Cynthia Clay has trained, coached, and mentored hundreds of emerging leaders. In addition to serving as president of NetSpeed Learning Solutions, she is an author and speaker. Clay is known as an expert in integrating classroom and e-learning experiences. Along with her team at NetSpeed Learning Solutions, she recently developed a new training program for virtual leaders.
How does your master's degree in theater directing help you in your current role? And did you have in mind a career in training when you pursued that degree?
I never imagined myself in a career in training, although my mother and my father were both educators so I probably shouldn't be too surprised. Many family members were in the theater business, so it was natural for me to pursue a degree in directing. Once I had the degree and moved into a business career, I found there were many ways that theater directing prepared me.
Directing a theater production is a lot like planning and executing a major project. As a director, you're responsible for leading a team of actors and designers, from the first rehearsal to opening night. Interestingly enough, opening night is one of those deadlines that can't be changed; it's a project that has a deadline that can't be adjusted.
Another thing I'm aware of is that because I understand the natural arc of a script for a play, I am a much better instructional designer. As a designer, I see myself taking participants on a learning journey; I'm always thinking about the learner experience as they move from not knowing to knowing, or from unskilled to skilled.
I also think the techniques that directors use to help actors fully, authentically be present and express themselves on stage serve me when I'm on camera in a webinar. For example, making eye contact with the camera lens and creating that sense of connection for the audience even though I can't actually see them. That's theater.
What most excites you about the current discussion around neuroscience and learning?
First of all, I am passionate about taking the discoveries of neuroscience and applying them, in particular to the virtual classroom, because I see so much training delivered online that is counter to the way our brains work. I also am the parent of children with minor learning disabilities—my daughter has dyslexia—so I conducted a lot of research as they entered the school system about their neuro differences because I wanted to help them be successful.
The more research I did around that, the more fascinated I became with the brain. I realized that what is called a disability should rightly be called "neuro diversity." My daughter has had to learn to advocate for her learning needs because she understands better how her brain takes in and processes information. Helping my children with their neuro diversity has made me a better instructional designer and facilitator. I'm a more compassionate, generous designer and facilitator because I make space for those learning differences.
How can trainers take what you've learned and apply that to the virtual classroom?
There are six principles that I have been talking and writing about. The first is "active engagement equals active brains," that is, what we do in a webinar to stimulate our learners' brains. It does not cut it to let learners passively observe a lecture. If we want them to be engaged and to stop multitasking, they have to be active. It's a principle that's violated all the time.
The second principle is "neurons that fire together, wire together." This one is important because when we're training professionals, we want to engage them through multiple sensory channels. There are many ways to do that, but one is to help learners realize what their context is for any information that we share.
It's not our context; it's their context. Somehow, we have to help participants find that context so those neurons can fire together. One of the main tools that we can use in a virtual classroom is storytelling. That's a critical part of the process because we remember what is relevant and meaningful. Stories help us create meaning, so they result in better recall.
The third principle is "vision trumps all other senses." I have to acknowledge John Medina who wrote Brain Rules because this principle comes out of that book. Many studies have debunked the idea that we have a preferred sense for learning, that we could prefer auditory, vision, or kinesthetic. That's how we talked about it 20 years ago. What the research shows is that, no, our dominant sense is vision.
The great news for those of us who are focusing on the virtual classroom is that web conferencing is a visual medium. We need to create more compelling slides with compelling graphics, stronger visual communication. That's the way we leverage the principle that vision trumps all other senses.
When I work with people in the virtual classroom, oftentimes they have internalized the rule that you don't want to use a lot of PowerPoint slides—that it's more about you as the presenter and your learners. That advice doesn't work when you're in the virtual classroom because you need to capitalize on your slides to keep that visual sense alive and active. That's how you keep their attention.
And the final principles?
The fourth principle is "social learning fires mirror neurons." This is one of my favorites, because brain researchers used to think that a baby is more or less born a clean slate, and that over time they begin to notice faces and respond to emotional cues. The current thinking is that babies, within five minutes of their birth, are already studying the faces of their caregivers.
So, if you accept that we're wired to learn from each other—and there's considerable evidence of that as well—if we want to make a virtual classroom come alive, we've got to build social collaborative learning opportunities. I believe there's a reason why instructor-led collaborative learning has not been replaced by e-learning despite the predictions 20 years ago. When I say e-learning, I mean plug-and-play software experiences where you're sitting at a computer participating alone. Social learning fires mirror neurons—we want to learn with others.
The fifth principle is "no pain, no gain," which is another way to say that failure precedes success. This has always been tricky for trainers and it's tricky in the virtual classroom too, because no one likes to learn by failing publicly. The challenge for training professionals has always been to create learning environments where it's safe to fail. I call it the Goldilocks Rule—not too much failure, which shuts people down; not too little failure, which is boring because nothing is challenging; but just the right amount of failure, so you can prove to yourself that you need to pay attention and that you're about to learn something that's going to help you master a skill.
The sixth principle, I call "practice makes permanent." Notice it's not "practice makes perfect." The reason I talk about that in the virtual classroom is that too often we're afraid to challenge people to apply what's been learned. I think the mental model many people have is this is a forum for presenting and discussing information, but not applying it. In a blended design, you have to build in practice and application—and some of that can start in the virtual classroom.
What are the biggest stumbling blocks you see with facilitators just starting out in virtual instruction?
The first is the assumption that all you need to do is transfer a slide deck from the face-to-face classroom to the web conference platform and you're good to go. That doesn't work.
The other thing that doesn't work—it's slightly better, but it still doesn't work—is hanging on to activities that worked well in the face-to-face classroom and bringing them into the web environment. You really need to capitalize on the strengths of the web conferencing environment and leave behind any idea that you're going to deliver the content the same way as before.
But here's the real stumbling block: Facilitators often refuse to put themselves on camera.
They come up with all kinds of reasons why they shouldn't do it—my personal favorite right now is the false belief that having the facilitator on camera creates cognitive overload for participants. The theory is that watching the facilitator on camera while you're viewing the slide or participating in chat is too much for the learner. That is a silly justification for not being on camera. Guess what, I don't like seeing myself on camera either, but I'm doing it.
By being on camera, enthusiastic, smiling, encouraging them, you create that sense of emotional connection with people.
Where do you see talent development going in the next three to five years?
We're working in very interesting and disruptive times for our industry, where technology has continued to change. We're in the middle of the trend toward microlearning, so I see many organizations experimenting and trying to figure out how to harness the right technology in the service of learning. The positive news is that the learner is increasingly at the center of the learning journey. But we're also inundated with technology solutions with bells and whistles that might not be the best tools for the learning journey.
Something else that's happening right now in talent development is that we are conflating knowledge acquisition with skill development. There are many ways to access information, and it's useful to be able to access information at the moment of need. It makes total sense that if you want information, you can get it and digest it in small nuggets. But then what? Just because I know something doesn't mean that I can do something or that I want to do something.
As training professionals, we're not just curators of information. We're not just creating databases with nuggets of information that we're making accessible to people. We have to see ourselves as the designers and facilitators of compelling learning experiences. In the next three to five years, we have to figure this out: What is the role of the talent development professional in the learner's experience?
One of your areas of expertise is customer service training. Are there specifics that facilitators or instructional designers should be aware of?
Everything that's happening in the learner's experience is also happening with the client or the customer's experience. What may not be readily apparent is just how difficult it is to be an effective customer service provider today because we're seeing that, as Millennials and Generation X gain purchasing power, they are much more reliant on technology to get service than previous generations. So they check the website, download the app, research the frequently asked questions—they want to find their own answers.
They expect organizations to meet their information service needs electronically. By the time they have to fall back on contacting a customer service rep, they're probably irritated and frustrated. Customer service reps have to be really well trained, with strong communication skills and the ability to diffuse conflict.
If you look at my generation—I'm a Baby Boomer—and older, it's the opposite. The chances are good that someone of that generation is going to pick up the phone or drive to a physical location so they can talk to somebody. They want the customer service provider to be knowledgeable about all the organization's products, services, and processes. That's how they want to get their answers. I'm generalizing about this, but this is the dynamic that's happening.
What's interesting is that in many organizations the customer service role is an entry-level job. That's their most critical point of contact, to be the public face of their company. And you look at the generation that's taking those jobs and they're often technically savvy but interpersonally challenged. So, those folks are going into a critical job where the demands have, quite possibly, never been greater. It's a recipe for failure.
What projects are you currently working on that would be of interest to TD readers?
Well, we focus on helping clients succeed in virtual environments, so right now we're working with a major hotel chain that is revamping its onboarding process for customer service staff and their call centers for many of the reasons we just talked about. They are moving from face-to-face training to a blend of in-person and online-facilitated learning.
We also work with clients who want to develop the leadership skills of their managers who are leading remote teams—that trend is huge. We launched a virtual leader program last year and we're partnering with clients who are building skills like leading effective online meetings or managing performance across distance. As a company ourselves, we have become virtual over the past decade, so we're drinking our own Kool-Aid.
One more trend we're seeing is of Millennials stepping into their first leadership roles. We have a leadership program for those foundational management practices, so that's another project. We're working with a large regional bank that is building consistent management practices across all levels of leadership. I care about this because when I got my first management job, I learned it through trial and error—mostly error—so I have a soft spot in my heart for helping develop skills for emerging leaders.