Have you ever been asked to “just tweak the PowerPoint slides” and call it elearning? How did you respond?
The original PowerPoint slides
I got a call from a prospective client. She and I spoke briefly once when she was looking for a pool of instructional designers to call on for specific projects, but we haven’t worked together yet. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s never worked with any instructional designers before.
“Hi, Christy, it’s Lynn. I need some help finishing up an elearning course. The PowerPoint slides just need to be tweaked—editing the onscreen text, adding some animation, prepping the script for voice over recording, and syncing everything together. Are you available?”
“Your timing is good, Lynn. I’m just wrapping up some other projects and have some time now. Tell me some more about this project,” I responded.
Lynn explained, “It’s about 200 slides. Here, let me email them to you now so you can take a look. The content is basically finished, and it just needs some polish. Can you do that?”
“OK, I’m looking over the slides now.” Some parts of the presentation have good visuals, but large sections are text obviously copied word-for-word from the employee handbook. Often, the same text is in the voice over notes as on screen. The slides contain no practice activities or assessments.
Shifting the conversation
I asked, “Is this a face-to-face course that you want to convert to online?”
She responded, “Yes, this used to be taught in a classroom. It’s part of the new employee orientation. We have a lot of new employees coming in, and we don’t always have a trainer available. Frankly, some of the trainers are better than others. We want to make sure everyone has the same experience. I had the best trainer write the script out in the slide notes for the narration so it would be just like what he teaches in class.”
“Well, I could do proofreading and animation to just tweak the slides, but I’m not sure that would be really effective. I don’t know what your budget is, but I think this course could benefit from some actual analysis and instructional design.”
Identifying the need
Lynn sounded confused. “What do you mean by ‘actual analysis and instructional design’?”
“As an instructional designer, I don’t usually do projects where I’m just brought on at the end to tweak slides. I’m typically brought on board shortly after a client decides, ‘We need a course!’ Starting right from the beginning, I work with you to analyze the need, design the instruction, develop the multimedia, and manage the project until launch.
I’d start with a kick-off call with you to find out your needs. We talk about what business problem we’re trying to solve. Needing a course isn’t a true business problem, so I work to uncover WHY you decided you need a course. For example, for an orientation like this, I’d want to know what’s working and not working in your current orientation. What do people leave orientation and still have problems with? What questions keep coming up over and over to HR?”
Lynn replied, “There are tons of questions with the benefits plan. People just don’t understand it, even after they read the handbook. HR ends up spending a lot of time walking people through all the options.”
“If people don’t understand it right now from reading the handbook, do you think they’ll understand it any better by having someone read it to them?”
“Hmm. I guess not.”
Showing the value
I continued, “Right now, you would probably get about the same results from having your new employees read the handbook on their own and take a quiz afterward. The slides are basically a pretty version of your handbook. Reading the handbook and taking a quiz wouldn’t only be cheaper to develop; it would be faster for employees to complete. People read faster than they can listen to voice over, so they can consume the same amount of content in less time by reading the document rather than watching and listening to the same thing online.”
Lynn said, “I see your point. But we don’t really have the budget to do a course from scratch.”
“You know, you probably will spend more upfront to do analysis and develop a more effective course. However, the final orientation would probably be half its current length because it would be focused on what employees need on day one to get started. That means employees would spend less time in orientation and be ready to do real work faster. We could also focus on the problems you really need to solve. If we can reduce the number of questions and problems HR has to deal with, we can free them up to do other work. That can save your company money in the long run even though the initial costs are higher,” I said.
Lynn paused to consider. “You know, I might be able to justify that. Cutting down the time for new employees to get up and running is a big deal right now. If we can help with that, I might be able to find some more budget. I need to talk to HR some more to find out if they have any other issues with new employees. Honestly, I really thought instructional designers just did a little multimedia work at the end of the process. I didn’t realize you did so much.”
Closing the conversation
I explained, “Instructional design is more about being a partner to help you solve problems than just making slides pretty. You asked me to be a handyman and touch up some peeling paint, but I’m really an architect who can design you a house that better meets your needs.”
“Let me work on the budget and get back to you in a few days so we can talk about scope, OK? I’m not sure I can get enough to do everything you’d usually design, but maybe we can get something to address some specific problems.”
“Sound good. I’ll look forward to hearing from you soon.”
Based on real experiences
This conversation is fictionalized, but it’s based on several real experiences. Admittedly, not all of them turned out as well as this version. How do you handle it when someone asks you to just “tweak the PowerPoint slides”? How do you shift the conversation from just being an order taker to doing real instructional design work or performance consulting?
I wrote a similar fictionalized conversation with a client in Selling Storytelling in Learning. You can practice using a client screening process that helps lead to more productive conversations in my example Branching Scenario in Storyline.
Originally published 2/19/2015. Updated 3/30/2021.