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Developing the required talent. Part II. Training your audience

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2011. Developing the required talent, part 2: training your audience. Intercom April: 47-48.

In my previous article, I described recent research on how to master any set of skills, such as the communication skills an information designer needs. In the present article, I'll reframe that discussion to reveal how you can help your audience achieve comparable mastery in whatever skills you're teaching them to use. Let's start with a recap of the key points from that previous article. To excel at any skill requires deliberate practice, which has several key characteristics that distinguish it from mindless repetition. Deliberate practice must be designed to:

Each of these aspects has implications for how we can effectively teach our audience to perform well and possibly even to improve their performance over time.

Improve their performance

Whenever we perform audience analysis, one of the primary goals is always to learn what factors are most important to them. From an information design perspective, the key insights from that understanding relate to identifying the aspects of a problem that stop our audience from understanding what they must do and why and how they must do it. Based on that knowledge, we can identify  the types of information we must communicate and how to communicate it in such a way that we help our audience overcome their problems.

In the previous article, I noted the benefits of asking a coach or mentor to help us identify our flaws and recommend solutions to the resulting problems. As information designers, we take on the coach's role whenever we try to teach someone the best way to do something. Understanding the common ways that our audience fails and the ways that are most likely to help them succeed lets us create information that will help them to avoid the former and focus on the latter.

Make them stretch and stimulate thought

Most of our audience will eventually achieve basic competence with whatever skills we're teaching or information we're providing. But we want them to do better than that—to become as expert as they want to be, or at least as expert as their situation demands. To do so, we must find ways to make them stretch beyond basic competence. Several strategies help:

Most of us do a decent job of helping people follow a predefined path; far fewer of us devote significant effort to teaching our audience how to choose a path in the first place, how to stay on that path, and how to know when that path is no longer appropriate. We can't force our audience to do this work, so we must instead find ways to persuade them, and the best persuasion is the satisfaction (or reduction in frustration) that comes from understanding how to think about their tasks and approach those tasks with confidence.

Mastery requires intense concentration during practice, but few people have time, whether at work or elsewhere, to invest in the hours of daily practice that are required to excel. We can't force our audience to concentrate and we can't always give them enough time to do so, but we can help them focus what concentration they possess in the available time:

Neither strategies nor the knowledge required to use them effectively is sufficient by itself. Once our audience learns how to think through problems and has the knowledge they require to do so, many will begin to feel some excitement about what they're doing, and that excitement is what will make them pay more attention and concentrate on what they're doing.

Permit and encourage repetition

It's difficult to motivate our audience to practice what they've learned sufficiently long and intensively that they'll achieve mastery. Instead, we can find ways to raise their interest in working on those skills and gradually improving their skill level:

In my 2005 conference paper on improving one's editing efficiency, I described more than a dozen suggestions that had immediate and obvious payback. I had two goals in that paper: to help my readers free up enough time that they could spend more time on the really important tasks, and to provide them with enough of a reward from practicing those methods that they were encouraged to try learning more on their own. When I wrote my book on onscreen editing, I devoted several chapters to describing an implementation process that provided time and support for editors and their colleagues to learn onscreen editing.

In both cases, I never forgot that few of us work in isolation. When we describe a process or teach a skill, we must always account for the upstream and downstream components (i.e., other members of the team). For example, when we teach desktop publishing skills, we must remind students of the needs of the writers and the reviewers or editors who will supply them with publishable material, as well as the needs of the printer or Webmaster who will use what they produce to create final output.

Provide ongoing feedback

Help your audience find ways to compare their results with the desired results:

There are no shortcuts...

There are no shortcuts, but there are always ways to encourage the work that leads to mastery. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing provides an excellent example of how this might work. This software goes far beyond traditional "typing drill" software by monitoring each person's specific mistakes and generating customized exercises that encourage repetition focused on correcting those mistakes. In addition, the software provides progress reports that show your progress, and turns much of the repetition into games that provide motivation to stick with the task and keep trying to do better. Using the software, I improved my typing speed far more than would have been possible simply by spending more hours each day typing, and in less time. How could you emulate that support in your own work?

Additional reading

Colvin, G. 2010. Talent is over-rated. What really separates world-class performers from everybody else. Penguin Group, New York, NY. 234 p. + index.

Ericsson, K.A.; Charness, N.; Feltovich, P.J.; Hoffman, R.R. (eds.) 2006. The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 918 p.

Hart, G.J.S. 2005. Improving your editing efficiency: software skills, soft skills, and  survival skills. p. 364–369 in: Proceedings, STC 52nd Annual Conference, Seattle. Soc. Tech. Comm., Arlington, VA.

Hart, G. 2010. Effective onscreen editing: new tools for an old profession. 2nd ed. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. eBook and printed versions. <>


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