Don’t teach the tool; teach the task

Don't teach your staff the parts of a hammer; teach them how to hit a nail.

Don’t teach your staff the parts of a hammer; teach them how to hit a nail.

The worst training sessions I’ve had to endure mostly consisted of the so-called trainer plodding through something — let’s say, a website stats tool — in a presentation that was more like an inventory than a lesson. Every button and every option was listed and explained. Two hours later, we students would emerge not much more enlightened than we went in, but definitely more confused.

The difficulty of learning much from a button-by-button plod is why most people don’t RTFM. The same approach doesn’t work any better in person.

One of my father’s standard stories was about how he didn’t get much out of his math classes in school. (He only went through the seventh grade before he had to leave to earn money for his family, but still had been introduced to the basic elements of geometry.) The teacher presented a lot of information, but it didn’t coalesce into anything for my dad.

One of the jobs he got, though, was as an assistant to a guy who was putting together ductwork. My dad watched as the man took flat sheets of tin, cut and folded them into square tubes. Simple enough. But when he had to make a turn, he cut arcs and bent and, like magic, the tube turned just right.

My dad, always curious, had to ask: How’d he do that?

“They taught you this in school, didn’t they?”

No, certainly not.

The man penciled some simple equations. “You know that, don’t you?”

My father looked down. That stuff meant something? You could do something useful with it? Geometry suddenly made a lot more sense.

That principle works with all kinds of training. So  how do you apply this to your newsroom?

A lot of the time, when I was asked to run some training, the request came down as something like “teach them Storify” or “teach them audio (which would be broken down into “teach them Audacity and these digital recorders”).” Requests like that can be doomed from the start.

When you’re planning training, talk about what you want the staff to be able to do at the end. Create an aggregation of social media reaction to news events? Record an interview, edit it down to a three-minute clip and post it on your website? Be as specific, and limited, as you can. The more focused your training, the better.

You’re not ready to train yet, though. Now that you know what tasks you’ll want your staff to learn, break those down into specific skills. Again, be as specific and limited as possible. Audacity has a lot of filters and can produce audio in many formats. Odds are, your staff doesn’t need to know how to use more than one or two basic filters, and can be given a recipe for a format that they only have to set once and forget. Your site stats tool may have dozens of different ways to slice the data, but which are most relevant to the people you’re training? If you’re talking to reporters, do they need to know anything about overall site stats, or just those that apply to their own stories? (That suggests another tip: If different people in your newsroom will need to learn different tasks, don’t try to teach all of them at once. Divide your classes so you can focus each one on specific tasks.)

I suspect that often training is something that gets assigned to a middle manager rather brusquely, or left to someone on the IT staff because, well, it’s software, isn’t it? If you’re stuck in that position, it is possible to decide on your own what the tasks are and then what specific skills are needed. It’s certainly easier to do that than to try to nail a busy boss down for a conversation about it.

But you then run a big risk. You can rack up many frustrating weeks training people in your newsroom to accomplish tasks with audio or video tools, only to have their editors tell them, say, not to waste their time doing things that don’t’t directly produce content for the print newspaper. Don’t train unless the newsroom bosses are committed to using the results. Talk before the training about exactly what the bosses want the staff to do and how they will work that into the existing workflow.

I made the mistake more than once of not pursuing those conversations, or of creating training that I thought was important without making sure my bosses shared that belief. It’s tempting, especially if you’re trying to push your newsroom forward from a middle-management position. If only everyone knew this stuff, you think, they’d push for its use no matter what.

Maybe that can work. But the more people you train, the greater the risk that the end result will not be a grassroots campaign to move the newsroom forward, but a lot of disenchanted staff who question the point of any training. If you want to subvert your bosses (for the greater good, of course), your best bet is to focus on a few individuals who you know have the chutzpah to override their editors’ lack of interest. Get a few people doing cool things, and then maybe the rest of the staff will get envious. That’s the groundswell you need.


  1. By Peter