If you want to be thought of as a leading-edge trainer, you have to stay current.
By Gail Dutton
When physicist Michio Kaku begins each segment of his hit TV show, Sci Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible,
he starts with a reference point that is familiar to his audience of science and science fiction fans—a Star Wars
light saber or a Star Trek
transporter beam, for example—and then explains, step by step, what is necessary to make that reference point a reality.
The show’s goal isn’t to train people to build a light saber, of course. The goal is to make science approachable, exciting, and even understandable to a general audience. To do this, Kaku uses the gee-whiz technologies that make science fiction fun, as hooks for discussions that include classical and quantum physics.
Corporate trainers know to use a similar process in their presentation, to make the information as accessible as possible. The challenge comes in identifying the right touchpoints.
Consider the Mindset List
When training outside one’s culture, it’s obvious that certain assumptions no longer apply. That lesson is less obvious when working with a home-grown audience. But even within a society, the cultural touchpoints depend upon the audience’s age and geography. “We assume we have the same cultural references,” says Tom McBride, Ph.D., Keefer professor of humanities at Beloit College, but that isn’t really true.
Beloit College emphasizes this with its Mindset List (http://www.beloit.edu/mindset/2014.php). Released each autumn, the most recent Mindset List points out, for example, that students graduating in 2014 don’t necessarily recognize that tapping your wrist is a signal to check the time because most use their cell phone rather than a watch. For this group, cursive is becoming irrelevant; there has always been free trade between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada; and the luxury car of choice has always been foreign. For this generation, the analogy of “a Cadillac health plan” is meaningless. What other analogies have become standard that no longer resonate in today’s world?
For example, as business futurist Joyce Gioia, president and CEO of The Herman Group, elaborates: “Baby Boomers count the McCarthy hearings, the Kennedy assignations, the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech among their cultural markers. The Millennials (born between 1986 and 2000) count the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, The Iraq War, the Indonesian tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina among their markers. These were the events that occurred during their most impressionable years, so they are the events that color their world view.”
“Context matters,” emphasizes Brian Hoey, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Marshall University. He’s talking about the shared values that help define a group. The values may be based around age or geography or profession, but group members share certain experiences and perceptions that affect their understanding of the world.
Dr. Hoey is working with local health-care providers in West Virginia to help them improve family and community health. “They think, ‘Science is science, and culture doesn’t matter,’” he says. Yet, “How you frame what you say matters, particularly in dealing with compliance in chronic conditions.”
The challenge for his audience goes beyond simply exchanging medical terms for commonly understood words. The objective, Dr. Hoey stresses, is to understand where the patients themselves are coming from. He advises his audience of health-care professionals to take histories that go beyond bare medical aspects to include concerns and circumstances. “Talk with people.”
Know Your Audience
That’s good advice for trainers, too, Dr. Hoey adds. “Learn what’s important to the audience, what’s at stake, and who the stakeholders are,” he says. Gioia does this by interviewing her audiences about their greatest challenges and opportunities. She analyzes that information in terms of their cultural markers and fine-tunes the presentation to that audience, on the fly.
“You have to consider your audience. You have to know who they are and speak their language, at their level,” Gioia insists. That includes tapping into relevant cultural references, too.
Millennials and Gen Xers were shaped by different events than the Baby Boomers. Acknowledge how those experiences shaped their world views and work with those perceptions. “It’s ridiculous for an older person to try to be young,” Dr. McBride says, “but they should make themselves aware of their audience’s cultural touchstones” and use that awareness as they choose anecdotes and illustrations.
For example, “We all respond well to stories, but Millennials expect them,” notes Tod Maffin, senior strategist and COO, tMedia Strategies. “They’re a story-driven culture.” Nonetheless, a story about how a business recovered from the .com crash a decade ago isn’t relevant to people facing today’s recession, Gioia says. “It’s old news.”
However, people do learn based upon what they already know, Dr. McBride points out. Unfortunately, what they know isn’t necessarily what they should know. Rather than base training materials upon what they should know, Gioia says, “use what you feel will be valuable for them to know based on what’s going on in their lives.”
“If you want to be thought of as a leading-edge trainer, you have to stay current,” she adds. That means knowing popular culture, as well as being familiar with relevant studies and surveys. Read publications and get on people’s e-mail lists, she suggests.
Maffin also advises keeping a narrow focus in mixed presentations. For example, rather than hosting a class on using social media, he suggests focusing the message more tightly. “Reaching influencers using Twitter,” he says, would be better because it provides very specific information. “The mix of ages creates an instant mentoring that flows among the age groups.”
5 Tips for Cultural Relevance
Develop your own Mindset List for the Baby Boomers, GenXers, and Millennials, identifying the technology and culture they grew up with. (To Boomers, a Leave It to Beaver lifestyle was normal. Gen Xers doubt life was ever that simple.)
Recognize how the pivotal events shaped their perspectives. (Is Russia considered the evil empire or an economic opportunity?)
Pay attention to pop culture, politics, and world events.
Update material from the perspective of your audience’s life experiences. (Lexus trumps Cadillac in the analogy for luxury.)
Use current references. (Today, Fergie is a pop star, not a princess.)