Grabbing Learner ATTENTION

Attention is the name of a song by Charlie Puth. Attention is the name of a marketing and PR agency in New York City. And, Attention is an extremely important aspect of the work we do in the learning field.


In fact, when you think about it, the work of learning professionals is complex. During every stage of bringing learning content to life we must wear several “hats” and add skills to make it all happen. For example, during the needs identification phase, we need to be able to speak the language of business and job performance. There might also be the need to speak the language of human resources, operations, sales, marketing, communications, finance, IT, and ???

In the design phase, we need not only to speak these various languages, we must also find ways of putting ourselves into the hearts and minds of the people who will be consuming the learning content we create. Not always an easy task. And, this is a skill that takes some time to develop.

During the development phase, we add another layer of complexity that involves using tools to bring the vision to life. We must also be adept project managers who keep an eye on the calendar and schedule, the budget, and sometimes personnel management, too.

The implementation and evaluation phases involve highly evolved relationship skill—both fostering them and maintaining them. And don’t forget the ability to curate, evaluate, and analyze data, too.

I know. It’s a lot. And, now I come along and ask you to add Attention to the list. What do I mean, by Attention? Let’s take a journey through Attention, together.

Pay Attention It is incumbent on us to pay attention through the entire process, from a preliminary conversation about a business or performance need to iteration 2.0. Paying attention is more than just listening. It is observing people in their work. It is reading body language and tone of everyone you encounter, because picking up clues is vital to the project being successful. The learning population, too.

Attract Attention No, no. Not in the way this reference usually means. Instead, the content you design and develop must immediately attract the learners’ Attention. The design must use color, words, contrast, and font selection in an interesting way. Note: Recent post on the 5-Second Rule in Learning Content Design here.

Keep Their Attention After attracting the learners’ Attention, the content must keep as much of the learners’ Attention as possible throughout. This is important for the learners to retain their learning at high levels. Attention activates the neural networks in our brains, which is a key aspect of retention. But how? Some of what comes next might be a bit controversial. I hope you’ll read with an open mind and resist the temptation to think things like, “we could never do that here”, “you don’t know what it is like, here”, and “but we have to use templates”. Ready? Stick with me to the end. Let’s go!

Title Slides Redux  As explained in my 5-Second Rule post, the title/first slide must grab attention and compel the learner to want to move ahead with the rest of the content. Really. If we don’t get this right, the rest of it barely matters.

Opening comments with introductions. Webinars, classroom training, and presentations are better without having spent the first several minutes on CV info, speakers’ experience with the subject matter, etc. What to do, instead? To grab the learners’ Attention:

  • Ask a provocative question about the topic. Do what you can to engage as many of those present, as possible.

  • Ask for individual responses from the learners on their experience with the subject matter.

  • Include the CV, biography, and experience info in the learner materials.

  • Begin with an activity that actively engages the learners immediately.

Learning Objectives Slides These things are the undead. Let’s find a way to kill them for good. There is no better way to interrupt--or lose, the learners’ Attention, than this. The place for learning objectives and expected outcomes is in the needs analysis report that outlines the learning strategy. Not as the beginning of the content that learners blow past anyway.

e-Learning Modules Need to Be a LOT Shorter 5-10 minutes per topic is often enough. Our learners are busy people too. The more we expect of them and their time, the less of their attention we are going to get. By skipping the non-learning content completely, their experience with the learning content will be richer and their attention won’t wander as often or for as long.   

  • Commit to not doing 30, 60, 120-minute modules anymore.

  • Commit to cutting out the fluff and focusing on one learning point or solution per module.

  • As with slides in a presentation, slides are free. Use as many as you need to craft as many brief modules as needed.

Open Time Upgrade ILT, webinars, and live presentations to include more open time for learners to ask questions and exploration. 

We all can use some more white space in our lives. Visual white space. Note: the visual white space doesn’t have to be the color white, it just needs to be open areas where the eye can rest before moving to the next area of engagement. And, brain white space, too. Because, we don’t learn when information is coming at us. We learn when the brain is resting and able to process and file details away.

The Corporate Template Dilemma Okay. It’s time to go there.

  • In my opinion, if the template is used at the front of the content and again at the end, it will probably be just fine to go without it in the middle.

  • Asking for permission invites more discussion than anyone has time for. Try making subtle changes as you go until the template is greatly reduced—or gone completely as time goes on.

  • Use the expected color palette and fonts in the overall design, but in ways that make sense. Buttons, images, navigation panes, etc.

  • When designing for our own employees, the logo doesn’t need to appear on every slide or page. It just doesn’t. Or, not as big as usually provided. Seriously. They already know where they work.

Quizzing Quizzes prove little, if anything at all. 

Sorry. I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble. SCORM is nice. And it is both useful and helpful to show completion data. However, when we craft content in a way to ensure that the learners pass the quiz or test, it really proves nothing, except they knew the content right then.

Quizzes not crafted as well as they could be insult learners’ intelligence. And they feel like a waste of their time. To be brutally honest, nothing like these two things to lose the learners’ attention—and never get it back.

Instead, ask learners to:

  • Complete a project

  • Solve a problem and report out

  • Address a work simulation

  • Develop a simulation that other learners might participate in

  • Come back after some time and discuss what they’ve encountered on the job and share best practices

Design Our design needs to be more interesting—really. I’m not here to put anyone's efforts down. Maybe you’re already rocking it. Okay, fine. But the rest of us are here, too busy, and too willing to go with what has “worked” in the past. Let’s just pinky swear to get re-inspired, re-engaged, and burst through the creativity blocks. Attention pays off big time.

Evaluate to Iterate  The learning design strategy must include a plan for capturing suggestions, edits, and changes—and a plan for periodic updates to the content. Ideally, this plan is readily available to the learning population and reacted to quickly. When the learner is aware that their suggestion has spurred action, they’ll pay even better attention going forward. And, isn’t this kind of the point?

Did I lose your attention through all of this? I hope not. I think our learners deserve the best we can give them—every time. I hope you do, too!

An interesting read on Attention in UX Design – Enjoy!

“Although the design is perceived by our senses (vision, touch, hearing), it is immediately processed by our brain. As designers, we have to understand how to create experiences that go hand in hand with how the human brain evaluates them. While being a designer, you have the power to control the human mind during and even beyond the interaction with the product.” 

Contact me today, to talk about options for your learning strategy and building stronger teams. I can't wait to talk with you!