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Four Ways Learning Professionals Can Be More Like Journalists

Published Wed Jul 31 2019


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At the recent Totara User Conference in London, Senior Learning Strategist Lori Niles-Hofmann shared her ideas for 10 ways that organizations can transform learning results. One key point was that more learning professionals should act like journalists, so that they can glean what really matters in learning content with creative storytelling and the ability to craft a compelling narrative. If you’re unable to take a journalism course, here are some things to remember when you want to write like a journalist.

The 5 Ws … and an H

Who, what, when, where, why, and how. In a journalism course, the importance of covering the 5 Ws (and one H) upfront will be drilled into you in every single news reporting class. The goal is to cover as many of these points as possible in the first sentence or two of a story, such as:

A fireman claims he spotted the Loch Ness monster yesterday while he was fishing near Brighton’s West Pier.

In journalism, the art of placing the most important information first is known as the inverted pyramid--you want to convey the bulk of the story in the first few lines, with the rest of the story adding color. Don’t leave the crucial information until the end. If we don’t find out until halfway through the story that Nessie was spotted in Brighton, way outside its usual environment of Loch Ness in Scotland, we’re skipping over a huge part of the story!

Crafting a Narrative

Many learning professionals craft their learning into too corporate and formal of a style, whereas most people will remember quirky details and stories that they can relate to. Compare these two ways of conveying the same information:

If you are about to have a difficult conversation with an employee, it may help to rehearse what you say before the meeting. Having a couple of prompt words on a piece of paper will help you stay on track.

Barbara is preparing to discuss Alan’s inappropriate behavior at work and has invited him into her office. As Alan knocks on the door, Barbara glances at her prompt words--‘unprofessional language, unhelpful, patronizing’--to remind her what she needs to cover.

Something as simple as setting up a scenario with names and a location can help anchor the point of your learning in someone’s mind. If you can tie the fictional scenario to your own organization, even better.

Know Your Audience

One of the skills in a journalist’s toolkit is the ability to make their story resonate with a specific audience. Think about the different writing styles you will find in a tabloid newspaper versus a broadsheet versus a glossy weekly magazine. Take these examples, for instance:

Hollywood hunk Alan Smith is selling his joke shop chain. With rumors of his bankruptcy circling, he won’t be laughing his way to the bank this time.

Oscar-winning actor Alan Smith has announced that he is selling his chain of joke shops for a fraction of their original cost, citing "difficult economic circumstances" for the closures.

Word on the street is that everyone’s fave film star Alan Smith is shutting up shop on his joke stores. A source revealed that his recent stint out of the limelight has left him a little strapped for cash, so let’s just hope he can magic some dosh out of thin air to keep his struggling fitness lifestyle brand afloat.

This is the same piece of information written for three different audiences, taking into account their different interests and how readers expect to be spoken to. Just because you’re creating corporate training, that doesn’t mean that your audience will respond well to a formal tone. This is where it pays to dig deeper into your company culture and to look at the way people speak in your organization--if even the C-suite are relatively informal and friendly, it makes sense to reflect this in your training materials, as anything too corporate and jargon-filled will feel jarring.

Borrow from your marketing colleagues. Marketing and journalism go hand in hand, particularly when it comes to the skills you’ll be borrowing as a learning professional. Aside from the writing itself, think about the marketing campaign you’ll create to promote your content to your audience. It’s not enough to write a course and leave it on the LMS; think about how learners will find out about it, how they’ll get there and how you’ll keep them coming back over and over again.

You may consider sending out regular emails or internal newsletters to highlight new content, promote useful existing content or surface interesting conversations on your internal forums. You may carefully craft the phrasing on your LMS to guide people towards the most relevant content, or you may even create physical posters or stationery to sit in the workplace and act as a constant reminder about the available learning. If in doubt, speak to your marketing team. There are likely to be plenty of things you can do to get more people accessing and completing your learning.

Curious about the other nine essential skills you need? Download our free ebook about the Learning Social Contract, which covers advice from Senior Learning Strategist Lori Niles-Hofmann and Totara Learning’s CLO Lars Hyland, about the most important skills for learning professionals to develop today.

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