Links for 5/22/16
In Protagonists Should Be Like Your Learners, I mentioned some critical elements to creating a scenario for learning:
- Protagonist or main character
- That character’s goal
- The challenges that character faces
The main character’s goal is what drives the scenario. All of the action and decisions in the scenario move you closer or further from that goal.
Begin with the End in Mind
This might seem counter-intuitive; we usually start writing at the beginning of a story. It’s more natural to start writing with “Once upon a time…” than “…happily every after.”
For learning scenarios, this is exactly what we need though. How will your scenario end? What do you want the character to do at the end of your story? How will it conclude?
It might help to think of the conclusion of your story in relation to your learning objectives. What do your learners need to be able to do at the end of the training? What skills do they need to demonstrate? What does successful performance look like? Successful performance is the goal or conclusion of the story. In a branching scenario, meeting that goal is one of several endings to the story.
Learning Objectives to Character Goals
As an example, say one objective is for learners to “Provide reasonable accommodations for employees when requested, following company procedures and meeting legal requirements.” What does that really mean for managers? Think about the business need. A manager’s goal isn’t really to provide the reasonable accommodation for a disability. Their big goal is to help their team be productive and successful. That’s the driving motivation.
Goals May Be Hidden
You might not ever explicitly state that goal. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. It can sound a bit stiff and artificial if they do. Most of the time, people don’t cheerfully voice their goals like the character below.
Instead of telling your learners the goal directly, try to show that goal through their actions, dialog, and concerns. Cindy, the manager, still has the same motivation and goal here. She wants her team to be productive and successful. She doesn’t say it directly though. Instead of telling you her goal directly, she’s showing you her goal through dialog with a VP. In this case, there’s a more specific goal for a project.
You might not even show the goal as clearly as in that dialog. It might only be revealed in the decisions, your characters make. It’s easy to see how a manager who is worried about a deadline might decline to give an employee time for training. However, if that training on assistive technology will help the employee perform better, it would actually help the team.
Primary Goals and Secondary Goals
Cindy’s primary goal is helping her team be successful so they can meet their deadline. That goal is still pretty far removed from the learning objective though. I’ll keep that primary motivation in mind while I write her character, but I need her to have a secondary goal that ties to the course. In this case, her secondary goal might be to provide reasonable accommodations for her team so they can keep working effectively. She might have an additional secondary goal of following HR policies so she doesn’t get in trouble. I wouldn’t say that goal directly in the scenario, but the choices she makes (like consulting HR for help) would reflect that goal. In the last example above, delaying Rosa’s training would violate HR policy. The consequences for making that choice would show how she didn’t achieve her goals.
Thinking about your characters goals and motivations makes them more realistic, and it helps keep your scenarios moving forward towards those goals.
Want to Learn More?
If you’re interested in learning more, check out all my posts on storytelling and scenarios.
I recently gave a presentation to the Online Network of Independent Learning Professionals about blogging to build your business. This is specifically about what I have learned about blogging to build your reputation as a learning consultant over my 9+ years of blogging.
The recording of the presentation and discussion is available on YouTube. Thanks to Patti Bryant for organizing the group and sharing the recordings each week. If you’re a freelancer or consultant, you should join our weekly calls.
Mistakes I Made
I started blogging in December 2006 as a tool for my own professional development. At the time, starting a business wasn’t even on my radar. If I was going back and starting a blog now as a tool to build my brand and my business, I would do several things differently.
Domain: Get your own URL from the start, even if you’re doing a free WordPress account. I didn’t, and I’m so established at my current address that I am afraid I’d lose a lot by moving to a new domain. Now I have my business in one place and my blog in another, which splits my online identity.
Post URLs: If you’re on a platform that gives you a choice, use a simple scheme for post URLs that doesn’t include the date. This gives you shorter URLs than what I have, which includes /year/month/date. If you stop updating later, you can call your blog posts “articles” and hide the dates so it doesn’t look like an abandoned blog.
Lack of Focus: I started with a lack of focus because I was just writing about whatever I was learning or working on at the time. If you’re trying to build a niche for your business or build your personal brand, be more focused. My audience is mostly other people in the L&D field, from new to old. I’m not specifically writing to an audience of clients. However, since mostly the people hiring me have are involved in L&D to some extent, they understand what I’m saying. Right now I’m trying to build my brand around storytelling and scenario-based learning, so I’m posting about that more regularly.
Every business needs a website. If you already have a website that offers a blogging option, use that. If not, these are the three options I recommend, from least to most technical. These aren’t the only options, of course. If you disagree with my recommendations, please leave a comment and explain why.
LinkedIn is the quickest option if you are not technical and don’t want to deal with setting anything up. If you have a profile, you already have the ability to post. It’s a good way to figure out if you enjoy blogging and to get into the routine of posting regularly, and you could move your posts later. If you already have a decent sized network, you have built-in followers. There are several drawbacks. First, it’s not on your business site, so you’re splitting your identity between your business website and your LinkedIn profile. Second, you have no control over the URL beyond your post title. Third, there’s no guarantee LinkedIn will keep hosting that content, and there’s no easy way to export it. If they shut down posting next week, you could lose everything. If you do use LinkedIn, keep copies of all your content as a backup.
WordPress.com is free, but there’s a small charge for your own domain (which you should pay). The hosting is already done, and you can do premium themes. If you are somewhat technical but don’t want to deal with loading things to a server, this is a good option. This could be your whole business website and portfolio with an integrated blog, all at one URL. You can’t load additional plugins on WordPress.com though, so you can’t extend it with something like LifterLMS. You can export everything to host it yourself later if you want. There are also limitations to the types of files you can share, so you may have to host portfolio samples elsewhere and link to them.
WordPress.org is a good choice if you’re more technical and you want the most control over what features are available on your website. If you have enough technical knowledge to self host a WordPress site, this is by far the best of the three options.
What Works For Me
- Plan to post regularly and consistently. Whether you post 3 times a week or once a month, be consistent about it. This helps your readers know what to expect and helps your SEO.
- Schedule time to write. If you don’t schedule time, it’s too easy for other work to come first and to never make time to write. I have a weekly recurring task on my to-do list to work on a blog post each week. You might find it best to blog one morning a month to write multiple posts. You have to make the time for blogging for it to be successful.
- Schedule your posts. About a year ago, I started a rough plan for my blog and what topics I’ll write. It’s much easier to have a plan for my topic so I’m not sitting down to a blank screen and no ideas. I also schedule my posts to publish on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday mornings since those times seem to get me the most traffic.
- Collect and track ideas for posts. I get ideas for blog posts from multiple sources. I collect them all in a simple (albeit messy) Google Doc as the ideas come to me. That means I always have something to write about.
- Plan to write a series of related posts. This makes it easier to plan ahead and allows you to cross link to your own past posts for more traffic. Some of my most popular posts have been my series, like Instructional Design Careers and Voice Over Scripts.
- Write for online with short paragraphs, lists, and headings to break up blocks of text. Keep the F-shaped reading pattern in mind.
- Reuse content you write for other sources on your blog to save time. Where else are you writing now? Email, eLearning Heroes, LinkedIn groups? If I write a two paragraph answer to a question in one of those places, I already have half a blog post written. I always expand or update the answer on my blog, but I don’t always start from scratch. This post has started with the slide notes from my presentation.
- You can also use content from your blog for other uses like presentations, workshops, and courses. I submitted a conference presentation based on my Voice Over Scripts series. I would also like to turn that series into a paid course at some point. I’m also planning to write a book about scenario-based learning, and I’m currently effectively writing that book one blog post at a time.
- Include an image or multimedia in every post. I break this recommendation myself with my automated link posts, but all of my regular posts include images. Your post is much more likely to stand out when it’s shared in other social media if you include an image.
Remember to be patient. I had fewer than 17,000 views in all of 2007; now I get around 15,000 views each month. Blogging is not a quick marketing strategy where you’ll write a few posts and have lots of new clients next week.
Build Your Community
Respond to and recognize your readers and the blog community.
- Reply to comments: When someone comments, reply and acknowledge it, preferably within 24 hours. You might also email people to thank them for commenting.
- Answer reader questions: I get many questions from blog readers via email, some of which later become more blog posts. If someone asks you a question, there’s a pretty good chance other people have the same question. That makes those questions good topics for posts.
- Promote comments to posts: I haven’t done this recently, but I did use this technique early in my blog to help build the community of readers. When someone leaves a really insightful comment, you can quote that comment in a follow up post along with your response. Make sure you give credit and link to the original author’s website.
- Link to other people: I pay attention to pingback notifications when someone links to my blog, and I have search alerts notifying me when my name appears online. Many other bloggers do too. Talk about what other people are saying and link to them. Share the love and send some traffic to them. It’s a great way to earn some goodwill and for other bloggers to notice you.
- Comment on other blogs: This is another way to be part of the broader community of bloggers rather than crafting your own blog in isolation. Read what other people are writing and comment on their posts. They might return the favor.
- Call to action: I usually end my posts with a “call to action” asking them to comment or answer questions.
Expand Your Reach
I don’t spend much time explicitly promoting my blog, but when you’re just starting out you may need to do more than this.
- Share links: Automatically share links to your posts on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. With WordPress this is easy; with other platforms you may need to use IFTTT or another tool.
- eLearning Learning: Submit your blog to eLearning Learning (submission instructions here). I get more referral traffic from eLearning Learning than from any of the social media channels, partly because eLearning Learning is focused on elearning and there’s so much less noise.
- SEO: I don’t particularly worry about SEO. If someone is trying to convince you to use tricks or shortcuts, ignore them. Focus on posting regularly and creating quality content, as those are most important. There are other things you can do, but if you’re just starting out the quality of content is more important than SEO.
Here’s that call to action I mentioned earlier. Do you use a blog as part of your consulting or freelance business? What lessons have you learned? What strategies are working for you? Please comment and share your experiences.
When you write a story for learning, you need a few essential elements such as a protagonist (the main character), the protagonist’s goal, and the challenges the protagonist faces. The protagonist should be someone your learners identify with. In workplace learning, that means the character has the same or a similar job as the learners. The learners should recognize the problems the character is dealing with and ideally share the protagonist’s goal. Learners should see a bit of themselves in the characters in your scenarios so they can picture themselves making the same kinds of decisions. When learners identify with your protagonist, they care about what happens to the character. They may be emotionally invested in seeing the protagonist succeed, especially in complex scenarios.
Example Protagonist Selection
Let’s review an example. Joan is an instructional designer working on a branching scenario. She has designed and developed many courses in the past, but this is the first time she has used a nonlinear format. She’s feeling a little nervous about getting it right. She’s creating training for front-line managers on how to handle requests for reasonable accommodations for disabilities. Which character should Joan use as the protagonist for her scenario?
- Mark, a technical writer with mobility issues who requires assistive technology
- Luisa, the VP of HR and an expert in accessibility issues
- Cindy, a manager with a team of 8 direct reports
Feedback on Your Choice
Mark would be a good choice for protagonist if this course were for employees to learn how to request reasonable accommodation. Someone like Luisa might be your SME for a course, but she has much more expertise than Joan’s learners. Cindy is a manager, which puts her in the same role as the learners. Joan will be able to put Cindy into situations similar to those managers might encounter. That will allow the learners to practice making the kinds of decisions they need to make in their jobs.
Joan might also be able to give Cindy other characteristics that make her similar to her learners. As part of her needs analysis, Joan interviewed two managers who had been through the process themselves. Both managers expressed reluctance to consult HR with questions about accommodations, even in situations where that was the best decision. Joan decides to create an option in the branching scenario where Cindy tries to handle the problem herself without HR but causes a costly misstep. Joan builds into the scenario the possibility of checking with HR before each decision and rewards that action with points in the final score.
(This example scenario is also used in Motivating Learners to Look Up Compliance Policies Themselves.)
At the risk of getting a little too meta, think back to Joan, the instructional designer. When you read that she was nervous about creating her first branching scenario, did that strike a chord with you? If you’re thinking about how to create your first scenario, that probably resonates. Even if you have created many branching scenarios in your career, you might still remember what it felt like to be unsure of yourself. If you’re an ID, you can probably envision yourself in this scenario. That gives you a connection to the character and helps engage you. You as the reader want to pick the right protagonist in the example so Joan’s course will be successful.
Characters in Cultural Context
Keep the culture of the workplace in mind as well. Your protagonist and other characters should reflect the organizational culture. In his report Using Culturally, Linguistically, and Situationally Relevant Scenarios, Dr. Will Thalheimer recommends:
In simulating workplace cues, consider the range of cues that your learners will pay attention to in their work, including background objects, people and their facial expressions, language cues, and cultural referents…
Utilize culturally-appropriate objects, backgrounds, actors, and narrators in creating your scenarios. Consider not just ethnicity, but the many aspects of culture, including such things as socio-economics, education, international experience, immersion in popular culture, age, etc.
Thalheimer’s recommendations from his research are also summarized on his blog.
How have you made your protagonists similar to your learners? Have you ever seen an attempt at scenario-based learning that was unsuccessful because the learners couldn’t identify with the main character?