I received an email from an experienced instructional designer who had a problem that is all too common in our field. She was having trouble persuading clients to accept her course design. She wondered if there were any key messages for persuading a client that a design is based on sound learning principles for that audience and it meets the organization’s goals. The problem was that the client wanted to “include everything and the kitchen sink” in the course.
Since responding to her email, I’ve thought about the many different approaches I use to influence or persuade clients. Sometimes it is a matter of messaging, but other times I may need to implement a more collaborative process. Here are some techniques that often work for me.
1. Educate Clients to Persuade Them
Unless your clients have been educated in cognitive psychology, they will not be aware of how people perceive, process and store information. Teaching clients about this is my first line of defense and it is often enlightening for them.
I like to compare the brain to a funnel. Although rich and varied stimuli are picked up by our senses, very little of this is transformed into meaningful skill acquisition that is saved to long-term memory. Cognitive science demonstrates that we have a limited capacity to process information at one time. See Working Memory: 20 Facts You Must Know and What is Cognitive Load?.
2. Trim Content at the Start
At your kickoff meeting, educate your client about the natural human limitation for processing information noted above. Then ask your client to name the three to four most important things the learner must be able to do when the course is over. Use this as your criteria for what defines competency.
Listing three to four critical goals changes the focus from an information dump to improving performance. Now you have guidance on what to include and exclude. Tie the content to what learners need to do in order to be competent. See 10 Ways to Organize Instructional Content or listen to Strategies for Organizing Instructional Content.
3. Show That You Are Listening
Everyone wants to feel that they’ve been heard. Demonstrate that you are listening by restating the client’s objections to confirm that you heard them. “Let me make sure I understand. You’re saying that you want to add 100 text-only slides, correct?”
Consider writing down your client’s objections if necessary. Then address each one. “I see why you want to include 100 more slides. You have a lot of important content. Since most of that information doesn’t contribute to the three most important goals of the course, perhaps we can add it as a supplement.” Sometimes the best persuasive approach occurs through understanding.
4. Try a Compromise
Persuading clients might mean you need to incorporate their ideas. See if there are ways that you can rework your design to partially incorporate the client’s approach. However, try to improve on what they want. For example, some course sponsors love talking head videos that most people find boring. Perhaps you can agree to a video treatment, but instead of a talking head, insert B-roll (alternate footage cut into the main video track ) that will make it more meaningful and interesting. (While we’re on this topic, you may be interested in this podcast episode: How to Stop Making Boring Videos.)
5. Use a Design Thinking Process with Your Client
Not all clients want to get involved with design. But if your client seems interested, consider going through a Design Thinking Process together. As collaborators you can research, ideate, prototype and test various design approaches. When you create together, you have automatic buy-in. Or Cathy Moore suggests going through an Action Mapping process with your client.
6. Present the Learner’s Perspective
When it comes to eLearning, do you have anecdotal or data-based evidence that learners are just clicking through page-turner courses? Most learners will fly through irrelevant or text-only courses as quickly as they can, as revealed by the time-to-complete data. Sharing this with your client may substantiate your claim that today’s busy workforce needs meaningful and action-oriented learning experiences. This may help your client see things from the learner’s perspective.
You can also gather a few audience members (with approval) to a client meeting for a frank discussion about how they learn best. It’s possible that your client has never thought about learning design from the user’s viewpoint. Consider conducting an audience analysis, developing a persona and creating an empathy map for audience insights to discuss with your client.
7. Demonstrate with a Prototype or Demo of a Similar Design
Many adults are not good at visualizing ideas. It’s possible that a client or course sponsor is unable to mentally picture what you are proposing. Demonstrate your ideas in a prototype or if there is not enough time or budget show demos of designs that are similar to what you are proposing. This should have a greater impact than documents alone. See What Should I Put in My eLearning Prototype for more on this.
8. Recommend A Blended Approach
Are you concerned about overwhelming learners? Of course you are. Recommend offloading some of the content that does not fulfill course goals into optional supplementary materials. You can take that content and transform it into a podcast, a downloadable job aid, a slide doc (PowerPoint document saved as a PDF file) or a few short tutorials. For guidance on blended learning, see 10 Best Practices for Designing Blended Learning and listen to Insights for Designing Blended Learning.
9. Show What Others are Doing
If you know how others in a similar industry create motivating learning experiences, share these trends. For example, perhaps your client thinks that a comic book format or game-based learning is juvenile. You can discuss the successes that people in similar industries have had with these approaches. Some clients may care about appearing up-to-date.
10. Match the Content to the Learning Objectives
Create a matrix with three columns:
- In the first column, list the performance-based learning objectives that state the three to four most important course goals.
- In the second column, next to each enabling objective, briefly list the corresponding content that will fulfill the objective (bullet points are fine).
- In the final column list the corresponding activities or exercises for each objective. Show your client how your design meets every objective.
When to Give Up
As you know, sometimes an organization may not care whether the workforce is engaged or whether a learning experience is a success. Perhaps they are only interested in meeting regulatory requirements. Perhaps they stubbornly won’t believe that less is more when it comes to learning. As an advocate for learners, this is frustrating and disappointing.
If you can’t walk away, do the absolute best you can for the learners within the constraints you’re given. If you are a free agent, you’ll have to decide whether you want to withdraw from the project. Good luck! Perhaps this list of books for persuading clients will give you some additional approaches.