There are so many different things competing for our attention that we have to invest our time wisely.

Illustration by Jorg Von Reppert-Bismarck, in “Reading Into The Picture” by Edward James, Duckworth 1932

When you study creative writing, you learn that the best stories have something called “narrative traction”.  This is the way the story pulls the reader in, posing questions that need answering and creating dramatic situations that the characters react to.  In a successful story the reader is willingly led along a journey towards a resolution that feels both inevitable and yet surprising.  Powerful stories deepen our understanding of the human experience and teach us something about ourselves.  We emerge changed for the better.

When it comes to training adults, it’s too easy forget this.  Whether it’s a new framework we want people to learn, or a new behaviour we want colleagues to adopt, too often we assume that all we need to do is tell them about it – and they will change.  One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned in my years of designing adult learning journeys is that it’s not enough to write a good toolkit and hope people will read it.    To misquote Field of Dreams, if you build it – they will not necessarily come.  People don’t read anything anymore.  And they don’t often listen either.  Are you still reading this paragraph?  Good – just checking!

Why don’t we read anything anymore?  Too much information, too little time and change fatigue have led to low motivation levels.  It doesn’t matter whether a new toolkit is brilliant or if a new framework is going to make you better at your job – none of us have any attention left to invest.  We talk about “paying attention”, and it’s more difficult than ever to do so.  There are so many different things competing with our limited attention that we have to invest our attention wisely.

Businesses today face a tsunami of learning needs, but we are seeing traditional training and online learning are falling well short.  In a recent McKinsey study, 87% of executives said they were experiencing skill gaps in their workforce, 70% of employees say they don’t have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs and 41% of the global workforce are considering handing in their resignation.  However, Harvard Business Review says that 75% of 1500 managers surveyed from 50 organizations were dissatisfied with their company’s Learning & Development, function with only 12% of employees applying new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs; and only 25% believing that training measurably improved performance.

I’m sure you will agree with me – every adult learning journey seeks to create behaviour change – but you will also admit that we are creatures of habit and behaviour change is hard.  If we are going to change people’s behaviour, first we need to change how they feel.  We have to draw them in, tempt them, surprise them, entertain them, delight them.  We have to simplify it for them.  And we have to earn people’s attention to do all of that. 

At the Global Education Summit in 2021, Seth Godin said “Gamification will continue to play an increasing role in how education will adapt in the future’.  We have to gamify learning, we have to entertain our learners.  To combat attention deficit, provide learning in bite-sized chunks.  To draw people in, use visually powerful materials like infographics, films and animations.  For entertainment, encourage peer cohorts, a sense of a shared experience.  To gamefy, use quizzes, competitions and develop skills in teams.  And to cut through, boil down to the bare essence of the learning message, and then allow people to pull themselves along the learning journey because they want to understand more.

In today’s competitive corporate environment, almost every company has access to the same information but it’s how that information is brought to life, actioned and applied that ultimately makes all the difference to performance, whether as individuals, teams or at a company-wide level.  The same goes for adult learning.  We can teach people new frameworks, approaches or toolkits, but it’s how we bring them to life that will make them memorable and behaviour changing.

Learning journeys for adults need to create a sense of narrative traction, engaging you on a journey from the start and pulling you along, keeping you motivated through the whole narrative arc until you reach the end. And like any good story, you reach the end, still yourself, but also somehow changed for the better.

First published by Unleashed in March 2022