There’s a line from The X-Files that sums up how to approach different genres, formats, and modes of presentation. Scully, upon hearing that purple rain was witnessed at a crime scene, asks Mulder if she’s heard him right.
“Yeah,” he replies.
“Great album. Deeply flawed movie, though.”
An idea isn’t equally functional across all formats, just as Prince’s music was better as, well, music, and not cinema.
Mulder’s getting at the essential issue of choosing how to present content to make sure it comes out “great” instead of “deeply flawed.”
In training and development, the type of content you choose is extremely important.
Engagement and retention should be primary concerns, as you certainly don’t want to waste time and money on a session that attendees neither focus on nor remember.
How can you choose the most effective type of content for your information?
Should you prefer video?
A written manual?
Before we venture fully into recommendations, it’s worth noting that all content categories are useful. As Nikos Andriotis explains, “There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to training content—what works well for one course is often inappropriate for another.”
How about Gamification?
With this disclaimer in mind, let’s turn our attention toward content types. And let’s start with a bit of a wild card: games. Games are fun, and they keep learning from being a passive experience. This is no insignificant accomplishment, as passivity opens the door for distraction and makes information retention harder.
Based on how you design them, training games can also be a kind of practice. Andriotis emphasizes this as a great way to improve retention instead of lose it. Active participation with new skills also increases in-moment engagement, making the training session overall more effective.
The main disadvantage to games comes from their entertaining nature—don’t let them overtake your session. You don’t want participants expecting, and anxiously awaiting, the next game; you’ll lose engagement with the rest of your session, and retention of non-game elements will suffer.
Less exciting than games but still important…how about printed materials?
Let’s move on to printed materials, which boast several advantages for the trainer. Printed materials, like worksheets, how-to guides, and quizzes, are simple to create, and cheap to produce. They can be reviewed in perpetuity by the trainees who receive them. And they can printed over and over again should the need arise.
The danger of printed materials is that they don’t engage all audiences the same way. And some topics are better-suited to the written word than others. If you have a highly complicated or technical concept to train people on, giving them a large printed booklet and asking them to read it might not be the best way to go. They won’t have any active participation with the skills or their team. And the information will already seem dry when presented only as text.
What about infographics?
The visual storytelling possible with an infographic can radically increase engagement in your audience, which is often the main issue with training sessions. With just the right images reinforcing your information, you’ll see not only engagement but higher retention rates. And like text-only print materials, infographics can be produced cost-effectively and reproduced simply.
The downsides to an infographic aren’t so much tied to problems with the format, but to the advantages of other media that the infographic cannot replicate. Specifically, it cannot show motion, and it has no voiceover. This is not the “fault” of the infographic. But the lack of these elements does sometimes mean a different type of content would be better.
What type of content, you ask?
Bet you saw it coming: video!
Video is a widely-preferred medium, with people spending more time than ever watching videos throughout their day, and YouTube having been the second most popular search engine for several years now. Video has become, to quote John Leh, “a must-have for learning solutions of all types.”
Well-made video content is more than popular: it’s extremely useful in a training context. Even the driest of subjects can be made into an engaging story with video. The synchronization of a voiced script with accompanying images creates six times more retention of information than audio-only messages. And it enables nearly twice the retention of visual-only messages.
There are also numerous other reasons video matters in a training context.
- t can potentially be evergreen, meaning the one-time production cost will result in lastingly reusable content.
- It can be watched anywhere, so refreshers are a non-issue.
- And producing video internally can even be a chance for collaboration and useful review of materials before creation.
If there’s a downside to video, it’s small, and similar to that of the game: since it is so engaging, audiences might expect more video, or only video, and struggle to be equally engaged by the rest of the presentation. This simply takes some session planning to avoid.
As we established earlier, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to training content. Making a training video doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished all of your goals and don’t need to concern yourself any further—no content type can ensure that.
That being said, we know why content type matters: engagement, retention rates, reusability, and budget are a few of the reasons to spend serious time deciding how to present your training materials.
And, to be fair, video does have a bit of an advantage, across the board. It’s not a cure-all, but it is preferred by a colossal segment of our population, promotes engagement and retention rates through well-utilized design principles, and remains useful over long periods of time.
What kind of audience will be in your next training session? Can you anticipate their preferred form of content? What kinds of strategies do you already have in place to secure engagement and increase retention of your message? Do you think that video is the best way to go, or do you have a reason to prefer another kind of content?