Don’t Get Lost in the Sand Dune… Make Connections!

Providing a Road Map for Learners

In 1984 I saw the first movie adaptation of Dune. Because it was so extraordinary and made such an impression, I set out to read the original series by Frank Herbert, a journey that took me many, many years to complete. While the original series is only six books, most can best be described (in the words of my former College English Lit professor) as “weighty tomes of words.” They’re excellent novels, but the words “quick reads” and “easy to understand” will never be ascribed to them.

Part of what makes these books so challenging is the vast cast of characters. You know you’re in for a challenge when the book opens with a list of “Dramatis Personae” to help you keep track. I referred to this list many times, as the first novel features 68 (!!!) named characters. On top of that, the book shifts scenes and introduces characters without any preamble or context. One minute you’re reading about the main character, Paul Atreides and the next, you’re on another planet where someone named Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is discussing politics with a Mentat (a person with exceptional mental skills used to replace computers), and then you’re dropped into a third location with a whole new set of characters. It’s an engrossing book, but the cavalcade of characters, planets, ideas, concepts, roles, and political schemes can leave your head spinning.

During that same time period, my older sister introduced me to another author, Piers Anthony. In contrast to the Dune series, his books were much more accessible because Anthony writes in a way that lets readers quickly connect with the characters and the world he’s creating. More on that in a bit…

Connect to the Learner

I’m bringing up these contrasting reading experiences because the same principles hold true for learning. If you want to captivate your learners, you need to grab their attention and connect with them. By establishing and maintaining a strong connection, you can ensure your learning solutions and performance support solutions are effective and engaging.

With a little help from the writings of Anthony, let’s explore how you can connect to and engage your learners. In an article, “Think of the Reader,” Anthony writes:

“But I maintain that the essence of literature lies in its assimilation by the ordinary folk, and that readability is the first, not the last criterion for its merit.… If it’s clear and interesting and relates to the needs of the reader, it will score. I like to tell audiences that they may love or hate what I write, but they will be moved by it…. I am successful in part because I make connections with my readers that bypass the editors as well as the critics.

All the tricks can be subsumed under one guideline: Think of the reader. Do it at every stage. Every paragraph, every word.”1

Like Anthony, you should think of your learners when crafting custom learning solutions to ensure your training or performance support is effective, engaging, and practical. When deciding what content to include and what approach to take, consider:

  • Who are your learners?
  • What do they need to do on the job?
  • Is this content adding value to the learner or causing distraction?

Connect to the Learning Solution

Let’s dive back into the world of fiction again. I don’t think anyone wants a learner to feel like I did reading Dune, an exceptional piece of literature that was, nevertheless, extremely difficult to digest. In my long career of “taking training” I’ve experienced firsthand training that feels like Herbert writes, jumping from one topic to the next, without any handoff or explanation, leaving the reader (or learner) lost and confused. To prevent this, consider using a gentler handoff approach.

Let’s turn to the same article as before and see what insights Anthony can offer:

“When you introduce a new character, don’t just throw him at the reader unprepared. Have him introduced by a familiar character,(sic) if you possibly can. In my forthcoming mainstream novel Firefly, I start with one character, who later meets another, and then I follow the other character. That one meets a third, and I follow the third. In the course of 150,000 words, the only character the reader meets cold is the first one. Thus, the reader can proceed smoothly throughout, never tripping.”

What Anthony is referring to are transitions — the smooth handover of one character to another. Don’t skimp on the transitions, as they help your learners effortlessly move from one topic to another. Here are some ways to create transitions.

  • Capture the learner’s attention. Change up the presentation or e-learning. Don’t use the same exact design and layout on every slide or page. Keep it within your theme but don’t be afraid to create something eye catching to signal to the learners that a change is happening.
  • Summarize the points you’ve been making. This not only helps the learner remember them but also signals that a change is coming.
  • Create a handoff between topics. Explain explicitly how this topic links with the next.
  • Reinforce the linkage (in the introduction to the next topic). This serves as a good introduction to the topic and helps the learner see how topics relate to each other.

Make Connections

Let us suppose you’re creating an e-learning module on how to use a timesheet application to track your project time. You might start with why time tracking is important and beneficial. Then you need to switch to the practical, how-to instructions, showing how to login, select a project, and add your time.

To help bridge the gap between the two topics (why a system is important and how to use it), consider adding a bridging activity. This could be as simple as a summary slide that reinforces the first topic (how to use the system), and then provides a brief introduction that starts the process of showing how using the system benefits the learner and the company. It doesn’t have to be an epic novel — sometimes a sentence or two is enough. Be sure to vary your design a little by creating something that acts as a signpost and showing the learner that the topic is changing.

While this more formal approach works, don’t hold back on your creativity. Consider writing a scenario that recaps the same information but does so by telling the story of a new employee named Jane. We could see how she learns the system and then asks someone why it matters, which helps introduce the next topic. This could be as simple as a couple of paragraphs of text, a photo of Jane, and possibly even some audio narration. Alternatively, you could dust off your video skills (or pull on another resource) and turn it into a video! (Check out these blogs to learn more about video: Let’s Talk Video, Let’s Talk Video, Take 2, and Let’s Talk Video… Animations.) Finally, in the introduction to the next section, you could reference the scenario as a way to reinforce the previous topic and smoothly lead into the next.

Just as it’s tough on a reader to blindly meet one character after another, it’s similarly tough on a learner to be thrown from one topic to the next. Help the learner along by including transitions that create a road map of connections between topics. When you’re stuck for a transition idea, don’t forget that sometimes the best transition is to tell a story.

Keep your learner top of mind, and hopefully your training won’t take multiple attempts to complete, as a certain novel set in a desert world once did for me.

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(Anthony, Piers. “Think of the Reader.” Writer 102, no. 8 (August 1989): 11-13, 35., https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/anthony-piers-1934), author Piers Anthony (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers_Anthony)

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