Archives for June 2014

6 Ways Leaders Can Thrive in Ambiguity

As leaders, we are constantly faced with complex and confounding challenges that seem to defy solutions. Relatively straightforward problems with customers, technology or products are often solved at the supervisor or manager level. For example, “How can I reduce my delivery costs by 20 percent?” or “What steps do I need to take to increase employee satisfaction scores?”

But the really sticky challenges — the ones that have many right answers and no clear wrong ones — have a way of remaining unresolved until they float up to the executive leadership for evaluation and resolution. As business and leadership become more transparent, interconnected and complex, these problems are everywhere: “How do I balance the needs of my business unit with those of the enterprise?” “How do I reward entrepreneurial behavior and team collaboration?”

With competing forces pushing and pulling executives in each direction, leaders must find ways to stay healthy, balanced and self-aware to remain effective in the face of paradoxical problems. Instead of fighting ambiguity, great leaders make ambiguity a friend.

Here are six ways that leaders can manage through paradoxical problems by thriving in ambiguity:

1. Make paradox your friend. Managers are usually rewarded and promoted for solving puzzles such as lowering costs or executing a project, but higher up the executive ranks, those kinds of clear wins are hard to come by. Instead, executives must shift their leadership style to manage paradoxical issues that are longer-term, bigger-picture and more important.

It takes guts to embrace paradox, but making it a friend rather than denying it will create more organizational value over time. Leaders who don’t make the transition are doomed to fail.

Andrea Jung, the former chairman and CEO of Avon, had to learn how to make the shift to becoming a paradox leader the hard way. When she was at the helm, Avon began a strategic imperative to tightly manage the brand globally. Skilled corporate brand managers wanted to implement a single strategy in all markets.

But, people in the field wanted to make their own decisions about products based on their understanding of local markets. Both were valid though in opposing positions. As a result Jung said: “We didn’t do a good job of managing the local paradox. We swung too far too fast. We went from one extreme to the other without understanding the implications. The differences had major implications for our business model, leadership roles and operating clarity that we did not handle well.”

2. Don’t close too early. Highly organized and focused corporate leaders often like to make lists, cross them off and feel a sense of accomplishment. Paradoxes keep coming back and are never solved. Bill Weldon, the former chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson and board member of Exxon and JPMorgan, said, “Good leaders must learn to endure chaos. Sometimes the right answer doesn’t appear for a while.”

By deciding too fast, or ending discussions too early, you may miss the opportunity to find the right path forward.

3.  Learn to say “I don’t know.” Managing paradox and complexity requires the input and intelligence of as many people as possible. If the leader has all the answers, others don’t see the value of offering their own insight. Leading is learning, and by saying “I don’t know,” a leader gives others permission to show their own vulnerability and contribute new ideas. A leader who creates a learning environment creates an innovative one, too.

4. Own your derailers. There are times when leadership strengths devolve into destructive behaviors, such as when boldness sours into arrogance or healthy skepticism transitions into being distrustful. We may not like to recognize these truths about ourselves, but our direct reports and those around us are aware of them.

These personality traits can be managed if you’re aware of them and willing to acknowledge them openly and often so others don’t need to tiptoe around you.

5. Engage in authentic dialogue. Encouraging dialogue around a tough paradoxical problem is a no-brainer, but the effort can create roadblocks and political entrenchments instead of creative problem-solving if you’re not careful.

For example, Cameron Clyne, CEO of the National Australia Bank, sought to have his top leaders gain an enterprise-wide perspective. He had already tried changing everyone’s goals and rewards to motivate them to align around a holistic view, but he wasn’t getting the response he needed. He encouraged face-to-face dialogue so they could better understand each other’s points of view.

Clyne was particularly interested in having his top executives resolve the tension between long-standing contradictory goals: investing to grow market share and saving to bolster the bank’s balance sheet. No matter how much they spoke, he couldn’t gain consensus among his core leadership team.

So he tried something unconventional. He paired executives who disagreed with each other and asked them to prepare a presentation on the other person’s point of view. Not surprisingly, the paired executives returned with brand-new ideas for tapping new market opportunities, new technology efficiencies and new savings by sharing resources.

6. Recognize you’re not finished and never will be. Here’s the biggest paradox of them all. The only way to become a finished leader is to remain an unfinished one. By committing to lifelong learning, experimenting, dialogue and behavior change, you step outside your comfort zone. In other words, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that’s when you take the greatest strides in personal and professional growth.

Ambiguity is inevitable, so tap into it to become the best, most effective leader you can be.

Top Tips for Writing Better E-Learning Scripts

It was a dark and stormy night. In a dark alley a subject matter expert handed his 83-slide deck to an instructional designer. The mission? To turn that deck filled with bullet point after bullet point of previous content into a meaningful and engaging e-learning experience.

It’s a daunting mission. How does the instructional designer take that raw material—under the pressure of a really tight timeframe—and transform it into something that people will pay attention to?

It starts with the basics: better writing.

Good writing is the single biggest factor that can make the difference between an e-learning program that bores people to death and one that gets them to pay attention. It’s all in the delivery and how you present the information. Far too often, e-learning designers take the easy road, loading page after page with text bullet after text bullet.

Case in Point

Let’s imagine a compliance training program in your organization. The topic? Rules and regulations for speaking at trade shows. This 10-page policy document is so boring that no one reads it. Thus, now the stakeholders want to make it mandatory e-learning.

The first screen of the e-learning says that the program has audio in it and to be sure to use your headset. You click “next.” Now you hear three minutes of audio narration that explains how to use the buttons in the course. Next!

Then come the dreaded learning objectives—”At the end of this course, you will have learned …”—followed by 15 bullets of poorly written blah, blah, blah. Yeah, whatever. Next!

Finally, the content that actually describes the policy appears. But it’s three paragraphs of on-screen text with audio narration. The content is copied directly from a policy document that a lawyer wrote and no one can understand.

This goes on for 12 more screens. It’s enough to make you want to gouge your eyes out in despair. It’s the stuff of nightmares, and the type of e-learning program that gives all other e-learning programs a bad name.

The solution is to find the right tone so you can turn your work from clicky-clicky blah-blah to something with a lot more oomph. Here are six principles to accomplish this.

Make it Human

My mantra for e-learning is “It’s all about the people, man.” When we write passive scripts that are full of jargon and abstract, impersonal language, we completely neglect to connect with the person sitting on the other end of that computer. If there’s only one thing you do differently in your e-learning designs, let this be it: Make it human.

Talk to people. Connect with them. Make the e-learning sound like it’s a conversation between people. Real people, not robots.

Instead of this: “In order to effectively manage employee performance, managers need to successfully navigate difficult conversations with their employees. In this e-learning program, you will learn three techniques you can apply to employee conversations …”

Try this: “Have you ever had a difficult conversation with one of your employees? Where did you struggle and why? In this short program, we’re going to explore three things you can do to make those conversations less difficult and more productive. Sound good?”

When you speak directly to the learner, you’re making use of the personalization principle, which is when you have a conversation directly with someone using first and second person language such as we and you. Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer tell us in e-Learning and the Science of Instruction that using the personalization principle yields better learning results than more formal language.

Make it human. Talk to the people.

Keep it Light

What conversations do you enjoy more? Dense, heavy, and serious in tone; or short, snappy, with a little bit of humor thrown in? Do you like a lecture thrown at you or a conversation with you? Even when the content is serious, giving it a bit of levity makes it more accessible and human.

This may be my personal style, but I’ve found that most people prefer the lighter touch. It’s how normal human beings talk to one another in normal conversation. As best as you can, try to lighten up.

Instead of this: “This e-learning course is designed to explain the 15 steps needed to complete our regulatory process …”

Try this: “Need to get your head around our process? We all do! So let’s take a look at the 15 steps.”

This second approach sounds more human. It’s the conversational tone that I described earlier, but it also has a lighter touch, sounds more fun and inviting, and overall has just a touch more sass. I like sass.

A lighter touch uses simpler language, which means less cognitive overhead for your audience. If you have to spend a lot of effort deciphering every other big word, you’re not going to absorb as much of the critical information that really matters. So while you’re keeping it light, drop the jargon and drop the big words.


Cut it Out

This one goes without saying: Cut, cut, cut. Less really is more. Cut your scripts. Get to the point quickly and spare the learner endless screens with endless text. Keep the focus on what you need people to be able to do and not on all the history and information that goes behind it.

In a slide-based e-learning program, try aiming for one idea per slide instead of cramming in 14 ideas on one slide just because you can get the font that small. People need mental and visual space to consider and consolidate an idea. Give it to them in simple, easily digestible chunks. And then cut it some more.

Give it Spirit

The best writing flies off the page in an active and not a passive voice. You can spot the passive voice by the use of the words to be or is.

Writing in an active voice may take more time and you’ll need creativity, energy, and patience. But you know what? It makes for a more energetic and engaging experience for the person on the receiving end. An active voice invites us in, inspiring action and participation.

Giving your writing spirit takes more than an active voice. You need to make it an invitation, and give it a special something that makes people want to participate in your program and makes them really want to click “next.”

Of the two columns in the table below, which do you prefer? I like the column on the right.

“The fabulous e-learning script was written by you.” “You wrote the fabulous e-learning script.”
“The process briefing document is used to define our core requirements.” “The process briefing document defines our core requirements.”
“Now that you have covered the basics of customer service, in the next section you will learn how to deal with customer issues.” “You’re one step away from maximizing your skills, but there’s a problem—a customer one in fact. Click ‘next’ to put your skills to the test.”

Treat Them Like Grown Ups

Far too many e-learning programs patronize people, talk down to them, and essentially assume that people are idiots. Learners are busy professionals, so treat them like that and give them choices, along with the respect they deserve. The tone of voice you use should sound like an adult speaking to an adult, not a parent to a child.

Do you really need to tell them on every single screen that the “next” button is in the bottom right corner? Don’t you think they learned that when they had to click “next” on the very first screen?

What if instead of telling your learners what they must do, you try to sell them on why it will be a valuable use of their time? Think like an advertiser and find the appeal, create the desire, and get them to see the benefits of taking five minutes to complete your program.

Instead of saying, “In this section, you’ll learn the three things you need to do to run an effective meeting,” try: “Take five minutes to find out how to run effective meetings.”

Find Your Flow

All too often, an e-learning course goes from slide to slide with no thread to stitch it all together, no cohesion to connect the ideas and information. Slide 3 says, “These are the four steps to submit a TPA Report.” Slide 4 says, “These are the risks of not submitting a TPA report.” Slide 5 presents yet another fact farm. At the end of the day, it’s just a big information dump.

You need to find your flow.

Finding the flow is another way to make it a conversation—use simple techniques to make one slide build off the previous slide to connect ideas and show people how it all fits together. It’s how we talk to each other and how we share ideas.

This could be as simple as saying, “We just looked at the steps to follow for submitting your report. But why does this even matter? And what are the risks if we don’t do it right? Let’s find out.”

You also could consider making the whole course a single narrative, told as a guided story or a “day-in-the-life” approach where you follow one character through a process from start to finish. By using the first person narrative, the content naturally unfolds in conversation with a natural flow.

Even though a lot of e-learning is about more than presenting information and content, we can pull many of these principles into our e-learning scripts. So go forth and write great e-learning scripts.

Watch Your Words:

When you say this: They might really be thinking this:
“By now you have learned …” “Oh, really? The truth is, I didn’t learn a darn thing.”
“You must do …” “No, I don’t have to do anything. You can’t make me. You’re not my mommy.”
“This will take 90 minutes.” “Actually, I don’t have 90 minutes. So instead I took 15 minutes because I just rushed through it and the final quiz was so easy I could have passed it without viewing any of your content pages.”
“To advance to the next screen click the ‘next’ button in the bottom right corner of your screen.” “Umm, yeah. I know my way around computers and smartphones. In fact, I’m pretty savvy about this stuff, but you seem to think I’m pretty stupid.”

Becoming a Better Writer

What makes a good writer? Most good writers would say, “Writing. Writing a lot.” I do think that for some, good writing comes naturally. For others, it’s a painfully learned art and skill. And for others, it may just be something they never get. You probably have some sense of where you fit into this schema.

When I write, I hear the words in my head. This works especially well when drafting an e-learning audio script, but it also works well for written text. When you hear it aloud, you hear the tone of voice, whether it makes sense, and can feel whether you have a good flow. If you don’t hear things in your head, take the time to read what you’ve written out loud to yourself. Go find a closet where no one can see you talking to your screen, or just ignore their crazy looks.

As you read your script out loud, keep your ears open and ask yourself:

  • Does it sound natural?
  • Does it sound like a human being said these things or a robot?
  • Would you want to read this thing? Really? Would you want to have to sit through this e-learning program? Really? If yes, fabulous. If not, what can you change to make it more compelling, more sticky, more human?
  •  What can you cut? If something doesn’t relate to your key points, get rid of it.

Most writers also are readers, looking to words for inspiration. Take notice of the world around you—from news headlines to social media posts, what pulls you in and makes you want to learn something? What authors get your pulse racing and how can you do that in your scripts? Pay attention to marketing materials that strike your fancy. How did the marketing team convey that idea? How did they incite your desire? What can you emulate or reuse?

This article is adapted from Chapter 7 of The Accidental Instructional Designer: Learning Design for the Digital Age.

Reprinted from T&D Magazine

Data Dilemma: What to Do When BYOD Workers Say ‘Bye’

Most bring-your-own-device policies focus on how employees can use their phones or tablets on the job — and rightfully so. Employees will inevitably use personal devices to perform company tasks, and creating a policy that defines how they are allowed to access corporate information is an important initial step to keeping an organization’s data safe.

But what happens when an employee quits or gets fired?

For many companies, the answer is troubling, said Forrester Researcher Inc. analyst David Johnson. “Companies do not put enough thought into how BYOD ends,” he said. Yet that can be where the biggest risks reside. If an employee leaves and you don’t have the technology and policies in place to recapture company information instantly, that data will likely walk out the door with them, he said.

Or worse, those ex-employees could continue to access the corporate intranet, said Mike McAlpen, executive director of security and compliance for 8×8 Inc., a hosted Voice over Internet Protocol service in San Jose, California. McAlpen has had previous employers fail to turn off his privileges for remote access to the company’s network after he left the firm.

“I finally had to do it myself,” he said.

The Right to Wipe

That experience taught him to be hypervigilant about 8×8’s BYOD strategy for exiting staff, and to rely on a combination of policies, technology and audits to keep his network protected.

At 8×8, employees are only allowed to log on to the company network from personal devices as guests, which gives them access to email and basic company data, but prevents them from downloading any sensitive documents. The company policy also clearly states that devices will be monitored to ensure compliance, and that a “remote wipe” procedure will be triggered immediately if they leave the company.

“It used to take up to two days to wipe a device, but now we can do it in real time,” he said.

To verify that his system is constantly secure and that no former employees have slipped through the cracks, McAlpen regularly runs network vulnerability tests, tracks who is using the network, and conducts weekly user audits to make sure no unauthorized users have accessed the network. “Our approach is to trust but verify.”

Companies may also want to consider who is allowed to use their devices for work, said Nicholas Lee, senior director of end user services for Fujitsu America Inc. in Richardson, Texas. Only about 5 percent of Fujitsu employees participate in BYOD program, and they must complete an assessment to determine whether they qualify.

“It’s mostly executives and the sales team who are on the road a lot and need the flexibility,” Lee said.

Lee is mostly concerned about the complexity and cost of offering maintenance services for so many devices, but there are legal issues and data security risks that companies don’t always take into account when they let all of their employees take advantage of BYOD. “If the position doesn’t require BYOD, they shouldn’t use it,” he said.

To make sure those employees who do use the program don’t leave with company secrets, Fujitsu relies on encryption technology, partitioning on employee devices to keep company data separate from personal data, and instant data wipes of those partitioned sections as soon as an employee leaves.

The use of wiping technology protects company data, but it has to be handled thoughtfully, he said. “Wiping an employee’s device can be a delicate situation, both legally and politically, and you need to explicitly state how that will happen in your policy.”

Having carefully crafted policies and technologies that are strictly adhered to doesn’t just protect the company from losing data to an individual ex-employee, said Michael Elkon, a labor attorney with Fisher & Phillips who works with companies on trade secret disputes. It establishes the value of that data in the event of future litigation, he said.

“One element of proving that something is a trade secret is being able to demonstrate the steps you’ve taken to protect it in the past,” he said. If companies let some employees walk out without having their devices wiped, it will make it much harder to argue in court that a piece of data is a trade secret that you have worked hard to protect.

“A good BYOD policy that is rigorously applied is essential to that.”

Reprinted from

The Global Leadership Competencies We Aren’t Teaching

The globally connected business environment demands leaders lead across time zones and borders, think creatively, communicate effectively and embrace technology. It is vital that learning organizations offer the right curriculum to address these essential competencies. Yet the content of many global leadership development programs fails to reflect changes in the way business gets done and the competencies required to lead effectively.

The Institute for Corporate Productivity’s 2013 Global Leadership Development Survey, conducted in collaboration with the American Management Association and Training magazine, examined 26 leadership competencies and their inclusion or exclusion in global leadership development programs for 1,200 global participants. (Editor’s Note: the author works for i4cp).

The survey found that many programs are not keeping pace with what’s most critical. In effect, these programs are not fully preparing participants to excel as leaders in the global environment.

The Missing Links

The survey found that most global leadership development programs address managing change and critical thinking/problem-solving — competences that have topped the list for three consecutive years. But competencies related to technology and creativity/innovation aren’t making the cut, despite the fact that organizations acknowledge their importance. These competencies are:

Comfort and competence with the latest advances in virtual technology: It is necessary for leaders to be fluent in the use of virtual technologies in their daily work lives. Yet, while 54 percent of those surveyed admitted this competency is important, it is absent from their global leadership development programs.

Comfort and competence with social network technology: This appeared on the list of missing competencies for the first time in 2012, and 46 percent of respondents overall included it again in 2013. There was a time when a social media presence was a new concept for an organization, but even if leaders aren’t tweeting, their organizations likely are.

The unprecedented growth of social networking applications, platforms and tools underscores the importance of this competency. Absent a formal learning program, organizations may consider tapping into their multigenerational workforce and reverse mentoring to develop social media fluency in their global leaders.

Measurement company Agilent Technologies Inc. recognizes the importance of technological know-how — 40 percent of its U.S.-based employees work remotely. “We’re always seeking to enhance our digital competency,” said Mike Girone, senior director of global learning and leadership development. “We have global teams, with team members in Europe, the Americas and Asia, and we get much of our work done through virtual connections.”

Three years ago, Agilent sought to increase competency and comfort with new technologies among participants via its emerging leaders program. Girone said everyone received an iPad to integrate use of the tool with the curriculum. All of the program’s workbooks were created on iBooks so participants could become comfortable with referencing, highlighting and taking notes using these tools.

When it comes to staying connected, Brian Miller, senior director of learning and development at Gilead Sciences Inc., agreed that it is important to get virtual teaming right. He said focused learning sessions on virtual teaming might include committing to a communications charter, leveraging members in rotating roles and agreeing on informal chat time such as online water cooler conversations.

Miller is not alone in his belief. Michael Killingsworth, vice president of learning and organizational effectiveness at the Upstream Americas division of Royal Dutch Shell, said he has discovered that virtual connections can be as powerful for communication as physical connections, and virtual can act as an open opportunity for rich intercultural learning and exchange.

“Advanced competencies like expert thinking, group learning and complex communication are becoming the new survival tools, all of which build the credibility of today’s leaders,” he said.

Global confectioner Mars Inc. relies on technology to facilitate close connections between its 75,000 globally dispersed associates and their line managers. With a highly decentralized structure but a high-touch, high-relationship culture, the firm is “corporate light” with fewer than 150 people in the corporate office, said Andre Martin, the company’s chief learning officer.

Global communication tools used range from SharePoint to Skype to videoconferencing. For instance, Mars’ senior HR team gathers from four locations around the world for an annual weeklong meeting via telepresence. “We want to be as present in China as we are in the U.K.,” Martin said. He said organizations should first prototype collaborative technology in small teams to find out what sticks in their specific culture. “It’s a vital first step.”

Creativity and innovation were once largely associated with product development, but their application to internal processes, communications, organizational structures and many other aspects of business make them a key competency. Leaders must be innovative in their thinking, both in their own performance as well as in their ability to drive innovation in their teams.

Creativity: More than half of the survey respondents agreed creativity is an ability that isn’t being addressed in their global learning and development programs, yet they consider it to be important. Study analyses found creativity to be significantly correlated to both market performance and global leadership development effectiveness.

Creating/supporting a culture of innovation: Overall, 46 percent of survey participants said their global leadership development programs were not addressing this competency. Yet these same leaders acknowledge that it gets even more complicated to stoke creativity on a global basis and to know how to create and maintain a culture of innovation across borders. Doing so was found to be highly correlated to global leadership development effectiveness.

Agilent Technologies recognized a global leadership void in 2008 when the firm reviewed its development programs against its leadership framework. The company found it was doing well in all areas but one — fostering innovation. So, leaders across the company worked to identify what could be done to enhance and support innovation.

One solution was to modify the company’s Agilent Innovates program to recognize and highlight new innovations. Previously, the program focused primarily on product innovation, but has since been broadened to include new process innovations.

“Others couldn’t play in the product innovation sandbox,” Girone said. “Now, we think about innovation more broadly, such as how we impact the customer experience. We tell stories about product and process innovation and understand the behaviors that contribute to innovation.”

Spending in the Right Places

Surveyed organizations reported less mastery of nearly every competency in 2013 than the previous year. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that people are less effective at their jobs, but it does suggest an increased emphasis on documented performance results. As the demand for accountability and demonstrated competency increases, so does the awareness of deficiencies.

At Agilent, the measure of success is less about the learning activities and more about business outcomes. Girone said the conversation about mastery for business leaders focuses on the right side of the business dashboard, where they live. The organization uses the Robert Brinkerhoff high-impact learning model with business outcomes on the right, then reads the model from right to left.

“It’s like peeling an onion,” he said. “Start with the business outcomes, then determine what needs to happen to reach them, what needs to be in place, what behaviors will support them and what learning outcomes will be evidence of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to succeed.”

That kind of due diligence is par for the course — or it should be — in savvy global learning functions. Shell’s Killingsworth said it is his responsibility as a learning leader to align all learning and development initiatives with the business and deliver measurable impact to business results.

“Through these measures we can quickly identify where our capability gaps are, define methodologies to close those gaps and then report on those gap closures through a competence management solution — one that measures and reports on competence compliance and competence deficiencies.”

In i4cp’s annual Critical Issues 2014 study, the importance of leadership development shot from 10th place in 2013 to No. 1 in 2014 among organizations with more than 1,000 employees. Some 51 percent of those surveyed reported that their organizations plan to increase spending on leadership development in 2014. But will they spend it developing the right competencies, and in turn, leaders with true global outlooks?

A glimpse at organizations’ top enterprise priorities may hint at where that spending should occur. Workforce productivity improvements and growth through entering new markets are uppermost on company agendas. The question learning leaders must ask themselves is whether their global leadership development curriculum has evolved along with the environment in which they operate.

I4cp offers the following four suggestions to learning organizations:

  • Make global cultural fluency an enterprise-wide priority. Deepen leaders’ knowledge and understanding of the culture and market implications in regions in which the organization operates or serves, and broaden the global mindset of all employees who may interact with co-workers, customers and vendors.
  • Mine the best minds. Involve senior managers in helping to drive global leadership development structure and content. Invite them to share their knowledge and stories in videos that can be posted to an internal social networking platform. Seek external thought leaders’ expertise, too.
  • Build a diverse offering of hard and soft skills. Continue the focus on critical competencies such as managing change and problem-solving, but improve mastery of competencies related to managing remote teams and social network skills. Develop more agile to boost creativity and their ability to build a culture of innovation.
  • Leverage strategic workforce planning. Use workforce planning to identify potential skills gaps that can be addressed via global leadership development. Ensure global leadership development is available to a diverse set of candidates for the succession pipeline.

About the Author:

Donna Parrey is a senior research analyst with the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a human capital research firm. Reprinted from Talent Management Magazine

Brain Science: How Long Can Learners Pay Attention?

I have the pleasure of working with a lot of instructional designers and some of the most common questions that come up involve the capability of the human brain. They want to know how much people can learn, and for how long people can pay attention.

“Attention span” refers to the amount of time an individual can remain focused on a task without becoming distracted. This is an important variable since people with longer attention spans are able to be more creative, make fewer errors, and are more likely to achieve their goals.Current researchers argue that the average attention span of American adults has dropped and it is limited to 20, 10, or even five minutes.If this is true, the numbers are troubling since we clearly need more bandwidth to provide them with important information. The interesting question is “why?”

Brain changes and short attention spans

The late educator Neil Postman believed that modern technologies such as television and the Internet are actually reducing people’s attention span. He proposed that our frantic world has somehow rewired the human brain, making us less able to attend to things for long periods.In fact there is precedent for such a view.

For example, the human eyeball, which is a sensory outgrowth of the brain, actually changes shape because of early visual experience. For instance, if a child engages in close-up activities like reading or playing computer games for prolonged periods, the human eyeball develops into a more oval shape to better accommodate these close up images.

The downside of this reshaping, however, is that the children then become myopic (nearsighted) and have difficulty focusing on distant objects.

Researchers propose a similar process to explain the shortening of adults’ attention spans (and perhaps the epidemic of attention deficit disorders in children). The theory states that because of exposure to our frantic world with its persistent thrills, challenges, and competition, a person’s brain somehow rewires itself to better accommodate this rapid pace. The downside is that same brain has difficulty focusing on the more mundane experiences of everyday life.

Delivering information as-needed

But brain changes can’t completely explain the shortening of our attention spans. Although many learners lose interest in our training after only five minutes, these same people are capable of focusing for two hours listening to a celebrity lecture, or watching a National Geographic special. As a result, we know their brains are capable of paying attention. It’s just that they don’t pay attention to our training.

Another explanation for short attention spans is that the content we are teaching people is inherently uninteresting. According to this theory, learners, especially Millennials, are accustomed to seeking information on an as-needed basis and therefore they are unwilling to attend to material that is not immediately interesting and valuable.

Again, there may be some truth in this. The advent of instant information has made people impatient with traditional spoon-fed training. Instead, they want to guzzle knowledge when, but only when, they need it.

Again, I expect that this is part of the answer, but only a part. The content we deliver is important and it helps people be more successful in their careers. So there must be another factor explaining why people lose interest in our material so quickly.

Is it our fault?

A third factor that contributes to people’s short attention span comes much closer to home: perhaps the training materials we deliver are, quite frankly, not very engaging. Perhaps we are under so much time pressure to deliver content that we ignore the basic lessons to teach in ways that are interactive, meaningful, and engaging.

Anecdotal evidence supports this idea. At a recent conference, I asked a room of 400 instructional designers how many of them would enjoy taking online training that was developed by their colleagues. Only about 50 hands went up. Fifty!

That is disappointing, and it has to be a call to action: We need to find ways to continue to improve our instructional techniques.

Teaching is an aerobic sport, and if done well, you can make any material engaging. On the other hand, if you do teaching poorly, any material can be made dull. At my university, we have one faculty member who makes her basic accounting class into an engaging and even exciting learning experience. We have another faculty member who manages to make his human sexuality course dull.

There is not a lot we can do to change the wiring of people’s brains. But we can learn more about how the brain works, and use that knowledge more effectively. Next month we will look at a powerful cognitive function called the a priori gap.

Digging deeper

To learn more about how our lifestyle may affect our attention span, start by reading Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

If you would like to have your memory of this article boosted, send an email to will automatically receive a series of boosters on this series of three articles. The boosters take only seconds to complete, and they will profoundly increase your ability to recall the content of these article.


Postman, Neil and Andrew Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Revised Edition). New York: Penguin Books, 2005. (Editor’s Note: The 1985 original edition is still available in paperback and hardcover from various booksellers on the web. The 2005 revised edition is available in paperback and as an electronic book.)

Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine

Surviving Handout Hell with Rick Altman: Webinar Recording

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Have you ever fallen prey to the conventional wisdom of printing slides to create a handout. Then this lively and interactive webinar with presentation specialist and author, Rick Altman is for you!

If the most annoying trait of all PowerPoint users is placing too much text on a slide (and it is), the leading cause of this offense is the printout. If you harbor the belief that you can create a slide that will be effective as your live visual and as your printed handout, this session attempts to disabuse you of that misguided notion. Responsible presentation designers must separate the tasks of creating visuals for their live presentation and creating printed handouts. In so doing, they distinguish themselves from 99% of everyone creating slides today.

Highlights include:

–       How to move away from the Print button;

–       Did you know that PowerPoint has a Handout master?  Too bad it’s useless for this purpose

–       Learn how to create two documents within one PowerPoint file


He is one of the most prominent commentators in the presentation community today. Rick is the author of 15 books. He is the host of the Presentation Summit, the internationally-acclaimed learning event for presentation professionals.  An avid sportsman, he was not a good enough tennis player to make it onto the professional tour. All the rest of this has been his Plan B.

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