Communication and learning

Regular readers of this blog know that I use this space to think out loud. It is where I take shards of a theme that keep surfacing and see how they fit together into someone whole. Communications is one of those themes. It is a topic that we touch on in a variety of our courses, but not one to which I have devoted a whole class or blog post . Yet how we talk about a learning experience and what communication strategy supports our learning events are at the heart of our effectiveness. The words we use have the power to expand value, deepen engagement, and improve learning.

But first, there’s an abundance of nonprofit classes that exist to market consulting services or make money unrelated to mission. I’m focused on learning programs that center the needs and success of nonprofit people. I care about profit-making only as far as it sustains our work lifting up the work of nonprofit people. I care about training-as-marketing only if the training is good. My goal with communications is to improve how well people learn and transfer that learning back into their job. I know you value that too.

1. Naming

What has more value…

  • A webinar or online class?
  • A training, workshop, or class?
  • A conference, symposium, deep dive, or day of learning and connection?

And while we are at it, who fills the room at these events? Registrants, attendees, participants, or nonprofit leaders?

The words we use to name our events and the people who attend them signal what people can expect. There isn’t a correct answer, but there are better answers based on the marketplace and who we serve. For example, the term “webinar” elicits for me a presentation where the speaker is showing PowerPoint slides with too many bullets. (Is it just me that thinks that?) A board member may not feel compelled to be “trained” and may prefer a “workshop.” Context matters.

2. Your promise

Nonprofit people are busy, so our learning events must be time efficient. Whether explicit or implied, we make a promise to participants that their time will be well spent. We express this promise through objectives. “By the end of this session, you will….” Learning objectives serve the instructor by guiding the content of the session and what will be practiced. Focusing objectives focus the participant on what will be covered and practiced during the time. Both are important.

Too often learning objectives are a sad list of vague ideas or verbs. “Understand” in all its forms is far overused. It is the universal fall back when a conference planner tells us that we need learning objectives. I have no idea what you understand, and I’m not sure what to do with “you will understand the difficult balance between safety, choice, and protection,” to quote an example that came across my desk this week. Towards what end do we want people to understand that? “Awareness” gets the silver medal for most overused. Awareness ≠ action.

My guidance on learning objectives has evolved over the past year. While problematic in several ways, the diversity of verbs available on the Bloom’s Taxonomy push workshop leaders to move beyond “understand” and “awareness.” (Again, only look at Bloom’s for verbs; don’t get caught up in the hierarchy or think that you have to move people from left to right. You don’t.)

Over the summer, I’ve been learning about Brenda Segrue’s work on objectives. Segrue’s model gives us five performance verb types to consider:

Procedure (task verb): can they do the task
Concept (identify or distinguish): do they understand the concept
Fact (recall or recognize): do they remember the facts
Process (troubleshoot, predict, or improve): do they know the steps in doing something
Principle (apply or predict): can they use the principle in a real way

Bottom line, you communicate the specifics of your learning event through your objectives. Communicate boldly and then deliver. (And join us for The Trainer Academy in August or September if you want to here more tips about learning objectives.)

3. Before and after communication

An event begins at the first point of contact. Your participants start their learning experience with that marketing email that captures their imagination to learn more. You set the tone that this event will be interactive and outcome-based, if that is so. Once the event happens, you keep people learning by staying connected to them. Your communication strategy brackets the learning event to extend and deepen learning.

Here’s how this can work:

Before-event communication: Priming is the practice of starting the learning process before a lesson occurs. It can be as simple as a reflection question and invitation to download a workbook (example) or as involved as a video pre-lesson meant to cover material in advance (example).

After-event communication: Boosting is the practice of continuing learning after a learning event. It is human to forget, and the rate at which we forget varies based on how well we design our event around remembering. We can send post-event communication that reminds people about what they learned, rekindles their motivation to keep making progress, provides additional information that comes up in feedback (example), or invites application of key lessons. We’ve made a promise to participants that we will stand by them as they learn and apply our lessons. Post-event communication is how we live up to that promise.

The name of your event, the promise you make through your objectives, and your pre- and post-event communication extends learning and strengthens your brand. Do you have a communications strategy as a part of your learning program? Tell us!

Our fall learning series starts September 23. Join us for Beyond Workshops and Webinars: Tools to move people to action!

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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