When personalisation gets in the way of the message.

A few weeks ago, I had a very nice volunteer for a charity on my doorstep asking me to pledge a monthly donation. He was respectful of my time, seemed sincere and was friendly, starting out by asking my name (“Stephanie,” I said, as I always do) and then making sure to use my name. In. Every. Single. Sentence. Except, he didn’t use my name. He called me Steph, approximately every seven seconds for fifteen minutes. By the end of the conversation, all my good will towards him had evaporated.

Here’s the thing. Research shows one thing; experience tells me another.

Data shows that addressing someone by name gets results. This paper (brought to my attention by behavioural scientist Richard Shotton in his Copywriting Conference talk) gives examples of text message or email campaigns that saw increased response rates when the recipient’s name was included in the otherwise generic message.

We all develop strategies for noting information that may be relevant […] As certain names (like our own) take on significance for us, our attention is drawn to them quickly and effortlessly when they occur. At the same time, personalised messages make it easier for the recipient to imagine the costs or benefits of a particular action – in other words, ‘what this means for me’.

‘EAST: Four Simple Ways to Apply Behavioural Insights’ – The Behavioural Insights Team

And yet, hearing or seeing our name doesn’t always grab our attention in a positive way. Just ask anyone who’s ever been sternly full-named by a parent. Or Steve Howe spoke about the rise and fall of conversational copy, also at the Copywriting Conference, and cited surveys or webforms that (like my doorstep volunteer) use your name in every prompt for every field. It’s annoying and unnecessary, and it gets in the way of the actual message.

Personalisation is a big thing in L&D.

In fact, Don Taylor’s Global Sentiment Survey shows it is the big thing, topping the “what’s hot in workplace learning for the year ahead” tables for the past three years. So the research and the data is worth taking note of. Of course there is more to personalisation than simply using people’s names, but perhaps addressing communications around a new product or offering to each individual recipient would increase take-up, for instance.

But let’s make sure that, if we do this, we do it well.

  • Let’s use someone’s name where we really want to draw their attention and highlight the ‘what does this mean for me’ mentioned above, rather than just to prove we can remember or auto-populate their name more times than they’d ever want to hear it.
  • Let’s not create chatbots that require you to input your name at the start of the conversation, then indiscriminately regurgitate it in every subsequent question or response.
  • Let’s consider the frequency with which you can use someone’s name in speech in ‘real life’ before you start sounding insincere, a bit intense or even a little creepy, and use that as the guide.

And for goodness’ sake, if you make a point of asking someone’s name, at least make sure you use the name they give you!

Gathering and using voice of the customer data.

Last week I spent a brilliant day at the ProCopywriters Copywriting Conference, learning from some very clever and talented people. One of those people was Joanna Wiebe (@CopyHackers), who gave me more than one practical, actionable idea to do with understanding and designing for your audience.

Joanna spoke about using voice of the customer (VOC) data for conversion copywriting – but it’s relevant to us in L&D too! If you take one thing away from reading this, let it be this:

What our audiences are thinking about is not the same as what we think they are thinking about.

Joanna illustrated this beautifully and memorably with a reference to Mister Rogers, a North American kids’ TV personality. Instead of writing songs about animals or colours or numbers – as many of us might if challenged to write a song for pre-schoolers – he wrote songs like this one:

What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite? That’s a question that comes from a real child, not from an adult imagining what a child thinks about, worries about and needs support with. Mister Rogers didn’t diminish that question or bend it into something that fit his own agenda and preconceived notion of what children want to hear or sing about.

(I didn’t grow up watching Mister Rogers, but my daughters know and love Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, which is based on it. I can vouch for the fact these songs do stick in little minds and can be drawn on in emotionally-charged situations!)

This is relevant for L&D practitioners. We might not be writing marketing copy designed to ‘get the yes’ or focused on conversions. But we are trying to persuade, influence and change behaviours. Understanding and using the voice of the customer is integral to doing this successfully.

So how can we take a leaf out of Mister Rogers’ book?

First, we need to recognise that audience and client are not (usually) the same. Understand and consider how to address the business needs presented by your client, yes. But also establish who the audience is: who are the learners, the people who’ll be using your content?

Next, we need to get access to those people, or at least to what they’re saying. Here are some ways you could gather VOC data:

  • Interviews. This can be done face-to-face or over the phone; just make sure you record it if possible (or have an extra person there focused on taking detailed notes).
  • Focus groups. These can allow for richer discussions if run well, and you can incorporate information-gathering activities or exercises as well as more straightforward question-and-answer discussions.
  • Surveys and polls. This can work really well if you’re considering re-designing an existing website, resource or course – a few thoughtful questions before someone closes or clicks away can give you real insight into whether and how the existing content met their needs.
  • Support tickets or helpdesk calls. This came from Joanna, who often mines sales calls recordings. There could be a wealth of useful data in helpdesk records about what is tripping people up, frustrating them or just simply not working.
  • Scouring online reviews. Another absolute gem of an idea from Joanna is to see what people are saying about the topic elsewhere. See what’s in the Amazon reviews for related books on leadership development, or Google what people are saying about a company before designing an induction. This is an idea I’ll definitely be using in future.

In all cases, record or transcribe the data and then go back and review it, highlighting words and phrases that either are repeated time after time, or are really interesting and make you consider an angle you hadn’t before.

This is the voice of the customer. Use it!

The questions that keep coming up could be the titles of your pages or courses or resources. The complaints and frustrations that people have are the things your content needs to answer. The stories people tell form the basis of the scenarios you create.

However you gather it and whatever you do with it, VOC data will make sure your content resonates with the audience (especially if you use their actual words, talking to them in their voice) and is useful to them, articulating their concerns and solving their problems.

Markers of success.

A few months ago, I read an article that really resonated with me. I didn’t get a chance to share it then (since I last posted, I’ve relocated back to the UK from Bulgaria, and just weeks later I gave birth to my second daughter – so there’s been a lot going on!) but it’s crossed my mind several times since that first reading and I’ve finally had a chance to reflect on it and try and articulate why it struck such a chord for me.

The article encourages a more rounded and whole-life view of ambition and success than is probably the norm. It’s a piece that makes several points, so I won’t paraphrase it; instead, take a couple of minutes to read the original post here.

The author talks about ‘the most valuable take away from your career’ and it’s this part that leapt out at me and that has stuck in my mind since first reading. It got me thinking about the true milestones and achievements in my professional life; what I look back on with pride and fondness. I joined this industry as a new graduate in 2007 (in fact, it’s just occurred to me that it might have been a decade ago this very week that I started out at Saffron Interactive). If I look back over those ten years, there are certainly professional achievements that I’m proud of. Particular projects that I was the driving force on, an industry award, changes I helped to bring about, articles written, and so on. These are the things that are included on my CV and my LinkedIn page, and they’re the things that presumably will help me career-wise in the future.

But are they the only (or the most) important things?

If I look back over those same ten years with a slightly different perspective – not thinking primarily about what prospective employers or clients or colleagues might want to hear – a different set of achievements and notable experiences comes into focus. Here are a few examples:

  • In around 2009, I worked on a project with a subject matter expert based in North America. We didn’t meet during the project and we didn’t work together again, but we kept in occasional contact and when he visited London about four years later we managed to meet for breakfast. No work agenda, just putting faces to names and voices and catching up on life since that project we’d worked on together.
  • Likewise, I’ve remained in touch with several former suppliers and partners since leaving my last role to go on maternity leave, and some of them later met my daughter before we moved to Bulgaria. People who I met in a wholly professional context took time out of their day to meet me in a non-professional capacity, which I truly appreciate and don’t take lightly.
  • When I was shortlisted for an award in 2010, a client I’d led several projects for offered to come along and support me in the presentation stage. The award wasn’t related to any of the projects he was involved in; there was no direct gain for him. This show of support for me – and, again, this generosity of time – has really stuck in my memory.
  • Two of the three judges on the panel during that award submission presentation subsequently got in touch with me and offered advice and support. I’m very happy and, yes, proud that seven years later those relationships have not only sustained but evolved into friendships as well as professional connections.

The common thread through these examples is relationships. I put a lot into them. I truly value them and I foster them. I’m really proud that I can cite so many professional relationships that have endured and evolved, and I consider these to be markers of success just as much as the projects, awards and promotions.

I haven’t achieved this by following any strategy or employing particular techniques. I would say that I bring my whole self to work (I hesitated to use that phrase as it’s perhaps jargon-adjacent, shall we say, but I think it’s useful here). I’m authentic. I wear my heart on my sleeve (and I’m not by any means suggesting these are all model traits and behaviours!). I allow my colleagues sight lines into my personal life, in many cases I invite them into it, and I am interested in theirs should they be willing to share similar insights: I love learning more about who people are outside their role. I’m absolutely sure there are people who would raise an eyebrow at this but to me it feels quite natural and appropriate to – on certain occasions, in certain contexts – bridge the gap between my personal and professional lives (by bringing children along to informal meetings, for example). I also try very hard to always be nice. I’ve got a whole other post to write about this, but I truly believe that being nice has contributed hugely to those relationships that have endured beyond projects and jobs, and even through my extended hiatus from professional life.

For two-and-a-half years, I have been largely out of the loop and I can’t claim to have contributed or achieved much professionally of late. But I have been grateful and pleased to still be involved in conferences and events, and I have frequently said how lucky I am to be part of this community that is so supportive, inclusive and welcoming. While I do believe that to be the case, it also strikes me that perhaps it isn’t just luck; perhaps it also has a lot to do with the things I’ve been describing above.

This isn’t in any way intended as a ‘humble brag’ type post. I think it’s important we do celebrate the things we are proud of – whether they are things that we’ve done or things that we are – but that’s not really what this is about. This post is partly in recognition of, and by way of thanks to, those people (of whom there are many) who have accepted the changing nature of my relationship with them and the industry as a whole, and/or who have welcomed me back with open arms whenever I have raised my head above the parapet. It is partly an encouragement to others to consider whether a broader view of what success means in a career might be beneficial, going back to the article that prompted this post in the first place.

It’s also, I hope, a conversation starter. I would genuinely be so interested to know what other people think about this. About the pros and cons of being (or striving to be) nice versus other approaches to professional relationships and persona. About blurring the lines between personal and professional (which is not the same as being unable to separate the two to achieve good work/life balance). About what success and achievement does or should encompass. Please do start a conversation with me – here, on Twitter, in person, wherever!

Useful content fast with smartphones and Twitter.

Video isn’t as ‘hot’ a topic as it once was in learning circles (according to Don Taylor’s Global Sentiment Survey) in large part because it’s become business as usual. In some form, it’s surely part of the repertoire of every L&D team, provider, professional, by now?

But while it may be dropping down the rankings behind shiny new technologies and concepts, a hot topic it undeniably remains. Conferences still dedicate sessions to it, we still talk about it on Twitter… The conversation (along with expectations and opportunities) is evolving and expanding.

I recently wrote a post for the Elucidat blog with some ideas for using video in learning, whatever budget and technology is available to you. You can read that post in full here.

Today I came across a Twitter discussion that both echoes and illustrates some of what I wrote in that post. Nick Welch is a brilliant film-maker, full of technical tips and creative ideas. He challenged some of my former colleagues to share – via video – three top tips for using and creating video, and they did so: quickly (Gemma Critchley responded to the challenge within four hours), concisely (the videos last under a minute each) and at no cost (just using their mobile phones and a quiet spot wherever they happened to be).

Some things I love about this are:

  • Useful content being created and shared in a matter of minutes.
  • No scripting, no scheduling; just people sharing the benefit of their experience.
  • Practical tips delivered clearly and concisely trumping high production values.

And of course the content is also useful for anyone looking to develop their skills in this area. I especially love Gemma’s tip about inspiration.


I learnt a few things about memory during Learning Technologies last week. I also picked up some new tips for designing content to make it ‘sticky’ as well as having other strategies reconfirmed by both Stella Collins and Dr Julia Shaw.

Julia is a ‘memory hacker’ who specialises in the creation of false memories. She (for example) convinces people they have committed crimes that never even took place. That’s quite an unnerving thought… and perhaps not one that seems immediately relevant to what we do in L&D. On the other hand, knowing that memory is so vulnerable and that the neuron networks that form memories can pretty easily be broken, reshaped or augmented is useful to us because, for example, it could help us understand why someone persistently gets something wrong.

But what about what we can do to help people remember our content? As Julia said herself, it isn’t (at this level) rocket science; there are a lot of fairly simple things we can keep in mind when designing or delivering content to make it more likely to stick.

  • Be selective. We have a responsibility to filter all the information that could be included and identify what should be included. That’s not to say we should make those decisions in isolation; speaking to end users as well as the commissioning stakeholders and subject matter experts is a great way to whittle things down to the essentials.
  • Make use of external memory. When I was a teenager I knew a couple of dozen phone numbers by heart because I often needed them when making calls from public phone boxes to friends. These days, I think I only know three numbers; the rest are stored in my phone. Sometimes, knowing where information is located is as useful as (or more useful than) knowing the information itself. We need to be mindful of the distinction and design content accordingly.
  • Add colour. This doesn’t necessarily (but might, of course!) mean literally. But the brain likes the weird and wonderful. Find ways to turn basic information into more meaningful material, like using humour, shock, discomfort, surprise or delight.
  • Design multi-sensory experiences. I read one of my favourite books (The Host by Stephenie Meyer, don’t judge) for the first time at a point where I was commuting for almost three hours a day, and for some reason I had a playlist of only six songs that I listened to on repeat in the background as I read on the train. I can’t hear those songs now without being transported back to the world of The Host. And when I saw the film, it felt wrong to me to hear a different soundtrack set against the story. Think about ways to associate certain sounds, smells or sensations with your content; if that’s not possible, even consciously injecting multi-sensory language into it can make a difference.
  • Help people build memory palaces. The idea is that you give a type of memory a particular sense of place, or space. If you studied French at secondary school, you’ll have learnt about the group of verbs that use ‘etre’ as their auxiliary rather than ‘avoir’ in the perfect tense. You’ll probably have learnt those  14 verbs by rote via a mnemonic like Mrs Vandertramp? I did too, at school. But the mnemonic never really made it stick for me and I used a different technique that I’d learnt a couple of years previously in a different French club. We learnt the 14 verbs as a little rhyme that told a story of going to a house, falling over, dying, being reborn and entering the house…and so on. It’s a bit odd and a bit silly, but the verbs went in an order that let us build a story we could actually picture. That house is my memory palace for that information; since then I’ve studied French through university and lived in France, but I still remember those 14 verbs that way. So when designing content, think about opportunities to help people create memory palaces for themselves for certain types of information.

Some of these things, such as multi-sensory content being easier to remember, were covered by Stella (author of Neuroscience for Learning and Development) in her session on learning and the mind, too. Stella actually has a guide to self-directed learning which includes some more specific tips on how to make content multi-sensory, and I’ve included details of how to get that e-book at the end of this post. Stella’s session was more about how an individual can improve the chances of remembering things they learn than about how we can design content that will be remembered, but either way the additional tips she provided are useful:

  • Guesswork. Guessing something actually increases your chances of remembering it, whether you guessed correctly or not. (In a former instructional design role, we talked about ‘test then tell’ instead of ‘tell then test’, based on the same principle.) The key is to make sure you get the right answer soon after guessing.
  • Sleep. This one most of us know – sleep is critical for making memories and therefore for embedding learning longer-term. One thing I didn’t know is that, for motor skills especially, practising them in the evening before you sleep means you’re more likely to repeat the practice as you dream. Your body doesn’t respond but your mind is going through the same processes, so you’re essentially getting more practice while you sleep.
  • Reflection. Building in time to really think about what you’ve experienced and learnt is critical in embedding it in memory. This one is definitely relevant to content designers as well as individuals, as space and time for reflection is often overlooked in online experiences and sacrificed to other activities in live events.
  • Re-firing the neurons. To combat the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, you need to deliberately re-fire the initially fragile network that forms a new memory and you need to do this at intervals over an extended period of time. Again, Stella’s e-book on self-directed learning includes some tips about how exactly you can do this as an individual, some of which might also be useful for designers looking for ideas to build into their content.

As a final thought, both Stella and Julia made the important observation that memory isn’t about the past or nostalgia at all. The only reason we have it is to help us navigate the future, to predict what might happen, to improve future performance.

(Stellar Learning’s Guide to Self-Directed Learning can be downloaded for free until the end of March using the discount code LTECH00.)


A few years ago, my then-boss Nick Shackleton-Jones arranged for the team to spend two personal development days at RADA. It was mortifying. I can vividly remember how uncomfortable I felt lying on the floor doing breathing exercises amongst colleagues, how awkward I felt as we were asked to move around the room using a series of different walks, how ridiculous I felt when we had to ‘throw’ words ‘into the room’, and how self-conscious I felt walking into the middle of the room and standing in silence for a full minute with my colleagues staring at me and then appraising my entrance and first impressions.

But I also look back on those two days as one of the best development experiences I’ve had. Certainly one of the best formal development experiences. As well as all those excruciating activities, we role-played various business situations in front of the group in a kind of forum theatre approach. I’m not sure how much the breathing, word-throwing and walking activities helped me but the feedback and suggestions from the first impressions exercise and role plays had a huge impact on me. To the extent that when Nick asked a year later whether I thought we should go back, I was really supportive of the idea (although I may have threatened to resign if certain exercises were repeated!). And when we did go back, and were facilitated by the same actor, he commented on the change he saw in me from the year prior.

I think of this experience regularly, most recently during Nigel Paine‘s ‘leadership on the edge’ session at Learning Technologies. He talked of the role of discomfort in learning, or development more broadly, drawing on the more extreme examples of the Antarctica expedition he co-facilitated last year and his upcoming Peak District leadership programme. And the theme recurred in a later session, as Paul Binks described the hugely successful Premier Life programme he introduced at Kwik Fit. It may take place in a nice venue, probably with decent coffee and chocolate biscuits, but – for the mechanics and garage owners being asked to self-examine, share their feelings and, ultimately, reflect on the experience through some kind of performance – the discomfort is no less real than it may be for the people Nigel will soon be asking to abseil off a viaduct.

In all three examples – my RADA experience, Nigel’s physically demanding expeditions, and Paul’s personal development programme – the results have been extremely (perhaps surprisingly) positive. People leave these experiences understanding themselves better; in some cases they leave as changed people. The impact often extends beyond professional performance and into their personal lives.

What is it about discomfort that can be so transformative? And what are the necessary conditions for this to be the case? Here are some of my thoughts, albeit still only partly-formed:

  • Support is vital. Discomfort is one thing; danger is something different. That support takes different forms. During an Antarctic expedition, obviously people need to know beyond question that they have experts around to keep them safe. In more commonplace corporate events, people have to trust other attendees and the facilitators to keep things confidential, to listen without judgement, to be critical friends.
  • Anonymity can play a key role. Being asked to let down your defences, to share things that you might not normally share with colleagues, to push your boundaries and test out different behaviours: these things can be easier in the company of strangers. Of course, I went to RADA with the colleagues I worked with every day and the lack of anonymity didn’t stop it having that huge impact on me – but that group of people was a pretty special team and (tying into the point above) I trusted and felt supported by them.
  • There are different ways to draw value from these experiences. There are lessons that can be drawn explicitly from discomforting situations, such as teamwork techniques following a physical group challenges. There are the kinds of observations that I received from my colleagues at RADA, and the adjustments and techniques suggested to me as a result. But maybe just being pushed outside your comfort zone is itself developmentally valuable. Even without explicit lessons being drawn out of it, an experience that encourages and allows you to become vulnerable, to face a fear and get through to the other side, perhaps shifts your mindset to one that is more (or differently) open, more receptive to new ideas, more able to take a different perspective.

I’m interested in different ways we can incorporate discomfort into what we do. In particular in the context of online content, rather than the live, group situations described above. Can we confront people with unexpected images or stories to encourage that shift of perspective? Can we, even in this online context, find ways to encourage people to reflect deeply and honestly on themselves and their own behaviour and mindset? How else can we use discomfort to enable or enhance people’s development?