Confessions of an L&D professional

  1. “What do you think about this class?”
  2. “Do you like this vendor?”
  3. “Can you recommend a good training on “X”?
  4. “Should we do a mentorship program?”

Well, it depends. 

These are the types of questions I receive several times a week. And when I’m asked, I usually offer a few questions back.

Learning and Development isn’t the only profession where people come to us looking for, or requesting a pre-set solution.

It’s the equivalent of going to a doctor to request a specific type of medicine. 

We want you to know – we want to help. Rather than being a content master or vendor wrangler, many of us thrive on understanding and solving your root cause.

Here is how to help us help you. 

Explain the ideal outcome, not just the tool you want

  1. What do you want to be different after “X”? 
  2. How would you know we’ve succeeded?
  3. How would this aid your performance, or connect to a business goal? 

People usually seek out training or L&D to solve a specific problem, not just for content. Start with the end in mind and help connect the dots between the challenge you’re facing and what the ideal state is. 

What are the conditions like?

It’s hard to land a plane in a hurricane. Conditions matter. 

The environment someone is operating in is a key factor in whether or not the training (or solution) will stick and have a lasting impact.

  1. What kind of managerial support does this person have?
  2. What else might get in the way of it being successful?
  3. Does this person or this team want help or see the need?

When we ask these questions we’re trying to get a sense of what could get in the way of this solution sticking. 

Why? Information (content) is everywhere. But people rarely change because of information alone. Make the content more useful by connecting it to a need people care about and understanding the context someone is operating in. 

Instead of simply being information brokers, L&D teams have the opportunity and desire to be connection builders for lasting change. We can help close the gap for you. 

 

Leaving room in the suitcase

We’ve all done it. We’ve packed our suitcases to the brim for a vacation thinking we’ll definitely need everything and anything that won’t put us over the weight limit.

And then when it comes time to bring a souvenir or two home…there’s no space.

If we want to bring something home with us for keeps or to share, we can’t…there’s no room. 

The temptation to overpack extends beyond our travel habits.

When it comes to sharing ideas, content, or an experience with others, it’s all too easy to ‘overpack the suitcase’. 

Be it a class, a keynote, an offsite, an executive presentation, a conference, everything but the kitchen sink ends up in our gathering for various reasons, including:

  1. We don’t know what we’ll actually need
  2. We don’t know where we’re heading
  3. We want to be over-prepared.
  4. We think it’s about us

All of these temptations stem from a mindset that falsely focuses inward.

When we gather, we want to take people to a new destination. That involves leaving room and leaving space for them to come with us. There has to be room in the suitcase.

The best gatherings, like the best experiences (be it travel, or otherwise) leave space for:

  1. The unexpected
  2. An audience’s contribution and connection
  3. Emotion 

Leaving space allows people to digest material during or after, in a hallway or in the chatter and patter before a gathering starts. It can be done with a simple question or prompt or even a breath. It can turn the responsibility or a bit of ownership over to your fellow travelers to invite them in, or destroy the distance between you on stage and them in the audience. 

Without room, an audience lacks the ability to see themselves in what you’ve shared. They don’t know how to join in, how to care, or how to connect. They only know to consume. But, for what?

Our success is not measured by how much space, time, or slides we take up. It is measured by our ability to bring people with us, and that necessitates leaving room for them to join if they so choose. 

A ‘pull’ approach to data-gathering

When we gather people in a room, our first instinct is often: what information should we push out? 

When our task is to gather feedback from people, our first instinct is to ask: what information do we need to hear?

In both of these common organizational rituals, the focus is on the content.

But before the content…comes outcome.

What do we really need from our participants? And, why?

If all we need is compliance, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response is fine.

If all we need is information, we can send a list of questions, or a survey.

But when we want to bring people together around an organizational change, some new process, or a common goal, we often need more.

We need engagement. 

The difference between asking for information and asking for engagement is involving employees in co-creating the data-gathering experience. It involves pulling on their intrinsic motivation and connecting your ask to something they care about.

This requires us to focus more on the people we are surveying and not just the answers they will provide.

People love and appreciate feeling heard and being involved, especially when the change affects them. Change is personal. We can treat it that way by taking a personalized approach to data-gathering.

Give employees skin in the game by asking for their expertise, their stories, their insights. 

Give employees a role by asking them to listen for what other employees are saying in the room so that themes can be built upon and solidified.

Show them the importance of their opinion and experience by elevating their status and highlighting their unique role.

Bring them in as co-creators of the experience

Bringing people together around a change effort involves more than sharing information and gathering it. It takes time to build and set the context that fuels ongoing engagement in a change effort. 

Success is not necessarily measured in the immediate clarity of their answers fitting nicely in a box, but in their ongoing commitment to join you in the change you seek. 

The 60-minute magic trick

Though I’m not a magician by trade, I am often asked to pull a rabbit out of a hat. This often means creating and delivering an educational gathering (i.e. a training class) in a limited amount of time that will solve a particular problem, and fast.

Let’s call it, ‘The 60-minute magic trick’.

Be it, helping a group of managers to delegate more, solve an interpersonal conflict, or enhance strategic thinking skills, the task is essentially to put a group of people in a room and create an experience that helps them think, be, or do differently.

The question is, how do we achieve the biggest magic trick of all: extending that initial 60 minutes into much more. The answer rarely is to keep people in a room longer. The answer and the impact lie in creating an experience that lasts, sticks, and extends far beyond the initial gathering. Rather than extending the time in the room, here’s how to do more with what you have:

Shift your audience from passive consumers to active co-creators:

Though a magician may practice their tricks alone, they need an audience to survive and thrive. Their tricks are only as strong and captivating as the audience believes them to be. In an educational setting, your content is only as helpful and beneficial as the audience’s connection to it. Our job is not simply to share content – it is to help close the gap between the utility of the information and the participant’s ability to do something with it. Help them become co-creators instead by giving them agency, ownership (a role), and when appropriate, choice. This shift doesn’t relinquish control completely, it simply increases a sense of skin in the game which can lead to more accountability. 

Provide certainty through language:

Your time in room is precious. One of the ways to shift the brain out of fight or flight mode and prepare it for concentrated learning is to provide certainty. Make sure attendees know not just the learning objectives, but where things are, what to expect, how to use what they’re being taught, etc. Even more basic – name the class something clear and concrete. No jargon here. This relaxes the brain into being ready to digest information because it knows how to orient what’s about to come. Don’t waste students precious cognitive resources on asking them to map the course on their own.

At comedian Hannah Gadsby’s most recent show, attendees entered the theater to see a picture of a dog on a screen and the name, “Douglass” underneath it. This small choice helps the audience immediately understand how the name of the show (Douglass) connected to the content that would follow. Uncertainty decreased, focus increased.  

Tell us how to feel about something:

Just like naming something gives us certainty, it can also provide a common language and shortcut. This shorthand serves us well in organizational life – it can cut down on misunderstanding, help us get on the same page faster, or in some cases, take the emotion or charge out of a potentially challenging situation.

Take, the word ‘puckerfish’. In Gadsby’s same show, she offered this phrase to highlight her disdain for something. Over the course of her hour, she repeated this phrase each time that same emotion aroused. After the second use of that phrase, she no longer needed to explain what she meant. We understood it immediately. By the end of the show, she didn’t use the phrase at all.  She simply moved her mouth like a puckerfish would. She taught us how she felt about something so that we as an audience knew how to feel too.

This common language also helps these experiences scale. One message, multiple messengers. Puckerfish. We can teach people more than content – we can teach people how to feel about something. Furthermore, it bonds a group of people together with more than a common language. It gives the group a common emotion.

In each of these tips, the content is not the main attraction. Why? Though our desire to pack in more content in our 60-minutes usually comes from a good place and a desire to share more information, people can often find content on their own. The solution then is not to give more, but to give what exists more meaning, more personal attachment, and a roadmap for its utility.

Let your gatherings be the start, not the only singular solve. Lasting change is gradual. It’s not magic.

The value of these experiences rarely come from checking all the boxes in 60 minutes. The true value is in handing off ownership of the experience to someone else.

If we do these three things well, we can more realistically view these one-off experiences as what they really are, a launching point for important people challenges, and thus teach people how to carry them forward with momentum and staying power.

What is mine is yours

“I’m going to tell you a story. But first, I want to tell you about a couch”.

This is the first line from comedian Mike Birbiglia’s most recent show, “The New One”.

While the audience is expecting to hear a personal story about parenthood, Birbiglia starts where the most adept facilitators do: he makes the personal, universal.

While not everyone is a parent, everyone has a couch. This choice allows his gathering to start in a neutral, non-polarizing place and immediately gets everyone on the same page. Once he has that implicit first agreement and head nod, he can and does lead us elsewhere.

Entertainers, educators, and leaders share a unique gift and opportunity to bring people together by transforming something personal into the universal.

What’s mine can also be yours.

Though you’ve probably gathered to hear them, they don’t start with their experience. They begin with ours.

This small choice to zoom out first exemplifies the key to creating a personalized gathering: The audience feels seen and can see themselves in the material.

This choice is especially important at the start of a gathering – whether it’s a class, a workshop, an offsite, etc. This is when we are often starting with zero; a blank screen, a quiet room, or a gathering people don’t actually want to be at, or one where we don’t have buy in, or one where we are dealing with a challenging or controversial topic.

The easiest way in to the hardest starts is to find connection first.

When we make the choice to see who we have gathered it can look, feel, and sound like this:

  1. Heavy use of the word ‘you’ or ‘we’ as we if are literally reaching into the audience to connect our experience with theirs. The material becomes generalizable to who is in the room so that it’s not ‘my’ problem, it’s ours, and we can all feel it together. This is what musicians do when they explain a song before they sing it… “this is a song about…”
  2. When an audience reacts, the gatherer does too. They are right there with you. When an audience gasped at a particular part of the story, Birbiglia exclaimed, “I know!” in agreement. In many cases, an audience wants to be seen as much as the gatherer does. That is often why people shout things out at comedy show. They want to connect their experience with yours.

When we make the choice to gather we aren’t just coming to hear someone speak. We want to find a connection between what they have to say, and our experience.

The best gatherers know that the story they are telling, the material they are sharing, or the change initiative they are leading is not about them.  They are constantly crafting their work to figure out, how is this about the audience, and how does this make us feel closer to each other.

What’s mine can be ours.

The one-size-fits-all fallacy

Marketing guru Seth Godin put it simply, “Everyone is not your customer”. Same goes for learning.

But people can still feel that something was made just for them.

When we over-prioritize size and scale, we can easily forget the importance of creating a truly personalized learning experience.

Whether it’s a workshop, conference, town-hall, or another form of gathering, those deemed one-size-fits-all are ones where:

  • an audience is replaceable or invisible because the experience can apply to anyone
  • the particular medium is unnecessary because the information could have been shared a different way

It is possible to personalize a gathering, even at scale. Here’s three examples of how to shift from “made for everyone”, to a “made for me” mentality:

Speed limits do apply

When it comes to learning or retention, speed of information flow matters. At a recent conference I attended, participants were shuffled between 8-10 sessions back-to-back, some lasting only 15 minutes. Though we may be intrigued by the amount of information and learning available to us, we can’t necessarily consume or recall it all, at least not meaningfully. It’s like going to a grocery store and purchasing everything in stock just because it’s there. We can’t physically consume that much food. And we can’t consume that much information…at least not in a healthy way. Though it seems efficient, it’s actually highly wasteful. If time constraints keep us from spacing out our learning, at least we can digest it by:

Building explicit time or nudges into the experience that allow people to process what they just consumed, either alone or with each other. Ask a few pointed questions. You want to know, just like a game of telephone, how much is that learning being passed on? Without this time or energy, we as learners are less likely to take up the information as our own and do something with it. 

Providing content isn’t the same as solving a need

Content is a key reason that many people initially come to your gathering. Sure, they want to hear a speaker, they are intrigued by the topics or the agenda, etc. But the way that we frame, market, and put that content into context for people is often more important than the content alone.

For example, there is a difference between a conference that simply lists a bunch of session titles, versus one that shows and describes a clear arc of how each session builds on the other and leads people from A, to B. Make it easy by connecting the dots for your learners so that their energy can be spent on making meaning of the content, not the agenda. You can do this in a few ways:

Instead of a list of sessions or pieces of content, share:

  1. The questions each section will answer
  2. A guide to know if each session is right for you
  3. A recommendation engine tool
  4. Chunk the day into pieces
  5. Obsessively tie back to outcomes

The goal here is not to be allured by the number of tracks or choices of sessions. Learners want progress – more than just the steps in the recipe, tell me how each step leads me to the final product I care about making.

Pro Tip: You’ll know if you’ve over-prioritized content if you see low energy levels in and outside the room.

Find out what we all have in common

No, I don’t mean hometowns or favorite foods. It is possible to leave a gathering feeling more connected to others in the room, even if you haven’t met them. This is made possible when attempts are made to create a strong in-group. What is unique about this room of people? What do they all have in common?

When we make an experience for everyone, we aren’t able to clarify or classify what makes that group different and distinct. What specific language, rituals, or needs does this group have? People want to feel like they belong and they want to exhibit pride in their groups. Attempts to foster a strong in-group help others feel seen and that an experience was made just for them.

Just for me, just right, just in time. Personalized gatherings are possible, even at scale. It starts with a desire to view our audience as irreplaceable and necessary to our success… no matter the size.

Gimme the Real Thing

Ice cream. Merchandise. People.

When it comes to our preferences, most of us want the ‘real’ thing.

Tangible. Applicable. Relevant.

When it comes to our preferences for learning experiences, we don’t just want something close to the real thing…we need it.

‘Real’ in a corporate learning context can mean a few different things. Namely, is the content presented applicable to my actual work context? Is the class too steeped in jargon and theory or language I don’t understand? Is the emphasis on the unique tool being shared, or the application of that tool to what I do day-to-day and the real needs I have?

No matter what learning experience we are engaged in, the content shared is only as useful as the ability for someone to understand and use it (successfully, eventually) in their particular context.

Although we can’t control all learning transfer, asking “What percentage of you were able to immediately apply what you learned?”, is a good place to start.

The fundamental challenge of anyone trying to influence or encourage new behavior, skills, or knowledge is to present material in a way that engages the person in their real world…not yours.

This doesn’t just extend to corporate learning. A friend recently shared how after a tricky diagnosis, his doctor used imagery and similes to describe his condition. In this way, he was immediately able to understand something inherently foreign, and easily communicate it to his family and friends. Peace of mind was another benefit.

When we present material in this way, learning transfer isn’t just increased between teacher and student. Students/learners/employees are also able to pass down and teach back their learnings to others.

What closes the gap between ‘interesting material’ or ‘fun experience’ to engaged learner able to immediately apply what they learned? Make the experience more real with:

  1. A clear before and after: Help learners answer, what will be different after this experience and how will I know if I’ve been successful?
  2. Critical incidents: Seek out or ask participants to bring in/think of/practice with real scenarios to apply the material to.
  3. Make the material more applicable by relating it to real universal examples (stories, metaphors). Not only does this engage the room around a common idea, it helps the material stick and spread.

When it comes to consumption of material, we have an array of choices. But when it comes down to it, gimme the real thing.

The push of fear versus the pull of hope

You’ll get more flies with honey, the old adage goes.

But when we need someone to do something, especially something important and worthwhile, sometimes this approach simply encourages others to keep expecting ‘honey’ in return for their efforts.

Honey is one strategy. Fear is another.

When something is extra important, either to our success or our ego or status, we don’t always reach for sweetness. We reach for a scare, a stick.

This compliance-based approach is likely one we’ve all experienced. We are warned or told what will happen if we don’t comply. This approach often makes the messenger seem large, and the audience small. Instead of bringing people together around something bigger than ourselves, fear forces us to whisper, or work in isolation.

Sure, compliance has its place.

This is the musician who wants others to listen to their song, the educator who wants their students to finish their homework, or the manager who asks employees to complete a one-time task. Here, securing compliance is enough. It’s something people either did or didn’t do.

Yet, this approach yields a short-term reward, not a long-term sustainable gain.

When we invest resources (like, time, energy, or money) in an initiative, we are often hoping for more than compliance; we aim to truly engage others around an idea that we want them to take up as their own and spread.

When engagement is our desired outcome, what’s important to us, may not be important to others, unless we show why.

This could be a new company ritual, a management behavior, or a change in how the business operates.

Fear is a natural and often necessary part of change and transformation. It involves asking people to go to a place they are often terrified to go to, or let go of.

Though it can originate from fear, a strong why ultimately relies on hope.

Rather than lean on fear or what will happen if don’t comply, we can first engage others around a universal truth. Choosing to pull on hope versus push on fear means painting a vision of a future others want to be a part of. Hope is something we can rally around together.