”
“Fine, but not great. There’s been some grumbling that it’s kind of a boring course, but it’s compliance training–what are you going to do?”
“Actually, there’s several things we could do. Have you ever considered using a scenario-based approach to your e-learning?”
“What do you mean?”
“Instead of having just slides with bullet points and audio explaining the policy, what if we created a story about a woman who is pregnant? We can put learners in situations where they have to make decisions about how to treat her. Rather than pushing the policy information to them all at once, learners can look up the specific information they need depending on where they are in the scenario. That gives them the motivation to find the information, instead of it being forced on them.”
“That sounds interesting. How exactly would that work?”
“Let’s see…have your problems in this area been more with managers or coworkers discriminating?”
“We’ve had a couple of accusations of managers discriminating. Some of it was related to hiring, and some of it was related to making accommodations for employees who either have more physical demands in their job or work with toxic chemicals.”
“What if we had a scenario with a manager with a pregnant employee on the team? We can set it up with points in the story where learners have to help the manager decide what action to take. We’d give them a few choices based on your past incidents or common misunderstandings about the policy. Maybe there’s an issue where managers cut back on someone’s hours trying to be helpful and make it easier for a woman during her pregnancy, but the woman can actually handle the hours fine if she just has a stool to sit on instead of needing to stand all day.”
“That sounds more interesting than what we’re doing in the training now. What happens if they make the wrong choice?”
“Ideally, I prefer to show people the consequences of their actions rather than simply telling them. Which do you think is more memorable–multiple choice feedback saying, ‘Sorry, that’s incorrect. You have violated section 5.3 of the employee handbook,” or ‘Peg from HR knocks on your office door. She wants to discuss why you declined to make an accommodation for Rhonda during her pregnancy’?”
“The second one, definitely. I get that feeling of being called to the principal’s office in school just imagining it.”
“And that emotional reaction is part of what makes this approach work. It draws people into the story so they’re more engaged during the course, plus it sticks with them longer afterwards.”
“OK, I’m starting to understand.”
“Great. Let’s go back to the topic of evaluation. You mentioned earlier that you need your employees to be aware of the policy. Is that really the goal here, or do you really want to reduce the number of complaints and incidents?”
“Well, obviously we want to reduce the complaints. That’s the ultimate goal.”
“Do you have any statistics on how many complaints you’ve had in the past? It would be great to have a concrete business measurement to work towards.”
“I don’t have those numbers, but I’m sure I could get them from HR.”
“That would be terrific. If you get those numbers, we can set a goal for reducing those complaints and really show what difference this training makes.”
“OK, I can do that. What’s our next step?”
“Let’s talk about some more details…”
This is fictionalized, but it gives an idea of how a conversation with a client could go to convince them to use storytelling in their course. Have you been successful in selling storytelling or scenario-based learning? How have you made this an appealing approach?
What are your most successful and least successful ID projects? Two graduate students have asked me this in interviews, and it’s a good question for reflection.
One of my favorite courses was an online graduate course on cultural competence for K-12 teachers. The evaluation for that course asked if it was a “transformative” experience for students. I knew I was setting a high bar when I wrote the evaluation, and I expected that most students would say that they learned from the course but that it didn’t really transform their teaching. However, about two thirds of the students said this course was truly transformative; it made them completely rethink their approach to teaching.
It was a challenging course, and it really pushed people out of their comfort zones. That’s where the real learning happens regarding diversity though. We used storytelling successfully in that course to bring the theory to life and help people make emotional connections. Students also told many of their own stories and shared experiences in the discussion forums. I consider this one of my most successful projects because it really inspired people to change.
One of my very first freelance projects was not successful, although it was an excellent learning experience for me. I made a number of mistakes that I now know to avoid. It was a subcontracted project, but I didn’t have a detailed Statement of Work (Mistake #1). I briefly discussed a scenario-based approach with the owner of the contracting company, and I thought he understood what I planned (Mistake #2). The client reviewed and approved the storyboard, but the owner never looked at anything until I had the full Captivate course completed. I didn’t make sure I got sign-offs from the owner at each stage (Mistake #3).
He was aghast that I hadn’t created a traditional “click next” page turner course and demanded (in all caps) that I scrap everything and completely recreate the whole course over a weekend. Since I couldn’t complete that amount of work in his time frame, I offered to either do a smaller revision over the weekend or a full revision in two weeks. He wouldn’t accept that his demand was impossible, so I didn’t get paid for the rest of the project. I know now to have better agreements in place, especially regarding reviews and revisions. If the owner had reviewed the course at the storyboard stage or we’d had a better definition of the course in the agreement, I’m sure we could have come up with a solution that worked for everyone.
Your Best and Worst?
What are your best and worst ID projects? What have you learned from those experiences?
These are my live blogged notes from the webinar Training Online: Creating Visual Stories That Resonate by Nancy Duarte. My side comments are in italics. Any errors, typos, and incomplete thoughts are mine, not Nancy’s. Check out Cammy Bean’s notes too.
She started with her personal story, told mostly with old photos on the slides and very little text
Story: likeable hero, encounters roadblocks, emerges transformed
Why are so many presentations bad? We use presentations to create reports–dense “slide-uments”
When you need to persuade, use a story
Every story should have a beginning, middle, and end, with a turning point to move between sections
The presenter is not the hero of the story: the audience is the hero. They are the ones who have the power and must decide to take action. You are the mentor (she showed Yoda on Luke’s back while talking about mentors)
Joseph Campbell story structure
- Ordinary world
- Call to adventure
- Refusal of call
- Meeting with the mentor–this is a turning point
Freytag’s dramatic story structure; has a shape.
She wondered if great presentations had a shape like this
- What is
- What could be (the gap between this and what is is the “call to adventure”)
- Keep going back and forth between these two
An image of this shape is found in this summary of Duarte’s book
This shape can be used as an analysis tool She analyzed a 90-minute speech by Steve Jobs, who kept the audience riveted, laughing or clapping about every 30 seconds.
Jobs was passionate about his product and constantly marveled at it during the speech
STAR moment: Something They’ll Always Remember
Same kind of analysis for the I Have a Dream speech. Lots of pauses, more like poetry than a traditional speech. King had a rhythm to his speech. Color coded analysis for the words: repetition; metaphor, visual words; familiar songs, scripture, literature; political references. He moved back and forth between what is and what could be at the phrase level at “I have a dream”; makes more excitement. Familiar references touch something that already resonates within the audience.
The stakes are higher now. It used to be that you could get away with crappy presentations because everyone else is crappy too. Now, there are books and best practices, and TED presentations set the bar higher. Twitter also sets the bar higher; the audience no longer has to suffer alone. They have a back channel and can revolt against a presenter. The audience can say cruel things. (example tweets from the disastrous #heweb09 keynote). Back channel can be good too; people may move to a good presentation they hear about on a back channel at a conference.
Don’t stay trapped in the roadblocks section of your own story. Push through and emerge transformed.
We need to find what we are passionate about to change the world.
Question: What do you do when you’re not fighting for human rights or a product that can’t be marveled at like the iphone?
Answer: some people really need to have passion and some don’t. Everyone needs to be passionate about something, but it may not be work related. People won’t invest in their communication skills if they aren’t passionate.
Question: How much time do we need to invest in our communication?
Answer: If you are given something you need to present in 3 days, it’s probably not high stakes. Categorize what is really important and what isn’t, and fight for the ones that are important. When you are launching your new 5-year vision, or making a big sale, you need to put a lot of time in.
Question: Going back to your “present in person” idea from the beginning, what about globally dispersed teams that don’t meet in person?
Answer: Plan and prepare. She stood up in front of pictures of people to practice so she would talk more like face to face in this online format. Your biggest competitor with virtual presentations is their inbox; if you aren’t more interesting than their inbox, they’ll be reading email. Think about getting their attention back. Break it into very small “Halloween candy size” bites to keep them engaged.
Question: You mentioned investing time in improving communications. What are ways people can invest in their skills?
Answer: Be a consumer of good information. You also need to practice it. They have workshops, other people do too–toastmasters
Question: Is there a time limit on keeping interest?
Answer: Depends on the speaker. Some can hold it for much longer. Emotionally charged content can engage people for longer.
Question: Who is your favorite storyteller?
Answer: Several favorites: Cheryl Sandberg (COO Facebook) is one
Question: Are there differences between people in how interested they are in stories? Are women more interested in stories than men?
Answer: Women may have a higher capacity for emotional content. There are stories as little anecdotes, overall themes, or story structure. You need to know your audience. Emotionally charged content may not work with biochemists. Everyone is human though, and everyone responds to story if it applies.
Question: How many slides should you use?
Answer: It depends. Keep one idea on a slide. If you have 5 ideas on a slide, the audience will read ahead and think you are slow. Slide count doesn’t really affect presentation length; if you click fast, you may have a lot of slides. This was about 75 slides for about 35 minutes of presentation.
Question: What do you do with SMEs who want to include everything in their presentation? How do you help them chunk content into smaller bits?
Answer: Slides are free. It’s not like you’re printing and more slides is more money to print. Sometimes a slide does need more information. They usually do printouts for dense information so they walk away with it rather than trying to cram it on a slide. Put a picture of the handout on the screen and tell people to look at the handout instead of looking at dense text on a slide.
Question: What is the greatest lesson you have learned from a webinar that didn’t go well?
Answer: Technology glitches. She had 25 people in the room, 200 online. It was distracting. She didn’t do a technical walkthrough first. Energy is really hard when you are the speaker and everyone else is muted. You have to keep your own energy very high.
Question: Back to the sailing analogy: how do we use the wind resistance idea to catch the audience’s attention?
Answer: The best way is to grab a few coworkers or the potential audience members. Let them think about ways people might resist. Get people who are comfortable being honest about resistance and reactions.
Question: How do your in person presentations differ from what you do in a webinar?
Answer: She really feeds on audience energy, but she tries to not have much gap. She describes things more visually when presenting online to make up for physical presence.
Question: How do you build this in written materials? Can we use this storytelling in emails or other communication?
Answer: Yes, this can work in other forms of persuasion. Her book resonate follows this form on every page, and then the book follows the form.
Question: Best practices for hybrid live/virtual audiences?
Answer: Make sure the technology works. Acknowledge that people who are calling in are humans too to make them not feel like they are outside looking in.
Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn is a great book for instructional designers because it actually is written using the principles taught. Some instructional design books use a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of approach: they talk about chunking content into manageable amounts, using effective visuals, and motivating learners, but they are filled with long, unbroken blocks of dry text. Design for How People Learn is an easy, fun read, with lots of visuals and realistic examples that touch on frustrating problems instructional designers face.
Julie says, “I recently heard the advice for authors that you should write the book you want to read but can’t find. That’s basically what I did.”
Lots of Images
Images are interspersed in every topic. It’s a lot of stick figures, but you’d be surprised at how effective stick figures can be at conveying a concept. For example, chapter 2 “Who Are Your Learners?” includes a series of stick figures facing different inclines representing the challenge of a course. It’s five variations of a single stick figure with a single angled line depicting a hill, but it still gets the point across. You can see how a novice learner is facing a steeper hill than an expert. I was a little surprised to not find any screenshots of actual courses, but the book doesn’t feel like it’s missing them.
When I was reading this book, I realized that I suddenly started using a lot more visuals in the course I was developing. The way the images were done in the book gave me more inspiration for my own course. Even if you’re an experienced instructional designer who is already familiar with most of the research and principles, this book is valuable as an example of well-done graphics for learning.
Stories and Examples
Although the book doesn’t include screenshots or examples of actual courses or training materials, the stories and examples do depict actual problems instructional designers face. For example, there’s an example of a new manager who has gone through training but isn’t applying the coaching skills taught. You’re given a description of her performance and asked to consider whether this is really a problem that can be fixed by training. It’s very realistic; you’ve probably seen or experienced a similar situation yourself. You can connect it to your experience, and it’s easy to see how this applies in your work. Julie explains benefits of using stories later in the book, but she applies the principle throughout.
The book includes lots of research about how we learn and remember, but it’s very accessible. The language is approachable and often humorous. The research is always framed in terms of “OK, so what does that mean for me when I’m creating a course? What do I do with that research?” I admit that there weren’t a lot of surprises for me in the research; it was mostly information I was already familiar with. I expect anyone with a masters degree in instructional design or who does a lot of independent reading and study would find it to be the same. However, those who are just getting started in the field or are accidental instructional designers will find to be a good foundation of research principles. The references at the end of each chapter are a good resource to dig deeper.
The Table of Contents and a sample chapter on motivation are both available on Julie’s site.