Kill Your Darlings: 5 Tips for Success in the Post-Training World

Thursday March 23rd, 2017

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An illustrious keynote speaker is gearing up to give his address at a prestigious conference. Filled with pride and self-regard, he steps to the podium and says, “Well, I have so much to say I hardly know where to start…” A wag from the audience pipes up, “Why not start at the end then?”

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that instructional designers as a species can be a bit like the keynote speaker. Passionate about our craft, we like to think that our words are important. Very few of us think we’re producing great art, but we do on occasion get a certain thrill from an especially well-constructed scenario or a particularly devilish distractor. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The problem comes, as with most things in life, when our egos start to get in the way of our goals. When Allen Ginsburg famously told his students to “kill your darlings,” he meant it as an injunction to avoid narcissistic over-investment in their own prose at the expense of discipline, economy and clarity. To be successful in writing, he admonishes us, we must be prepared to sacrifice our most cherished turns of phrase.

In our new world of abbreviated attention spans, on-the-go learners, and crumb-sized micro-learning strategies, instructional designers are being called upon to relearn this lesson every day. And to be successful in this environment, not only must we be ready to “kill our darlings” at every turn, but we should equally take to heart the advice of the smart aleck in the conference audience who tells us to just start at the end.

Here, then, are a few tips for a productive killing spree. But first a caveat: these tips are less about writing technique per se than the work of conceptualization which should precede any act of writing. If you’re thinking about your training intervention in the right way, I propose, the precision and economy in your writing will follow as a result.

1. Focus on Outcomes

This is a basic tenet of learner-centric design philosophy, so I’ll try to follow my own rules and not over-explain it here.  Good training is about effecting behavior-change, not about distributing content. In general, the more content you’re trying to push on your audience, the less likely it is that you’ll be successful in getting them to actually do something different.

At Candent, we’ve always supported the notion that it’s better to “test then tell” than it is to “tell then test.” With the advent of mobile-deployed skills-assessment tools (e.g., observer checklists), we’ve taken that idea even further to become “assess then tell.” If a manager (or even a co-worker) can use an online checklist to validate that a particular procedure is being followed properly, then the process of “training” itself becomes merely supplementary to the far more critical process of skills-verification. If the trainee happens to fail the observer evaluation, then the online training is still available to remediate the problem. However, if the learner can successfully demonstrate the behavior without reading a single word or passing a single quiz, then the darling we have killed might actually be the traditional concept of “training” itself.

2. Refine the Objectives

In order to create behavior change, you must be absolutely clear about what behaviors you’re targeting and what changes your program intends to bring about. This clarification needs to happen before you even sit down to write the first word of your training material. An effective exercise to help get to this level of precision at the outset is to successively reduce the number of words you’re using to describe your learning objectives to the absolute minimum. The objectives for a food safety course might begin with a list of items like, “Learners will understand the mechanism of transmission of e. coli so that they will comprehend and follow proper raw meat handling procedures” and end up with something like, “Learners won’t make customers sick.”

Precision in objectives will lead naturally to precision in training content. The clearer you are about the outcomes you want your training to achieve, the less likely you’ll be to allow yourself needless meandering or dilation in your content writing. The golden snitch is harder to catch than the quaffle because it’s tinier, more refined, and more elusive. However, if you do manage to catch it, you’ll have won the entire game.

3. Know the Time and Place for the “Why?”

One of the commonplace refrains we hear about millennial learners these days is that they always need to know the “why” of their training. Since they never heard the “because I said so” rationale from their parents growing up, the common wisdom goes, they won’t accept that sort of authoritarian approach from their job training either.

Even if we agree to leave to the side the obvious fact that training isn’t parenting, we shouldn’t allow this fashion for the “why” to open the door for long and unnecessary rationalizations. Most of the time, this should be a matter of common sense and good judgment. What’s more important in our food safety course, for example: an understanding of bacterial ecosystems or understanding that not following proper procedures could result in the illness or death of a customer?

I would even suggest that the time and place for all the why’s is rarely in the context of ongoing training at all, but rather in the on-boarding phase of training. And here I’ll allow myself a slight digression. Practically of all of the “why’s” in corporate training will boil down to some general imperative regarding excellent customer service or doing the job as a whole in the right way. And more often than not, that generalized “why” has everything to do with maintaining corporate brand identity and standards. The “why” of providing warm, informal, personalized customer service at Apple retail, for instance, is essentially “because that’s the Apple way.” In this sense, the “why” usually turns out to be a softer and slightly less disciplinarian version of “because I said so,” rephrased here as “this is how we ‘bring to life’ our corporate values.”

My point here is just this: if the “why” is almost always going to turn out to be a version of “because it’s the right thing to do, ” it becomes far more efficient to establish those foundational culture values and service propositions in a self-contained on-boarding experience than to continually reassert them in every piece of training. If the workplace culture is being properly grounded and maintained, the “why” of specific training interventions should almost always go without saying.

4. Invert the Information Funnel

The legacy of the traditional course model in e-learning has meant that when learners want to access a particular bit of information, they have to move from the vast to the particular. Consider this scenario: let’s say I’m a retail worker, and I remember taking a great course on peer-to-peer coaching several years ago. I dimly recall some techniques for providing effective feedback to a co-worker, but I can’t remember any of the specifics. My process, in most cases, will go something like this: try to find some time to go the computer in the back-of-house office, launch and log into my learning portal on the LMS, try to search for the specific course among the dozens I have already taken, launch the course itself, and then page through all the content until I finally find what I’m looking for.

No one would fault me, as a learner, if I didn’t even make it past step two in this ordeal. The remedy for this situation is to invert the process as much as possible. If the LMS, as the monolithic repository for all training in the company, represents the expansive top of the information funnel, and what I’m seeking is at the narrowest end of the spout, then what we need to strive for is a situation where that funnel has been turned upside down.

Am I suggesting you should just drop your LMS completely? Maybe I am…you’d be joining a growing trend if you did. Short of that, I am proposing that you should get to know exactly what your learners need to know, and, by any means necessary, try to reduce the distance between them and that job-critical information to the absolute minimum.

5. Start at the End

At the beginning of this article, I suggested that the best advice for economical writing is simply to “start at the end.” Most traditional e-learning courses assume a predictable and shopworn format:  first, some bullet points enumerating “what you’ll learn,” followed by pages of content, perhaps spiced up a bit with some low-level interactions, then some more bullet points in the form of a “key takeaways” section, and finally some sort of knowledge-check.

What if we could just reverse that model? Start with the assessment: not a traditional knowledge-check, but an in-person skills evaluation, administered and captured digitally. If the learner has already mastered the skills, either from previous experience or by picking them up on the job, and can demonstrate competence, then there’s really no reason to go any further with his/her “training” program at all.  We’re done.

If there is a measurable performance gap, we can use the assessment results to create a personalized remediation strategy which focuses just on that trainee’s problem areas. We can point them to whatever micro-solution is most appropriate for the fix: a short video, a targeted simulation, or just a printable step-by-step walkthrough of the process at issue. In other words, assessment first, then the “key takeaways” only as needed.

If, at this point, there is still a need for more “training,” then we direct learner to the appropriate resource. Maybe it is, after all, a traditional course on an LMS. More likely, it will be a tutorial, simulation, or job-aid that could reside anywhere.

Whither the Designer as Writer?

So what has become of the instructional designer as a creative writer in this universe? Does this reorientation of training strategy around outcomes, economy, easy-access information, and skills-assessment leave any room at all for the instructional writer’s lovingly-crafted darlings? Or are they all dying a slow and unpleasant death at our feet?

Best not to get too maudlin about this passage, I say. There are even more opportunities for creativity and innovation in this new world then there were before. In fact, being able to think creatively about how to provide the right solutions for the right audience at the right time in a multi-channel world is a far more invigorating challenge than the prospect of banging out another boilerplate training course in Storyline or Lectora. So say goodbye to your darlings, and don’t shed too many tears for them. You’ve got better things to do.