First, get your story straight

First get your story straight - Sprout Labs

This is a guest post from technical writer Bruce Ransley, who discusses the value of a good book.

Do you find yourself struggling at times to create meaningful learning experiences out of complex information?

The larger and more complex the subject matter, the harder it is to develop meaningful learning experiences. Without a clear idea of the big picture there's a risk of concentrating too heavily on some learning points while skipping others entirely. It becomes easy to get lost in the information wilderness. More pertinent still is that when you're dealing with complicated or technical topics there's a very real risk of misinterpretation (or just plain getting it wrong), particularly if you as the designer are not well versed in the subject at hand.

The power of the handbook

In his blog post about ebooks, Robin alluded to the 'handbook' as an integral part of the learning experiences that Sprout Labs develops. We've found handbooks to be crucial when it comes to dealing with tricky subject matter.

In our world, a handbook is a plain English guide that’s intended to sit as a stepping stone between the often complex (and sometimes impenetrable) policies and processes of the organisation and the learning experience itself. A good handbook contains a well-organised mixture of text, diagrams and video; we make ours accessible to the learner as a downloadable ePub file for reading at any time.

We find that the learner appreciates our effort, relying on the handbook either as a just-in-time learning aid or to get a grip on the material before tackling the online modules. Because the handbook is designed in parallel with the learning resources, the reader can easily follow along in a logical sequence and build a better picture of what they're in for.

Every team needs a playbook

But a handbook isn't just useful for the learner. When you're working in a large team it can play an extremely useful role in keeping the learning content organised, well balanced and within scope. It becomes the playbook on which the learning experience is based and serves to keep everyone on the same page, quite literally.

Moreover, the process of developing the handbook is useful in itself in ways that I found to be quite sensational when I first began developing this kind of resource over a decade ago.

The reason is that in an organisation with several (or more) subject matter experts there tends to be quite a lot of disagreement. Not disagreement on the facts or details, perhaps, but about what is relevant to the learner and what’s not, how much detail they'll need, or which examples best illustrate a particular concept. Indeed, facilitating a group discussion involving subject matter experts and policy aficionados can be quite dramatic! For many it's the first time they've been asked to explain to a non-expert (i.e. me) what they know, and they can find it rather challenging.

These sessions regularly uncover areas of disagreement or ambiguity, and are usually extremely enlightening for all involved.

A good handbook begins with a solid framework

When the dust settles from these workshops we find a solid framework on which to build our learning resources, one that everyone approves of as they themselves had a direct hand in building it.

Then from the framework it’s simply a matter of digging up the right content and writing it down in a way that’s digestible for the learner.

I say 'simply', but curating and presenting relevant knowledge in an effective way is quite a skill. Too many learning guides written by subject matter experts are riddled with jargon and difficult for the newbie to understand. Indeed, a great many of us are guilty of writing about what we know, not what the learner needs to know.

Let the IDs do their job

Our handbook approach means we can move large chunks of the crucial content away from the learning experiences. Instructional designers get a little more play room to focus on building interactive activities that enable the learner to practise. They can spend their time with the subject matter experts exploring the skills and mindsets associated with the tasks at hand, and asking informed, insightful questions. The grunt work has already been done and is there for them in plain English, should they need to refer to it.

Keep your team on track

For anyone who joins the project later on, the handbook will quickly bring them up to speed, describing in a nutshell what the organisation has decided are the things they need their learners to be able to do.

From a project manager's point of view, the handbook can be quite a godsend. Having your story solidly set out in the early stages of the project helps to keep everyone on track, and can certainly help when it comes to the inevitable scope creep. Questions and mistakes are fewer. The review process runs smoothly because the reviewers often had a personal hand in developing the framework—no nasty surprises or "we need to rethink this" shocks.

And as every PM knows, the smoother a job runs, the better the final product, and the healthier the bottom line.

Behold, the handbook. A marvellous thing when it comes to getting your story straight.

Bruce Ransley is Director of Impress: clear communication, a writing and editing company based in Hobart.