Category: Social Media

Do You Need a Mentor or a Network?

Maria often works from her local coffee shop. She always engages in a bit of people watching while she’s there. For the last two months, she’s been observing Jack, another frequent patron of the coffee shop. Jack meets clients for a coffee at least once a month. Maria is impressed by how effectively Jack builds relationships with his clients, and she wanted to learn more about his strategy. Although they’ve never spoken before, Maria decided to approach him after his latest client left.

Woman and man shaking hands in a coffee shop

“Hi, Jack. That was a great closing you did with Priya. I’ve seen you here a bunch of times, and I’m always impressed with your work.”

“Um, thanks.”

“I’m so inspired by you! Will you be my mentor?”

“Uh, what?”

“Will you be my mentor? You know, meet with me for an hour or two a week, answer my questions, coach me so I can improve my skills? What do you say?”

Jack packed up his laptop and bag. “I’m sorry, I don’t know you. That’s a big time commitment for someone I just met. Besides, I need to go now. But here’s my card. Why don’t you email me so we can set up some consulting? I’ll send you my standard rates.”

Maria left the coffee shop feeling a bit deflated and surprised that Jack didn’t agree to be her mentor. She wasn’t quite sure what went wrong.

Requests for Mentors

If you saw this behavior in a coffee shop, how would you feel? It would be a bit bizarre, wouldn’t it? We don’t go up to strangers and ask them to donate hours of their time.

Online, however, these sorts of requests are commonplace. Here’s a sampling of messages I’ve received in the last few months:

  • “I’ve been on the lookout for experienced professionals such as you who can offer professional advice/opinions and if possible act as a mentor to our team.”
  • “I was basically looking for some kind of mentor as this field is very new to me. “
  • “Would you be interested in mentoring me on this project?”
  • “Will you mentor me in instructional design and e-learning?”
  • “Given the experience and skills you have, I am sure you are the right person to guide / mentor me.”

I receive so many requests to mentor people that if I mentored everyone who asked, I’d never have time to do any actual instructional design work. It’s just not feasible to spend that kind of time one-on-one with everyone who is looking for a mentor. When people ask me to mentor them, I wonder if they really understand what they’re asking. Do they really expect months of free consulting? Their requests are the online equivalent of Maria badgering Jack in the coffee shop. I try to answer a few questions for free, but a long-term relationship would mean taking time away from paying clients. It’s flattering. I just can’t do that kind of mentoring.

Personal Learning Networks

What do you do if you’re new to the field and need some help though? Rather than looking for a single mentor who will spend hours working with you (a pretty big commitment to request of a stranger), work on building your personal learning network or PLN. A PLN is basically a group of people you’re loosely connected to, usually online, who support you in small ways. You can help your PLN by sharing helpful resources or answering questions yourself as you’re able. Instead of asking a single person for a significant amount of time in a one-way mentor relationship, you find a large group of people who can all help you a little bit.

Kathy Schrock’s guide to creating a PLN is one place to start learning about PLNs. This concept has taken hold more in K-12 education than in the workplace, but I think the ideas and strategies can work for people in any field. Harold Jarche’s PKM (Personal Knowledge Mastery) model is a related but more comprehensive structure for workplace learning. In Jarche’s Seek – Sense -Share model, you Seek knowledge from your network and Share what you learn back to the network. That network could be called a PLN.

Whether you call it a PLN or something else, most of us in today’s workforce aren’t going to have a single one-on-one mentor who guides and shapes our careers. That’s the old way of learning in a hierarchical organization. In a networked world, our lifelong learning should take advantage of the availability of the network. In fact, you can probably learn more from a network than from a single person, even if you only learn a small amount from each individual in your network.

Your Network

Where do you find your network? How do you connect with people? How do you share what you’re learning so the relationship is reciprocal?


How Freelance Clients Find Me

Last week I gave a short presentation for the new eLearning Freelancer group on finding clients. You can watch the recording of the presentation.

In reality, I don’t do very much to actively seek out clients; most of my clients find me. Here are the recommendations I shared with the group on how to become visible to clients.


screenshot of my portfolioAn online portfolio is a requirement if you’re freelancing. Prospective clients need to see what kind of work you can do. Your portfolio is a way to tell your story about the work you do and the work you want to do in the future. My portfolio is on my business website.

You don’t need to have lots of full courses on your portfolio. Most clients won’t have time to review long courses. Short snippets or even screenshots are fine. Include a few sentences explaining your projects and the problems you solved with them. If your examples demonstrate specific tools or skills, mention that in your description.

If I was starting over now, I’d register a domain right away and create my blog as part of my website and portfolio. Since I started this blog as a free WordPress site years before I decided to become a consultant, I didn’t think about the domain as a business need at the time. You can still use a free WordPress site for your business and portfolio, but pay for domain registration so you don’t have to change it later. Many free WordPress themes can be used to build portfolios, not to mention the a plethora of paid and custom options.

Portfolio links:

Networking = Relationships

Two women chatting in a coffee shop When I say “networking,” don’t picture handing out business cards at so-called networking events where everyone is trying to get something from everyone else. Networking is about building and maintaining relationships. I’ve found it helpful to approach networking with a focus on how I can give to other people, rather than what I can get. Being helpful to others shows people that you’re good to work with, and it demonstrates your expertise.

A significant portion of my work comes via people I’ve worked with before or through those connections. Keep in touch with your former colleagues from when you were an employee, especially when they move to new jobs themselves. Spend time connecting with others in the e-learning field too. Everyone gets overbooked sometimes. I refer work to others when I’m too busy or it isn’t a good fit, and others return the favor.

Social Media and Online Communities

Man typing on laptopThe primary way prospective clients find me is via my blog. They usually search for “instructional design” or “instructional designers,” read one of my posts, and follow that to my portfolio and business site. A blog gives you credibility and makes it easier for people to find you.

I’ve heard from other IDs and e-learning freelancers that they find clients via Twitter connections. LinkedIn Pulse is another possible channel for publishing; this has the advantages of being free and reaching a built-in audience of your connections.

Online communities like LinkedIn groups and eLearning Heroes are also great ways to connect with people. You can demonstrate your expertise. I once got a major project as a result of a question I answered in a LinkedIn group. It wasn’t the person who asked the question who hired me; it was a third part who was reading the discussion. Because I was helpful to someone else, he saw that I knew what I was talking about, and he hired me.

Be A Good Neighbor

Neighborhood housesI’ve found that when I’m helpful to others and act like a good online “neighbor,” clients just find me. In her post on finding work, Jackie Van Nice explains,

How does all of this lead to work? It just does. Whether it comes from your peers who know of a project you might be right for – or from those silent watchers in the community, on your website, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or wherever else you’re active – the people with the work will find you.

My experience is very similar to Jackie’s; by putting myself out there and being active and visible, work finds me.

Read More

Props to Patti Bryant for doing an amazing job organizing this freelancer group.

Images (except the portfolio screenshot) from (unlimited downloads $99/year)

Ban “Click Here” From Your Vocabulary

Take a look at the following list and see if you can determine which link would get you to the Wikipedia article on Universal Design for Learning:

Without clicking on every link, do you have any way of knowing which one leads to what you want? The text of your link matters.

Why Link Text Matters

Sighted readers often skim a page for links; screen reader users can use a list of links or skip from link to link for the same purpose. Unfortunately, this means that screen reader users can miss the context around the links. Therefore, your link text should still make sense on its own (or at least provide users with a clue as to the content).

What To Do

This is fortunately an easy way to improve your accessibility, requiring no technical expertise beyond creating links. Just link on text that means something and would tell you where the link goes even without the surrounding context. Avoid linking on the words “Click here” or “link.” This applies to blogs, wikis, and pretty much any other online content, not just formal e-learning. You’ve probably seen blogs say something like “I’ve talked about this before here, here, and here” with three different links all on the word “here.” That isn’t particularly helpful if you’re skimming through links with a screen reader.

Checking a box in your e-learning development tool for “Section 508 compliant” may or may not catch vague link text. Write more effectively to link on stronger words. Instead of “Click here to learn more,” use “Read more about Universal Design for Learning” or just “Universal Design for Learning.”


This addresses the following standards:

Further Reading & Resources

Creating Visual Stories That Resonate

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.

LinkedIn Connections and Generic Invites

LinkedIn Outdoor Banner I know many bloggers have an open connection policy, and that’s great for them, but I am generally more restrictive in who I connect with on LinkedIn. I prefer to connect with people who I could actually say something intelligent about if asked for an introduction. However, over the past few months, I’ve noticed an increase in invitations from people whose names I don’t recognize.  The majority of these invites use the generic boilerplate text (something like “I’d like to add you to my professional network”). Frankly, if you can’t be bothered to write one sentence to customize an invitation, you’re probably not a particularly beneficial connection to have.

When I get an invite from someone I don’t know, I sometimes reply with a message similar to the one below. I’m borrowing heavily from Scott Allen’s example in How to Politely Decline a LinkedIn Invitation, so give him all the credit for the idea and most of the actual text:

Thanks for inviting me to connect on LinkedIn. I would love to start a dialog, get to know each other, and find out how we might be of service to each other. Feel free to send me a message here through LinkedIn.

However, I do use LinkedIn as they recommend; I only accept invitations from people I know well professionally, and in most cases have actually worked with on some kind of project. I’m looking for conversations before connections. Generally, I interact with someone for several months before accepting or sending an invitation.

If you’re truly interested in a relationship and not just a link, I look forward to hearing from you.


Christy Tucker

My experience is similar to Scott’s; maybe 5% of people actually reply to a response like this.  As he aptly observes, “Makes me wonder how much value there could possibly have been in that link in the first place if they aren’t even willing to start a dialog and get to know anything about each other.”

I generally accept invites from people whose names I recognize from Twitter, #lrnchat, blogs, etc., even sometimes when boilerplate text is used. But if it’s a generic invite, you’re relying on my memory to immediately place the name, and I probably don’t always make the connection between a real name and a Twitter name. So please, if you’re going to send me an invite, please take the time to customize the message and remind me how I know you. And if I don’t know you, please start with a blog comment or some other communication rather than using the LinkedIn invite as the first contact. It’s not that I won’t connect with you ever, just that I’d like a conversation before an invitation.

What about you? Do you accept invitations from anyone, or do you filter them? Am I the only one with a pet peeve about generic invites, or do you find them irritating too?

Image Credit: LinkedIn Outdoor Banner (2007-0032 0002) by tychay