From writing workshops to cultural change — the importance of follow-through

Eleana Vesnina, photo by Yersinia Pestis via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I’ve conducted 18 clear writing workshops in the past two years — mostly by videoconference. It’s clear to me that the participants are engaged and want to change. But do the workshops actually accomplish anything lasting? They can . . . but only if you customize the content and maximize the follow-through.

I think this question applies, not just to my workshops, but to any sort of training a company engages in. People come together — in person or virtually — and try to learn something new, whether that’s a skill or a new way of interacting with each other. I’m not aware of any studies that attempt to determine whether such efforts are successful. But corporate change management efforts often fail — even in cases where there is clear benefit, such as in improving customer experience.

Here’s what I’ve learned about making workshops more relevant.

Increase the relevance of content

A generic workshop is far less likely to create change — especially in the area of improved writing. A bunch of general advice isn’t very likely to stick in the brains of the people taking the workshop.

To improve relevance, apply as many as possible of these techniques:

  • Customize the content mix. Most corporate training is the same content for all clients of the trainer. The reason is obvious: it’s very challenging for that trainer to come up with new content, and new content that hasn’t been tested won’t be as robust as what they’ve taught a dozen times. My compromise is to select content from a menu of selections and change the order to better fit the client’s priorities. For example, when a client hired me to focus on strategy memos, I created content on reports as stories and moved it to the front. This established the relevance of the workshop before I got into the mechanics of things like titles, brevity, and passive voice.
  • Focus on interactivity. No one can learn easily from three hours of being lectured at. My workshops are 25% interactive content — which could probably be higher. Unless you ask participants to apply what you’re teaching them, there’s no chance it will stick.
  • Use your client’s own content. All of the exercises in my workshops are based on writing samples from the client. Preparing those customized exercises is the most time-consuming part of my work, but it’s worth it. Customized exercises ensure that participants are struggling with and critiquing things that they and their colleagues wrote, not some generic example of bad writing. If they’re creating marketing emails, we analyze their marketing emails; if they’re writing blog posts, we deconstruct their blog posts. While the teaching elements of the workshop are based on the concepts in my book, this customization ensures that the exercises have maximum relevance for participants.

Follow through to maintain the lessons of the workshop

Workshops can help even if there is no follow up — if the people in the workshop adopt the language and principles they learned and apply them as they work with or edit each other. But over time, such lessons can fade. Here are a few tips to keep the content fresh.

  • Get management’s commitment to own and maintain the content. At one company, the leader of a large group of more than 100 staff provides regular feedback to his reports based on the principles in my workshop. He’s also had me back several times to train new staff added since the original workshop. This ensures that a consistent set of messages about writing remain part of the organization’s culture.
  • Customize follow-ups based on actual events and writing. At another large organization, the leaders of the group retained me to review new sets of writing samples on a regular basis. I’m generating a newsletter shared with the group every two weeks, addressing what I’ve observed in the material I reviewed and making recommendations. This allows me to focus on the timely needs that the organization has as those needs are revealed through their writing content, maximizing relevance.
  • Make experts available as resources. Ideally, there should be sages and editors within your organizations that people can go to for help. Formalizing their roles will help cement concepts like clearer writing within the organization. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia created an academic-style writing center that staffers could go to voluntarily for writing help. The result was measurable improvements in writing clarity.

There’s very little point in training that doesn’t stick. What are you doing to make sure your training has an actual impact?

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