What are you signaling with your training?

Good instructional designers create useful and enjoyable training programs. But the great ones craft experiences people want to embrace as well. They do this in many ways, one of which is drawing on a variety of disciplines to better understand how their learners think.

So what is signaling?

Signaling is an economic concept that explains one of the ways we all communicate. Consider the challenge of finding the right candidate for a job opening. Obviously all of the candidates will profess to be the best choice. So how’s a humble job seeker going to show she’s the one? Effective signaling.

Earning a relevant certification or degree is one way. Taking care to craft and maintain a professional online persona is another. Even small things like arriving on time, dressing appropriately, and being prepared are signals too.

So how’s this figure into great learning programs? Everyone claims their learning is important and that it’ll help you. So that’s not going to do the trick. What we need goes beyond explaining why, it’s more about how you do it. Remember, anyone can explain the why, even if their heart isn’t in it.

We need something that is difficult or even impossible for lazy designers to duplicate with a large staff or big budget. What’s needed is a way of showing the care that was put into the training and that doesn’t always require advanced artistic skills (we’re writing a book on How to Make Your Content More Visual, click here to learn more).

What we need are signals learners will intuitively pick up on and the signals you choose will depend on your audience. The most effective signals will go beyond the basics like a program free of mistakes and professing enthusiasm for your work. Not doing these would be examples of mixed signals everyone should avoid.

Some examples:

  • If the visual design is clear and uncluttered, you’re signaling that this won’t be hard to learn.

  • A training designed to have the trainer do all of the talking signals that you don’t respect the audience’s intelligence enough to invite input.

  • Activities that aren’t a good fit for your audience signals you didn’t do enough research or understand their needs.

  • Materials that are too simplistic or too complex for your audience could signal a variety of things about you and none of them are good.

  • And then there’s the accidents that happen to the best of us, like arriving late, without enough materials to a training, or encountering technical difficulties. Unfortunately, that’s sending signals too.

So next time you start a project–big or small–don’t forget to ask yourself, “What am I signaling here.”


Interested in learning how you can use the power of story to design your training experience? Sign up to receive the latest articles and exclusive updates for an upcoming book on the topic.