Monday, November 29, 2010

Content is King. Long live the Content.

"Steal This Book"
                                -  Abbie Hoffman

So many people are bound to the words they put on paper or in a slide deck.  They only distribute pdf files, and often will ship only hard copy to their consulting gigs.  They protect that copy like its their first born.  And it's completely silly.

When you tie your worth to a document, people equate that document with your value.  Customers begin to think they can replace you by simply having someone else use the same document.  In other words, what you're selling is that document.

A good presentation or class is just that - a good presentation or class.  It cannot be magically reproduced by firing up the projector photocopying the materials.  When people hire me they pay to see me.  The materials I use are simply a calling card.  They won't get nearly the same value as if I deliver it, so why do I care if they have copies of the document?

But what about intellectual property?  People are so afraid they will "loose something" if they give away content.  Nonsense. 

Too many consultants and authors get too tied up and protective of their content.  They focus on that one aspect, because they think that's the one thing that is tangible that they have to sell.  They immediately lose credibility because it isn't the PowerPoint slides people buy - it's their expertise.  To these folks I say give your content away, and reserve the high prices for yourself and the delivery. 

In fact, freely copy and distribute your materials.  It's only going to increase your own value.

500 Million and Counting

"Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door."
                 -Ralph Waldo Emerson

As of December 2010, by their own published statistics, Facebook has more than 500 million active users and people spend over 700 billion minutes per month.  I don't know what the definition of "beat a path" would be but I'm guessing it would look something like that.

Often the real challenge is finding consumers for your content, or if you have a target of consumers getting content to them effectively.  This is where social media steps in.

Content storage us unlimited, as far as the practical individual or group is concerned.  Presentation media and tools have never been cheaper or better.

And the best part is, most of your customers probably already use it.  If they don't use it they sure know about it.

So look around, hold social media up to your challenges and see what fits.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Can You Hear Me Now?

"Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast"
                             -  William Congreve, in The mourning bride, 1697

It's a common phrase, and almost always misquoted.  But I'm not writing about accuracy here, but meaning.  One of the most interesting parts of my position is the ability to audit classes, to view my materials being presented.  I was observing an activity the other day and something was odd about the room.  it took me a few minutes to figure it out, because ti was not something that was there.

It was something that was not.  The room was quiet. 

Most people would consider that a normal classroom, but that struck me as wrong.  Years ago I was teaching a class with Martin Bryant.  Martin has exceptional instructor skills, and the only bad part about Martin in the classroom is that most people will not get to experience him teaching.  I discovered Martin always played music in the classroom during activities. 

I originally thought that might be a distraction, but was surprised to see the contrary.  It had a relaxing effect in some of the people, and real perk up for some more.  And that makes sense if you think about it.  Rooms that are quiet remind us of a library, places to be serious, or even situations that are not pleasant.  But rooms with music evoke mental images of places that are fun.

So I make a point to instruct all of my people, play something fun in the background during breaks and activities.  it will set the right tone for learning.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Getting Through

"This time, it's personal."
                              - Russel Brand, et al

Have you ever finished what you thought was a really great class or day, and one of your customers blindsides you with a question you answered in the first hour.  You want to smack the microphone and say, "Is this thing on?"

Sometimes you just don't get through.  The first instinct of any professional instructor is to think to themselves that this guy is just a few cards short of a deck.  He's on of the dim ones.  He's not the fastest bunny in the forest.  It must be their fault - they simply did not pay attention.

Validating this usually involves some sort of question to the group, carefully worded not to call out the poor guy who answered the question as challenged.  This is where the trainer's worst nightmare begins to unfold (cue the ominous music).  As you pan the room for signs of insight and newly gained intelligence, you get blank stares.  After the longest minute of your life the temperature in the room goes up 15 degrees as you realize you didn't get across to anyone.  No one.  Nada.  Zip.

No one in the room "got it."

You probably presented some information in an abstract method.  Another term for abstract method?  The "who cares" method.

Adults really only learn when they can apply information or skills to their own experiences or can clearly see an advantage in their own lives.  It's like watching Bear Gryllis on Man vs. Wild carve out some bugs from a rotting tree and proclaim the crunchy goodness of protein.  It's interesting, but you really can never see yourself needed that bit of knowledge so in one side of the brain it goes and out the other.

In order for your training programs to be effective they have to force the students to leverage what they learn in some task they need to do.  This comes in the form of discussions, exercises, and other activities where the student can use the information.

Remember the 10 minute rule - if you are talking for more than 10 minutes without an activity you have lost the class.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Role of the Instructor

"It's not what you know but how you organize your classroom."
The days of lecture are over. 

That has been painfully clear to me for some time now.  And it is not a realization that I can say I came to in some brilliant flash of visionary prowess.  It had to be repeated to me over and over like a memory challenged goldfish.  I am not proud of that fact.

But I did learn it, thanks to the Generation X and Y -ers that I interact with every day.  These are people that have little tolerance for being lectured to.  Lecturing was for the "stupid kids" who couldn't pick it up on their own.  Give them a few pointers and let them go.  They will ask you when they don't know something.

And that's how we should organize our classrooms.  Instead of the lecturer on the stage in the spotlight, we should be the director in the wings, ready to prompt them for a forgotten line or missed queue.

We should get out of the way and let our students learn.

Monday, September 06, 2010

"... whenever I have a little free time, I'm always recording songs, writing, whatever I gotta do. It's like my job is my vacation."
                                                    --  Ludacris 

Just an update over the long summer.  Talking with people about vacations and jobs, and I was surprised at some of the conversations.  What surprised me was how many people feel they loved their work so much that a vacation was unnecessary.  I am making a vow to find that place this year.  You should too.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Make it your own

Every time I get a script it's a matter of trying to know what I could do with it.
            - Paul Newman

Everyone who teaches a certain class probably uses the same training materials as any other instructor.  There are lesson plans and syllabuses that are to be followed, mostly to ensure that the key concepts are all covered.  But what you do with that script can mean the difference between an Oscar and straight to DVD.

One of the things I do at the beginning of each class is I ask people what they want out of their time with me.  Almost without exception there is one clear omission in their responses: to have fun.  Having fun while learning isn't required, but it sure makes the experience more memorable.  And what's the ultimate goal of learning?  

To give people a memorable experience that they can use to make their work lives better.

Think of Paul Newman for a second.  For most people a particular movie or scene will flash through your mind.  Do you think Paul was the only person to ever play that role?  Probably not, but his was memorable.  He grabbed that script and made it his own.  And you had fun watching that movie.

Think of all of the probably hundreds of movies you have seen in your life - you remember a small fraction.  And why is that?  

I would submit you have had even more learning experiences, and you probably remember the ones that were fun and engaging.  So the question seems to be, "How do I make my classes fun?"

The simple answer is zen-like:  you don't.  Strive to get to know your people, to make the class engaging and casual, ask questions and the fun will just come naturally.

Taking Chances

I've permitted myself to learn and to fail with some regularity. And that is probably the one thing I was given, and that I'm still grateful for.
                                     - John Malkovich

A short while ago, I presented an idea to one of my customers that was clearly "outside of their box."    They were producing training materials by copying select portions out of user guides into slide decks.  After 10 minutes of studying this mess I could not imagine why they had not had a daily mass exodus from their training center.

I knew these people were not there to hear "selected readings" but to get an idea of how they could make their jobs better.  So I trashed the idea of the User Guide Cut & Paste and started a new document with these parts:
  • page references to important sections
  • diagrams illustrating work flows and important thought processes
  • lots of fill in the blank sections reflecting what the instructor was discussing
It was clearly a shock to the system.  The conversation went something like:

"Will this work?"

"I don't know. Try it."

Training is like people and a recipe.  Organizations have different tastes.  Recipes need to be tweaked.  Even Thomas Keller doesn't get it perfect the first time.

But one thing was certain, replacing lecture with activities was the best starting point they had.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


"A true leader always keeps an element of surprise up his sleeve, which others cannot grasp but which keeps his public excited and breathless."
                            -  Charles de Gaulle

Most people hate surprises.   Look at all of the time people spend planning and preparing.  There are libraries of business school books and popular culture tomes on the art and skill of preparation to get what you want.

How boring.

Think back to all of the really cool experiences you have had and more likely than not they involve a pleasant surprise.  You can really accomplish a lot when you present a learner with a challenge they did not anticipate.  Humans rise to challenges in good ways, challenges get them out of their boxes, tests get their juices flowing.  These are all cliches for a reason - they are classic human behavior.

We have started instituting unannounced "final wrap-up exercises" in all of our programs.  They're basically tests that we do not really announce so they aren't expected and most importantly, they are unprepared for.  

It all started as an accident, really.  We were looking for a good way to fill the final day of a course with something other than the marketing pablum that we all hate.  So we asked ourselves, "What if we gave them fresh systems after lunch, a couple of paragraphs paraphrasing what we did that week, and asked teams of students to basically demonstrate everything that they learned during the week?"

What a wild success.  We could hear pages flipping and murmurs around the room - "When did we do that?" and "I think I remember this."  The groups help pair really good students with those who had trouble so no one gets left out.  And they all leave with a level of confidence in their abilities orders of magnitude higher than before.  And the instructor is left to mingle and mentor, reinforcing certain skills and just getting to know better the customers.  

It is by far the best rated section of the class by customers.  Hands down.  And it all starts with a surprise after lunch.

Now I am not saying all surprises are good.  That letter with the return address from the IRS is never good. But you can make your experiences memorable with some good surprises, and your customers will learn more.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Did you know that 80% of statistics are made up by people to make their point?
I love that line.  It's funny but if you think about it, it goes far deeper.  Statistics are often the basis of decisions.  Look at almost every major decision your company made in recent years.  There was probably some study done by someone who found some historical trend and declared that was the one true path to future success.

And sometimes that is true, due to sheer momentum.  It's like someone claiming to be a real estate genius by buying in a rising market.  But more often big breakthroughs came because someone had the stones to do something different.  They saw something was wrong (or at least not "right") and they altered course.   Most of the major "brilliant" ideas were discovered that way.

Twilight was rejected by fourteen publishers before finally getting published.  J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter were rejected by 12 publishing houses.  Stephen King's classic horror book Carrie was rejected 30 times.

Would you want to be one of those editors today?  All of those publishers would have sworn on their careers that those books would never sell.  After all, that's why they rejected them!

So what's the point?

Your ideas will not be successful 100% of the time, but ideas you toss out because they're not exactly aligned with what you're doing now will fail 100% of the time.

Now that's a statistic.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Cooking and Training

Learning is like cooking short ribs.  You have to go slow and practice a few times before you get it just right.

Anyone who has ever made short ribs knows exactly what I am talking about.  When they are made right they are the tenderest morsels you will ever find - fork tender and almost falling apart in a stiff breeze.  But they only get that way if you cook them for a very long time at a relatively low temperature.  They cannot be rushed.  Turn up the temperature to go faster and you destroy the meat.  And you always have to practice a few times before you get it just the way you want it.

Learning is the same way.  Do this mental exercise:  You are given one hour to teach a total newbie a software package you know well.  How do you design your time together?

What most people do at this point is to begin to list all of the things they think they can cram into one hour.  Which is really a perfect way to accomplish the task "list all of things you can talk about regarding the software in one hour."  But that is not the task.  The perspective is completely wrong - it focuses solely on the performance of the instructor.

The right way to think about this is to list the most important three features of the software.  (Why three?  We will get there in a moment.)  Take the first important feature, design a way in which you will present it, and create an activity where the student has to use this feature in a hands-on environ.  When delivered, this will take most people about 20 minutes to accomplish from start to end (see where the three comes in:?  20 min x 3 = one hour).  Repeat for the other two key tasks.  If you want to be safe and accommodate extra for fast students add one or two more key tasks.

Do you see the difference?  The perspective is completely on the student, not what the instructor can do.

Learning is about the Learner.  Keep it that way and you will be ultimately successful.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sometimes it isn't about efficiency

"If we incorporate more activities we won't be able to teach as much"
A good point, and one I'm personally glad my customer came to on their own.  We were discussing the fact that one of their program simply had too much lecture (my conclusion).  They were discovering people were leaving the program with too many questions and thus were not paying attention (their conclusion). 

They made the mistake that almost every single organization make when developing a program.  They developed a list of things they wanted to cover and paired it with an allotted time.  In other words, they determined they had three days to cram in a long list of items.

Of course it was almost completely lecture driven.  They could not have covered as much in three days with any other vehicle.
To illustrate the point I took one of their sections that was, by their estimation, a ten minute presentation.  In my redesign the lecture was converted to an activity that clearly impressed the customer.  There was no question about that point being far more memorable - remember that's the goal of a learning program.
And then they furrowed their brow and uttered the opening quote.
"Exactly," I said.

Then I posed a question: "Do you want to complete a checklist or do you want your people to learn something?"

We had a good conversation about the options.  With a properly designed program comprehension and retention were great, but it was clearly less efficient from a topic/time perspective.  There are clearly two choices at this point - extend the program or cut out topics.  In the vast majority of cases three are a lot of "fat" topics that can be trimmed, replaced by job aid or reference materials.

In developing any learning or performance program you have to ask yourself, "What do people really need to know?" and then let the course define it's own length.

That is the recipe for success.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Shut up already, I'm tryin' to Learn!

Well, by no stretch of my imagination do I believe you've all come here to hear me lecture.
This is a quote from Good Will Hunting.  I thought it was funny at the time, but not for the reasons in the movie (although to give credit that was witty).  In my mind's eye I pictured a plaque hanging in every training room that had this quote on it.  I would put it right below the clock.

For those of you that don't regularly give classes, many training centres, auditoriums, and lecture halls hang clocks in the back of the room.  When I was a student I always wondered why they would hang a clock in the back of the room where nobody could see it.  Isn't it interesting, the biases we bring?

Thinking no one could see the clock was arrogant, assuming that mine was the only valid perspective.  When in fact it was hanging there for the only person whose perspective did matter - the instructor.  The clock was there for the speaker, not the student population.  It's the speaker's job to keep on time.

In the high tech classroom, there are really two instructors.  There is the human in the front of the room and the computer in front of each student.  And learning is really only going to occur when the student gives his or her undivided attention to one of them.  As much as my ego would like it to be, it is not the human.

So it's incumbent on the instructor to lead the room, and then get out of the way.  That clock will remind you - if you are still talking after 20 minutes it's time to stop.  30 minutes and you're really out of line.  An hour?  Let's not go there.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Are Evaluations Useless?

I had a great time in class, great snacks.
I read a lot of evaluations like that. Apparently the customer had a good time in class.

But did he learn anything?

I don't really care if they liked the snacks, or if they thought the class was "Excellent" or "Good."  That's not why they paid good money and took time away from their job to be there.  If that was my goal I would have catered the event and shown a popular movie on dvd.

The only real question I ask after a course is, "Was this a valuable use of your time?"

Customers are making an investment in themselves or their people by placing them in a training class.  They are expecting to learn something that will make their job easier or faster or more productive.  Anything else is simply entertainment.

Everyone in the industry has heard of Kirpatrick's 4 levels of evaluation:  Reaction, Learning, Behavior, Results.  Most people think that the "Level 4" evaluation is the ultimate goal - but they ignore one particular key factor: the effects on the business or environment resulting from the trainee's performance is completely dependent on the corporate culture and whether management will allow change based on the training.

The real benchmark for the instructional designer is behavior.  Did you get through to someone well enough to impact their behavior?

And that's why I ask the question, Are evaluations useless?

An evaluation only measures how someone feels as they are in class or just after.  And evaluations always ask questions about the room, the environment, the instructor.  They never ask behavior questions because you won't know about that for some time.  So why ask the question in the first place?

The only thing that you can measure on the way out is if the customer thought their time was spent in a valuable manner.  Chances are if they thought it was a valuable use of their time they have specific ideas in their head about how they will use the knowledge back at work.  And that's the very best you can do after a class.

Focus on the Important, not Completeness

I would rather people remember five important things from a week long class than present them with everything and have them try to sort it out.

Too many training classes are designed  from the developer's point of view.  They create a task list that is basically a checklist of the product features.  The final steps are to design a class around that task list.

So what's wrong with this picture?

It's focused on the wrong thing.  Not once did someone step back and ask a couple of key questions.

What do we really want them to know?
Unless that product is Windows Calculator, no one is going to remember all of the features of a product in one class.  I cannot stand it when I see something in a class that is just silly.  I ask the course designer why this is in there, and is usually get answers like, "It's a feature" or "Someone might use that."  That is, to me, insanity.  You are wasting someone's valuable time (and money) discussing some obscure feature that might be interesting trivia but nothing beyond that.  That kind of thing belongs in a sidebar note or a recorded webinar.

How will they use the software?
One of the hardest things for a software developer to grasp is that users may not use their software the way they want them to.  You can hear this in conversations that include the phrase, "Well they're not supposed to do that."

Rubbish.  Good course designers will adjust their task lists based on feedback and observations on how the software is used in the field.

You need to ask, What is really important?  Then you design a  task list and teach to that, including plenty of time for practice and self discovery.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Are You Killing Performance?

.. people are an organization's most valuable resource and that a manager's job is to prepare and free people to perform.
                         - Peter Drucker

I still find it amazing when I come across someone in management who feels it is an employee's job to listen and obey.  Highly paid professionals that end up being nothing more than robots.  There is absolutely no discernible acknowledgment of who actually does the work that keep those high management pay checks from bouncing.

I have a friend who working in Marketing in a fortune 100 company.  Recently they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a detailed and extensive market research campaign around the world.  The total bill was probably closer to seven figures when you add up everything and everyone involved.  From producing test materials to interviews to planing an execution the project took months.  People slaved to meet deadlines and their lives were disrupted with the tight global travel schedules.  So what's the point?

When it was all done and produced the VP looked at the results and tossed everything in the garbage.  She personally preferred another design.

In one ignorant, oblivious move she utter destroyed every ounce of motivation and respect her employees had for not only her but the organization.  Months of their professional efforts - which were significant and produced excellent data - were simply dismissed arbitrarily.

She destroyed their performance.

Never again did her people work as hard on any project, because the specter of it getting tossed in the trash always hung over their group.

If she simply kept  Peter Drucker's philosophy in mind she would have a well oiled machine at her disposal.  Now all she has are people going through the motions.

Training is simply one facet of Human Performance. You have to let your people use their skills to produce excellence, lead them in bettering their skills, and let them loose. 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have to have input on every idea? (micromanaging)
  • Do you ever just have a meeting and listen? (respecting your people's professional opinion)
  • Have you ever backed a direction or decision you had reservations about?  (trusting your people to make mistakes and learn)

Friday, July 02, 2010

Innovate? Imitate!

Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.
We are bombarded with messages of innovate, be creative, find something new, blaze a new trail.  And those are great messages.  we should all strive but find that next best thing as we go about our daily work lives. 

But don't forget an important thing - some things just work.  There are proven methods that just work, because they have captured a truth about the human condition.  Take the thing you're looking at right now - the computer - as an example.  Long ago technologists discovered that people don't like looking at screens of text, and that users much prefer point and click.  Is it more efficient?  in most cases not at all.  But it's our human preference (I do have geek friends that still don't "get that whole mouse thing.").

And for me one of the most interesting things in the whole evolution of the computer is that the people that have been successful in operating system interfaces (Apple and Microsoft) did not actually come up with the idea!  The Apple guys "borrowed" it from Xerox and Microsoft was "inspired" by the Apple design.  They tweaked the original.

So what's the main message?  Don't let the lack of a completely new idea hamstring your productivity.  Some of the most iconic things in life were simply variations, while some were truly new and innovative.  In the end it doesn't matter.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Lazy Widom Series - Cram it all into Powerpoint

This is the first article in my Lazy Wisdom series, devoted to getting people out of their tired, boring, ineffective habits when it comes to learning.

We have a meeting, I must finish my PowerPoint.
I know, its a tired sentiment in most circles.  Everybody bashes PowerPoint.  it's like hating serial killers, there's really no down side.  Except for a couple of tiny problems.

Everybody uses PowerPoint.  It's like clothing.  Show up at a meeting without a slide deck on a thumb drive or your laptop.  Sometimes mouths actually drop open.  It has become de rigueur.  An absolute requirement.  Which is sad because most of the time people have something interesting to say and it's simply diluted by the medium.

Here's a slide I got for review in am email today.  I was stunned, because as small as it looks in the thumbnail it was almost completely unreadable on my screen, let alone projected. And the really horrible part is that the message is very positive and powerful.

But I already know what's going to happen.  This thing is going to flash up in all of it's glory and people's brains will just hit the reset button.  Neurons and synapses will try desperately to fit this into some sort of meaningful paradigm, when they should really be trying to absorb and consider the conclusion that should be drawn by the result of studying the data. 

People in business seem to have this ingrained drive to prove that they've actually put a lot of work into their conclusions.  They feel the need to show table after table, chart after chart, and fine print ad nauseum when we all get it - you did the work.  Tell me what's important, I can study the data later.

Take a page from Edward Tufte, give me the meaning and the data in a properly documented handout that I can peruse later.  I've done this - trust me it works.

Now does that mean not to use PowerPoint?  No!

Anyone who tells you to only use one tool in the toolbox either doesn't understand the tool or is afraid to be successful because it means being different.

PowerPoint is just one tool in an arsenal of business applications.  It is unmatched for presenting graphics with meaning that support what a speaker is saying.  But supporting does not mean repeating.  Here are some tips:

  • Don't use the slide deck as your lecture notes.  It's lazy and people will tune you out very quickly.
  • Do use slides to display a graphic that supports what you're saying.  Think of a map, how much more clear is that then someone trying to describe how to get somewhere?
  • Don't just print out your slides as handouts.  It's lazy.  Put a proper document together.
  • Do try to present information yourself. Try a meeting once without a slide deck.  After all, the people are there to hear what you have to say, not read.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

First Impressions

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

It's cheesy, you've heard it a million times, and it's mostly true.  Sure, there are people you have met who you thought you just would not get along with or like, and ended up being friends.  But that is the exception and not the rule.  In most cases, your gut instinct is correct and you stick with it.  And that is why the opening moments of any class or session has to start out right.

Lazy wisdom (one of those nuggets of behavior we all do because "everyone else does it") tells us to ask the participants, "What do you want to learn today/this week?" I have always hated this question and I never really knew why.  Now I think I know.   It is just too vague, too politically correct, too, well, lazy.

Typical answers in my own brain include: Where is a good place around here for lunch, How do I win the lottery and retire early,  and How do I find a better job?  Now I know these are just silly but that is the sort of question that everyone just tunes out.

A friend and colleague suggested an alternative to me last week that I thought was subtly different yet brilliant.  He asks, "What problem do you need to solve with our software?"  This expresses a number of very key points: 
  • We acknowledge they have business problems to solve and they are not just here because they had extra money in the training budget.
  • We show an interest in their personal issue, as opposed to just what we want to teach.
  • We involve the rest of the participants in their problem, in as much as they may have or had the same issues.
Training isn't about presentation, it's about customers learning.  You want to make sure everyone knows this class is about them and not you.  Give your customers that impression right out of the gate.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


This is a blog about learning.

So the first question to ask is, what is learning? There are so many definitions, but I prefer a simple one. Learning is acquiring a new skill, hopefully something useful. That's why this blog is titled Tasting Funny. I am sure as you read the title the old joke comes to mind:

Q: Why don't cannibals eat clowns?
A: Because they taste funny.

It's a truly awful joke. But the fact of the matter is that don't know of one person that I have ever asked that question who doesn't know the answer. It's the perfect example of learning. No one can trace back to when they learned it, and yet it comes to mind almost immediately. Even if you haven't thought about it in decades it's right there front and center, almost without effort.

And that's why we are here. To "learn" to design and facilitate these experiences.