Thursday, November 12, 2009

Host Behavior

Being a strongly introverted personality, I have a hard time with networking events, no matter how much I practice them. And I've been practicing for over twenty years.

Now since I'm not only a consultant, but my specialty is communication, you might think this is a drawback. And it is. So I do my best to minimize the deficiency by pouring mental energy into networking events and by using "technique" to make up what I lack in natural ability.

One of the best techniques for me is one I learned from the classic book on this subject, How to Work a Room by Susan Roane. If you're alone in a room and not sure who to talk to or how to approach them, look for the people who are standing on the edge and alone. Roane calls them the "white knuckle drinkers." As she points out, these people are usually not "losers", but they may be shy. In any case, they are usually very approachable and extremely grateful when you take the initiative to break the ice.

I call this technique host behavior. Instead of acting like a lost guest at the party where I don't know anyone, I assume the role of host, whose job it is to everyone else comfortable. It's amazing how taking the focus off myself makes it easier to connect with people.

Recently I was at a large event and, after the first few conversations with people I knew, I had that sinking feeling of being alone and not sure what to do next. I fought down the impulse to go hide in the men's room and instead spotted an outlier on the edge of the crowd. I walked up to him, smiled and said hello. I asked him what he thought of the event and what he was looking to accomplish there.

Not only was this guy emphatically not a loser, he turned out to be the learning director for a mid-size company--for me a valuable contact and even a potential future client. At the end of the conversation, I didn't even have to ask for his card. He just reached into his pocket and handed it to me. You just can't network much better than that.

Host behavior: a perfect tool for the networking introvert!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Delivering a presentation over the Web? Don't show me your dog.

It seems to have become a trend among business presenters to "personalize" their content.

Perhaps you've noticed it: before delving into the details of a product demo or company overview, a speaker will introduce himself to a new audience with a mini bio. We learn about his history with the company and where he went to school. We're informed which sports teams he follows and that he enjoys golf. We're shown pictures of his family and pets.

I first noticed this technique a couple of years back at a one-day e-learning conference. We learned that a college professor grew up in India and still commuted there regularly to see her family. The CEO of a small e-learning firm had always loved the Beatles. These personal touches had their intended effect: the audience got to know the speakers as people. Rapport was established, and we were perhaps a bit more open to the message.

But recently I saw this technique backfire big time.

I sat in a large conference room while the professional services rep of a database vendor presented the details of the company's latest upgrade. It was a virtual presentation: his slides were shown on the screen while he spoke to us remotely. While introducing himself, he showed pictures of his wife and kids, then his dog. Around the table people shifted uncomfortably; you could almost hear the groans.

So why did the personalized presentation work well in one meeting and fizzle badly in the other? Part of it may have been the venue. At the e-learning conference we were being given free knowledge (and free breakfast). We were there of our own volition and eager to learn. At the database presentation, the audience was existing customers who already had issues with the vendor's offering. They were predisposed to be guarded.

But I think the bigger reason was the virtual nature of the second presentation.

At the conference, we could see and hear the college professor and CEO, notice their facial expressions and body language. Their physical presence made it easy to relate to them as people. In the vendor meeting on the other hand, we never met the speaker. He was a disembodied voice broadcast by the phone. So his attempts to ingratiate himself with personal pictures came across as false and off-putting.

The lesson for virtual presenters is simple: don't try for the personal touch when you're not in the room. Keep the focus on the audience and their concerns. When you need to invoke emotion (and yes, you still do) show pictures and tell stories that relate to the audience and their emotional needs.

Personalize by showing me what your message will mean to me as a person. Don't show me a picture of your dog.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Flash without Flash

Last week I attended a webinar on Simplified E-Learning presented by Ray Jimenez. The title was Using Basic and Advance Reusable Flash Engines to Author Content. The key concept revolved around spicing up e-learning with interactive Flash pieces that are adaptable and reusable. A delightful idea.

I should say first that Ray Jimenez is a very smart man with plenty of good ideas. He teaches ways to design clear, simple e-learning and build it rapidly. He's also a great presenter and remarkably generous in sharing his ideas and his work. I recommend his books and webinars to anyone who needs to create effective e-learning within real-world business constraints.

Reusable Flash Components

The Flash projects Ray showed are "reusable engines," designed to separate coding from content. A Flash programmer creates a basic interactive page or game, with the e-learning subject matter read in from a text file. Instructional designers or authors with no Flash coding skills can edit the text file for different courses, hence reusing the engine.

The examples Ray showed are simple animated games. The learner answers quiz questions entered into the text file. If they answer correctly, a cartoon figures shoots a basket or sinks a putt. Ray's company also has a beta web site where you can customize some of the games through a web interface instead of a text file.

Extending the Concept

While I love the idea of reusing Flash components, I had some reservations about taking the free samples Ray showed and just plopping them into one of my courses.

For one thing, the arcade-game imagery bothered me.

I realize this particular aesthetic is in vogue and probably works great for a demographic raised on manga and anime. But if your e-learning course uses stock photos and has a formal, businesslike look and feel, splashing in a cartoon quiz is going to jar. Unfortunately, the imagery of the Flash games is a lot harder to customize than just the text of the quizzes.

My other qualm is with the apparatus of the quizzes themselves. While I like the way they jazz up the presentation, I have to wonder how much real learning value they bring to the equation.

The best uses of Flash in e-learning have some intrinsic relationship between the interactivity or animation and the learning content. But when a learner answers a multiple choice question and a golf ball drops in the cup or misses, the relationship between these two events is artificial. And I suspect it will seem so to my learners.

So I am on the lookout to extend the idea of reusable Flash pieces. I know there are many sources of free and low cost Flash components out comes to mind. I'm going to look for components that allow me to customize the look and feel (with my intermediate Flash skills) and that I can adapt to have a more intrinsic relationship to my learning content.

If I succeed, well, that's an even more delightful idea!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Writing Quizzes That Work

I'm currently writing compliance training for a company that owns power plants. Given how much I hate it when the power goes off, ensuring the security of the electric grid is a mission I can really get behind.

The training needs to include test questions that will be tracked in an LMS.

My problem with tests

Now, tests or quizzes always seem to me the weakest part of e-learning courses. If we can design engaging presentations of information, seductive games, and brilliant simulations, why cap it all off with bland-as-toast multiple choice and true/false questions. I always feel such activities bore and annoy, even insult adult learners.

But this is compliance training so there must be test questions!

A great solution

The solution I found from a little research is simply to create questions that relate to the learner's real world experience. Scenario questions!

Don't write questions that ask learners to recall and rehash the information you just served up.

Do write
questions that ask them to apply that knowledge to real situations they are likely to face on the job.

Where I found the answer

Karl Kapp has an excellent blog post on just this topic. He points out that, in order for compliance training to change job behavior, it needs to present learners with the kinds of problems and decisions they are likely to face on the job. And then guide them how to proceed.

In E-Learning by Design ( a wonderful banquet of a book!) William Horton provides very similar advice. "Phrase your questions so that they resemble the kinds of decisions learners will have to make when applying the knowledge and skills you are teaching. Phrase questions so they re-create what would actually occur on a job." (p. 250).

Horton goes on to give this example of multiple choice questions:

No: What are the three methods of peer mediation identified by Professor Morty Cerebrum?

Yes: John, a co-worker, bursts into your office. He collapses into your guest chair and mutters, "I'm either going to quit or throw my simpering weasel of a boss out the window." How do you respond?

Notice too how much more emotionally involving the second question is. It not only presents a real-world problem, it makes you feel the problem really matters, because it's tied to a person who's very upset and needs immediate help.

That question has the power of a story, in less than 40 words.

Powerful stuff for learning!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tips on Persuasive Writing

I love articles that demystify business communication by providing a blueprint. Give me an outline that shows me how to structure an effective presentation or piece of writing, and I'll praise you for it. Present it in a simple, catchy, memorable way, and I might even blog about it.

So I really liked this blog post by Brian Clark at, which I found on one of my LinkedIn groups. It's called The Four “P” Approach: A Persuasive Writing Structure That Works. Clark's outline for persuasive content includes four segments:
  1. Promise - To grab attention and answer the all-important "What's in it for me?"
  2. Picture - Create a vivid description of the benefits of your proposal, with emotional impact.
  3. Proof - Use facts and data to convince.
  4. Push - Deliver the offer and ask for your desired response.
I think this blueprint can be readily adapted to training. Learning professinals often face situations when we need to motivate learners and convince them of the learning's value to them. In fact, I've got one of those coming up, and I plan to give the Four P's a try.

So I say, "Good job, Brian Clark!"

Friday, January 23, 2009

Is ADDIE Dead?

ADDIE in Theory

We all know ADDIE: the standard framework for corporate training development. In theory, it's a well-oiled, reliable machine: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation. In theory.

ADDIE in Practice

In practice, from what I've observed, the complete ADDIE model is not often implemented. In particular, the Evaluation phase gets minimized or bumped in the rush to tackle the next problem. I tell my clients that ADDIE is an excellent framework, but its use must be weighed against business realities. What do you really have time and resources to do? Which parts of the process do we need to focus on to solve the problem? In his excellent book, Rapid Instructional Design (2000), George M. Piskurich seems to agree with this approach (at least as I read him.)

What About NOW?

But now, with all the buzz about social media, collaborative learning, and Millennials in the workplace (not to mention the economy), things are changing, more rapidly and profoundly than ever. One wonders how long ADDIE will survive, if it isn't already dead.

This week I attended an ISPI chapter meeting. The presenter was a learning manager for a large, international service organization. He described an impressive spectrum of technologies and delivery methods they use for employee training: WBT, SharePoint, EPSS, synchronous e-learning, podcasting, satellite video.

The VP of Learning for the same corporation was in the audience. During the discussion, he pointed out that for thirty years he'd been using instructional design. His method was to start with the Analysis phase of ADDIE, then come to a decision point: Was training needed, or would a job aid suffice? This methodology, he said, has served us well.

But now (he continued) we are seeing workers who have grown up using Instant Messaging. When they have a problem, their solution is to reach out to their network, ask for help or opinions, and find a solution by collaboration. They expect to do this on-demand, when they need it, and much faster than they could get an answer from a training course or a job aid.

What Comes Next?

So if ADDIE and the whole model of training development are on their way out, what will replace them? To what degree will social media become the norm for learning and problem solving on the job. And how can learning professionals best position themselves to facilitate these processes and continue to add value to their organizations.?

Guess I'll pose this question to my network....