No, I Won’t “Tweak” Your PowerPoint Slides

I got a call from a prospective client. She and I spoke briefly once when she was looking for a pool of instructional designers to call on for specific projects, but we haven’t worked together yet. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s never worked with any instructional designers before.

“Hi, Christy, it’s Lynn. I need some help finishing up an e-learning course. The PowerPoint slides just need to be tweaked—editing the onscreen text, adding some animation, prepping the script for voice over recording, and syncing everything together. Are you available?”

“Your timing is good, Lynn. I’m just wrapping up some other projects and have some time now. Tell me some more about this project.”

“It’s about 200 slides. Here, let me email them to you now so you can take a look. The content is basically finished, and it just needs some polish. Can you do that?”

“OK, I’m looking over the slides now.” Some parts of the presentation have good visuals, but large sections are text obviously copied word-for-word from the employee handbook. Often, the same text is in the voice over notes as on screen. The slides contain no practice activities or assessments. “Is this a face-to-face course that you want to convert to online?” I ask.

Dense text on a slide describing benefits. No amount of "tweaking" will make this much text effective e-learning.

No amount of “tweaking” will make this effective e-learning.

She responds, “Yes, this used to be taught in a classroom. It’s part of the new employee orientation. We have a lot of new employees coming in, and we don’t always have a trainer available. Frankly, some of the trainers are better than others. We want to make sure everyone has the same experience. I had the best trainer write the script out in the slide notes for the narration so it would be just like what he teaches in class.”

“Well, I could do proofreading and animation to just tweak the slides, but I’m not sure that would be really effective. I don’t know what your budget is, but I think this course could benefit from some actual analysis and instructional design.”

“What do you mean by ‘actual analysis and instructional design’?”

“As an instructional designer, I don’t usually do projects where I’m just brought on at the end to tweak slides. I’m typically brought on board shortly after a client decides, ‘We need a course!’ Starting right from the beginning, I work with you to analyze the need, design the instruction, develop the multimedia, and manage the project until launch. I do a kick-off call with you to find out your needs. We talk about what business problem we’re trying to solve; needing a course isn’t a true business problem, so I work to uncover WHY you decided you need a course. For example, for an orientation like this, I’d want to know what’s working and not working in your current orientation. What do people leave orientation and still have problems with? What questions keep coming up over and over to HR?”

Lynn replies, “There are tons of questions with the benefits plan. People just don’t understand it, even after they read the handbook. HR ends up spending a lot of time walking people through all the options.”

“If people don’t understand it right now from reading the handbook, do you think they’ll understand it any better by having someone read it to them?”

“Hmm. I guess not.”

“Right now, you would probably get about the same results from having your new employees read the handbook on their own and take a quiz afterward. The slides are basically a pretty version of your handbook. Reading the handbook and taking a quiz wouldn’t only be cheaper to develop; it would be faster for employees to complete. People read faster than they can listen to voice over, so they can consume the same amount of content in less time by reading the document rather than watching and listening to the same thing online.”

“I see your point. But we don’t really have the budget to do a course from scratch.”

“You know, you probably will spend more upfront to do analysis and develop a more effective course. However, the final orientation would probably be half its current length because it would be focused on what employees need on day one to get started. That means employees would spend less time in orientation and be ready to do real work faster. We could also focus on the problems you really need to solve. If we can reduce the number of questions and problems HR has to deal with, we can free them up to do other work. That can save your company money in the long run even though the initial costs are higher.”

“You know, I might be able to justify that. Cutting down the time for new employees to get up and running is a big deal right now, so if we can help with that, I might be able to find some more budget. I need to talk to HR some more to find out if they have any other issues with new employees. I really thought instructional designers just did a little multimedia work at the end of the process. I didn’t realize you did so much.”

“Instructional design is more about being a partner to help you solve problems than just making slides pretty. You asked me to be a handyman and touch up some peeling paint, but I’m really an architect who can design you a house that better meets your needs.”

“Let me work on the budget and get back to you in a few days so we can talk about scope, OK? I’m not sure I can get enough to do everything you’d usually design, but maybe we can get something to do more analysis.”

“Sound good. I’ll look forward to hearing from you soon.”

This conversation is fictionalized, but it’s based on several real experiences. How do you handle it when someone asks you to just “tweak the slides”? How do you shift the conversation from just being an order taker to doing real instructional design work?

17 thoughts on “No, I Won’t “Tweak” Your PowerPoint Slides

  1. Wow, great post here. I didn’t even realise it was fictional until I read right to the end. But it surely accomplished the purpose of showing how to politely transition a discussion from ‘tweaking’ PowerPoint slides to doing real ID work! I’ve learnt something new now, particularly how to respond when it comes to budget issues.
    Thanks Christy for sharing.

    • This won’t always work. Sometimes people really aren’t concerned with the business outcomes and really are just checking something off a to-do list. In those cases, there’s usually someone else in the company who does care about the outcomes, but you don’t always have access to them. Sometimes people really just have no budget because they think this is easy and quick.

      I once had a manager who was baffled why I left his team after my job had been reduced to fiddling around the edges of PowerPoint slides. No matter how many different ways I explained it, he just didn’t get it.

      Sometimes you just need to walk away from a job or project. This is one of the things I most value about freelance work. I try to educate clients, but in the cases where I can’t, I can tell them no.

      I’ve been fortunate to have several situations where I have been able to at least make progress with an approach like this though. It isn’t always a direct jump from “tweaking PowerPoint” to full instructional design, but I can often get people moving in the right direction.

      • Honestly, I never truly understood what an Instructional Designer did until I read this post. I figured they were an expert on education technology and helped instructors incorporate technology in courses. However, I see that they have a lot in common with Solution Engineers (this is what I do). We both have to make use of “discovery” to identify business issues so that we can architect meaningful solutions. Checking off a checkbox is easy, solving a real problem is much more difficult.

        I find that opening with broad domain-specific questions are a great way to start a conversation to find out business issues. I typically ask individuals, “Why are we talking today?” or “Why are you evaluating our software?”. Individuals tend to be open and share a lot of detailed information that will help me uncover several other areas for discussion. Often, I will uncover the root issue and will try to connect the individual to the issue through a story. I want them to feel the burden or pain of the problem while also sharing with them a solution. I think this makes it much more meaningful and if they can make that emotional connection, I think they will be more likely to move forward.

        I think you told a great story about how an effective course can bring a lot of value. The role of an Instructional Designer is very important.

        You made a great point that there’s usually someone else in the company who does care about outcomes, but you don’t always have access to them. Do you have any suggestions on how you get access to them?

        • You can ask who the stakeholders for the project are. Sometimes that will tell you who knows the real need.

          I admit sometimes I don’t dig deeper. For some prospective clients, it’s obvious that they don’t really want to get to the root problem. I don’t want to waste my time on projects where I’m not making a difference. Maybe those organizations do have someone who knows the problem, but it isn’t always worth the effort to dig further with every potential client. I’d rather turn the project down and focus on better clients.

          When you’re just starting out, it’s harder to turn those projects down. In some cases, you might take a “check the box” training project to start, but try to dig deeper after you’ve worked with them and earned their trust. It may be easier to get access when they know who you are and that you know what you’re talking about.

  2. This is a great post! I design content for dog training classes but I used to teach high school. One thing I try to do for each “slide” or activity, is ask myself “what is the person DOING”, reading information is important but getting them to DO something with it is better and makes the info stick! I loved reading this!

    • Alicia, that’s a great tip! I think it’s actually fine to have people read sometimes. If they’re just going to be reading though, let’s save some time and money and just hand them a PDF or online article to read. When you just need people to be aware of something and aren’t worried about changing behavior, that’s enough.

      If you want them to improve skills and change their behavior, you need them to DO something, like you said. Practice with feedback is the critical piece missing from too much training.

  3. Every time I think about starting a blog on ID, I think, I can’t possibly write anything as well as you do. This was so great!!!

    I went through that with a company for which they had a lot of compliance training (over which I had zero control.) I finally said, if you want them to read a lot, that’s fine, but then there has to be a discussion with the manager of how that applies to them built into the curriculum.

    • Gosh, now I’m blushing! Wow, what a lovely thing to say!

      I really think that more people would benefit from blogging though. It doesn’t matter if everything you write is amazing or polished or goes viral. There’s value in just doing the writing and reflecting on your process. I heard an interview with Neil Gaiman yesterday where he said something like, “You’ll learn more by finishing something mediocre than by only starting a bunch of great writing.” Write something and put it out there. The only way you get better at writing and blogging is by doing more writing and blogging.

      Compliance training can be challenging because people are so afraid of the legal issues. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that the goal of the course is just to cover yourself legally though, regardless of whether or not you actually fix the underlying problem.

      I have seen some really great story-based compliance training. Things like ethics and sexual harassment are ripe for using scenarios to make the content come alive. If you can force people to make decisions in the gray area and show them the consequences of their actions, that’s much more effective than just proving that they received a copy of the policy. The latter might be all you need legally, but the business would be better if you did the former.

  4. Hi Christy. Did you post something like this once before? Maybe it’s so frighteningly common that it sounds familliar. Nice example of telling a story to make your point about needs analysis and how a company can actually save money in the long run. You sucked me in!

    By the way, congratuations on 8 years of blogging. I’ve been following you for a couple years now.

    • I did post a similar fictionalized conversation about selling a storytelling approach last fall. I think a lot of IDs have had conversations that start the same way as this one though. It’s one of the constant struggles in our field. People don’t really know what we do, and “instructional design” is such a big umbrella term for a lot of different skill levels.

      Thanks! 8 years feels like a big accomplishment. As long as I can keep writing and getting feedback like I’m getting from all of you, maybe I’ll do another 8 years!

  5. Great job on this. In the scenario, you gained control of the consultation, educated the client, gained preliminary insight into the underlying need, and help convert the client to a better solution.

  6. The following paragraph is a fantastic concise summary of the role of an ID. I liken it to a great “elevator speech”.
    “Instructional design is more about being a partner to help you solve problems than just making slides pretty. You asked me to be a handyman and touch up some peeling paint, but I’m really an architect who can design you a house that better meets your needs.”

  7. Helping people understand the role of an instructional designer is an important task. Many people you work with may not even know the true reason their company has an instructional designer. In order to do so, the instructional designer must accurately describe his/her role. “Instructional designers focus on what the instruction should be like, including look, feel, organization and functionality. Instructional designers work much like architects drawing up specifications and blue prints for a course before actual construction begins” (Gordon, 2014). In order to shift the conversation away from tweaking slides, you need to explain the role of an instructional designer very clearly from the moment you are brought on board with the project. You must also provide sound pedagogical reason why it is important to have an instructional designer as part of the project. “One key piece of research in information processing theory and in cognitive psychology is the nature of problem solving and how people solve problems” (Laureate Education, n.d.). It might be worthwhile to explain the fundamental principles involved in the instructional design process. This will help others to understand that there is more to the instructional design process than just tweaking slides to make them pretty.
    Gordon, A. (2014). ID Roles and responsibilities: instructional designer Retrieved from: http://instructionaldesign.gordoncomputer.com/IDRoles.html

    Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.) Information processing and problem solving [Video file] Retrieved from https://class.walden.edu

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