How Not to Bore People
By Way of Introduction…
My name is Andrew Bryce. After years of working contracts with eLearning.net, I am now Magic’s blogger and primary storyboard artist.
You will likely not have much, if any, dealing with me directly. However, I am the one responsible for taking your information and making it worthy of your company’s training program.
Of course, we have a team of talented artists, writers, and digital gurus to put it all together, but it’s my job to determine how each module is organized, what the trainees hear and see, and how to ensure that the information sticks.
Then I submit it to the rest of the team, and they edit the heck out of it.
It’s a responsibility that I take extremely seriously. Since you and I will be vicariously working together, I’m writing my first blog post to make sure that we will not be doing so anonymously.
Who Am I, and Why Am I Doing This?
In a previous life, I was an English teacher. I have over fifteen years’ experience talking to young people about literature and commas. I took that career path as an extension of my passions: communication, precision, the exchange of information and the gaining of knowledge…these are deep values that I have held to for as long as I can remember.
Teaching middle school can be a very rewarding experience, but…you know, kids, bruh. They’re nuts.
When Magic et al. extended an offer to work for them full-time, I jumped at the chance. I consider this my opportunity to take my skills and enthusiasms and apply them to more a grown-up set of tasks.
In my years working with eLearning.net, I have taught construction workers how to avoid hurting themselves and others; I have taught EMTs how to react in life-threatening situations; I have taught bankers how to spot major money laundering schemes. Although people tend to sit through training programs in much the same way my former students sat through grammar lessons, the material is always important and is something that should always be taken seriously.
My Methods and Missions – The Pernicious It
It is my sincere wish that your trainees feel some connection with the information you’re asking them to learn. I would go so far as to say that having that connection is the foundation of all learning.
Trust me, I empathize with anyone who feels a twinge of boredom during a training on bureaucratic software; I have to learn it too, after all. I consider it my duty to mitigate this feeling, to write my storyboards in such a way as to engage as well as inform. Although we must communicate the concepts and procedures as exhaustively and precisely as possible, there is no rule that even the driest subject cannot also communicate a sense of humanity in its presentation.
There are pitfalls to this philosophy. They’re something most of us have encountered at least once in our professional lives: a sense of false informality, an attempt on behalf of the writer to sound “cool,” to sound just like one of you, to sound like learning can be FUN.
This problem is embodied in what I call the pernicious it.
This is something I noticed some years ago when sitting through some new video my school made the staff watch. After a few brief words of introduction, the narrator said, “Let’s get it started.”
I died a little inside. “Let’s get it started,” was it? A small word, a minor infraction perhaps, an effort to lighten the mood. A turn of phrase used for celebration, for entertainment, as if the video were about to discuss the training topics accompanied by a driving drumbeat.
I realize that, though my English teacher’s eye draws large circles in red pen around such a lapse, I should elaborate. The difference is indeed slight: Let’s get it started vs. Let’s get started. The problem is one of tone. In professional communication, the goal is clear: the information provided is necessary for the work to meet expectations. The listener’s stake is already defined, and the information presented should reflect this. With the addition of that it, the communication takes a sharp tonal veer: it is now attempting to jazz up the presentation.
The sense of excitement here is entirely false. Very few people are truly excited by the information in training programs; indeed, very few people are truly excited by training programs in general.
My major problem of false excitement is condescension: that sinking feeling you get when your interlocutor simply will not speak to you on the level at which you deserve to be addressed. Even my twelve-year-old students could spot this easily. When a tone is false, and you know it’s false, this is inherently condescending for two main reasons: first, it assumes that you cannot be engaged in information unless it’s been puffed up, and second, it assumes a response that you just aren’t going to have.
I imagine walking into a cell phone store and being told, in glowing tones, why one front-facing camera is inherently more awesome than another when all I really want is a new phone. My goals and the goals of the clerk pass each other in the dark and will never reconcile. Such is it with any professional communication that misses the mark.
All this from the single word it.
Professional Communication — Efficiency
A trainee needs to hear, process, and internalize the information; that’s the whole point. Bogging down a presentation with irrelevancies gets in the way of this.
When I taught, my favorite assignment—and my students’ least favorite assignment—was a one-page essay. After they wrote it, I made some suggestions, and then had them re-write it as a three-page essay. After that was done, more notes, and a re-write into a five-page essay. Some final suggestions, and one more re-write back down to a single page. The kids all complained bitterly, but they always had to admit: the final draft was always far superior to the original.
The point of this assignment was to identify and eliminate irrelevancies. Information is information; in professional communication, the rest is frosting.
Professional Communication – Engagement
This is not to say that professional communication must be dry by nature. Transmitting information does not need to bore. Even the most mechanical trainings can and should have a spark of humanity behind them.
I think of the courses I designed about an internal payroll software. There is little excitement to be evoked from a series of slides all saying, “Click this, select that, use this dropdown menu.” Most attempts to do so would easily fall victim to the pernicious it.
However, on the other hand…this is payroll software. This is how employees get paid. In a very real sense, people’s livelihoods depend on the trainees learning that system, and this is no small matter. Even though it is personal and emotional, calling attention to how the software affects people is in no way a faux pas in professional communication. In fact, I go so far as to say that the personal and emotional are the pith of much professional communication as long as the connection to the personal is real.
Such Am I
In the precise, measured process of developing online training courses, I am step one. The finished product we hand back to you will have the stamp of the whole team’s talents.
However, I take pride in the fact that my words, my rhythms, my paces will inform the courses you will present to your employees.
Let’s get started.