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Don’t Just Wing It: A Q&A With Media Expert Jonathan Halls

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Wed Jan 28 2015

Don’t Just Wing It: A Q&A With Media Expert Jonathan Halls
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Jonathan Halls is an author, trainer, and coach. He wrote  Rapid Video Development for Trainers  (ASTD Press, 2012) and was a contributing author to Speak More (River Grove Books, 2012) and the ASTD Handbook: The Definitive Reference for Training & Development 2nd Edition (ASTD Press, 2014).  The former BBC learning executive now runs workshops in media, communication, leadership, and creativity. Jonathan has been training, speaking, and coaching for 25 years in more than 20 countries. He describes his work as “at the intersection of media, communication, learning, leadership, and innovation.” 


Q: You’ve been quoted as saying video is the flipchart of the future. What do you mean by that? 

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JH: Just 25 years ago, train-the-trainer programs taught us how to write on flipcharts: what color pens to use and how to turn the page without distracting the learner. The flipchart was the media we created apart from workbooks and acetates. 

Today, our media includes video and audio. Already many of us are making videos, and this will only increase. Tomorrow’s trainer will not only be a trainer, but also be a media communicator. Being able to create engaging video, audio, and other media content professionally will be an essential skill in tomorrow’s trainer’s toolkit. 

Q: What challenges does this present? 

JH: Probably the biggest challenge is understanding how audio, video, and written text all differ in terms of learner engagement on different platforms. People read the written word very differently on a printed page than they do on a smartphone. We can’t just copy and paste learning from a workbook onto a just-in-time learning piece on a smartphone and expect it to be effective. Likewise, a message needs to be crafted very differently for an audio podcast than it does for a video. Making sure these things are considered is essential to avoiding boring content that fails to achieve the learning objective. This can be tough to learn and put into action. 

Q: Video is simply about aiming your camera and pressing record, right? 

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JH: No, that’s like saying, “I can write a bestselling novel because I know how to use Microsoft Word.” Good video is about storytelling, pictures, music, effects, and the way they are edited together to efficiently achieve your learning objective. Without these, the camera and record button are nothing but a waste of time. You can’t just wing it if you want meaningful media content. 

Q: Not winging it and developing proper skills for media production seem to be two of your hobbyhorses. 

JH: Maybe, but I think it’s justified. I spend a lot of time traveling the country helping trainers and their organizations make video a meaningful part of the learning process. And when I see people winging it, their video quality is so often boring, it takes longer to get to the message and they spend twice or three times as much time creating content than they should. This is easily rectified by learning basic editorial skills and production methods that media professionals follow. 

Q: Now technology is so cheap, anyone can create video, right? 

JH: Sure. But not everyone can create good video. We’ve all heard people say, “I’m a good talker, so I’d be a good trainer.” This insults the instructional design skills and facilitation techniques learning professionals take years to develop. A similar attitude exists with video: “Show me the record button and I can make great video.” It takes a lot of skills to make video that people want to watch.

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Q: So, what sorts of skills do learning professionals need to become media professionals? 

JH: Learning executives and training managers will need to incorporate into their roles the skills associated with broadcast executives and newspaper editors: commissioning content, production budgeting, how long it should take, and what makes acceptable editorial standards. 

Trainers will need to incorporate journalism and production skills into their work—everything from interviewing subject matter experts in ways that make the interviews appealing to packaging learning content into short, digestible chunks in audio, video, and animation across multiple platforms. They’ll need to be able to pick up a camera or digital audio recorder at short notice, as well as create production plans. 

Q: If learning practitioners want to be really forward thinking, what do you suggest? 

JH: Start thinking about content detached from platforms. This is not new—we’ve been talking about this in the media industry since the turn of the century. But concepts such as 360-degree storytelling and transmedia are really starting to happen. I remember a TV executive on a workshop I ran in 2002 in London saying it would never happen. Today he runs a company doing transmedia. And some European countries are really pushing the boundaries of media. The Witness (Germany) and The Truth About Marika (Sweden) are two fascinating drama examples that offer a lot for learning professionals to reflect on. 

Q: What is your favorite project to-date? 

JH: The Daily Telegraph, one of the big broadsheet newspapers in London, made a bold move into the digital world in 2006 by creating the first-ever converged digital newsroom. The project is still quoted as a “sea-change” in the newspaper world. IFRA Newsplex, which did the design and change consultancy, asked my company to design and deliver the training for all their journalists to transition from print to multimedia storytelling. We delivered learning for hundreds of journalists and it was a huge success. I loved how the learning function was so carefully tied into the change process. Learning is often an oversight, but here it was integral. It was also a groundbreaking event in the publishing world, so being part of that was electric. 

Q: What is your favorite book on media (besides your own of course)? 

JH: My favorite book is different every month. This month I’m rereading The Filmmakers’ Eye by Gustavo Mercado. I approach video from a cognitive mindset, while he sees it as art. And his perspective is cinematic, while mine is factual online video. These different perspectives stretch my thinking and deepen my understanding. 

Q: When did you fall in love with being behind the camera? 

Actually, I never really fell in love with being behind the camera or in front of it. I think by virtue of my book on rapid video and having previously run the BBC’s television training department, people immediately associate me with video. However, I see myself as a media generalist. I have worked across audio, video, and written content both in the traditional media world (radio, TV, and newspapers) and digital media (web and multiple platforms). What drives me most of all is how we use media of any form to transform people’s thinking.

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