Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

21 January 2009

More than words

Clark @ 2:00 PM

Monday was the US celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, and on Tuesday was the inauguration of the first African American president of the United States.  That’s an awesome juxtaposition; that’s change, baby!  I not only found it wonderful, but informative.

As background, I was highly trained to write in a very logical progression, choosing careful vocabulary, and in an objective manner. That’s a side-effect of graduate school and an academic career (one of my previous lives).  It mostly needs to be that way for scientific reasons, but for non-specialists, it’s way too dry.  I also read quite critically, serving on conference program and thesis committees, and on the editorial board for an academic journal. I have had some subsequent experience in writing more generally: for articles, for online learning, and even some marketing material.  And some formal training on speaking, for communicating.  I like to believe I’m not bad, but I always want to get better.

In that context, as I read the text of Martin Luther King’s speech as transcribed in my local newspaper, I was struck by what seemed outright florid prose: “seared in the flames of withering injustice”, “joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity”, etc.  If it was marketing, you’d pan it as over-the-top.  “This is a famous talk?”, I wondered.

Then yesterday I heard President Obama’s inauguration speech, and joined in on tweeting my favorite bits (“judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy”).  It was, quite simply, inspiring.  Afterward, a tweet pointed me to a blog comparing this inauguration speech with ex-President Bush’s farewell address.  This wasn’t a fair comparison (and he’s subsequently updated the post to compare the first inauguration speech of Bush with Obama’s, and it’s very interesting), but it caused me to go back and look at the talk transcript.

Once again, in print, we see what reads like slightly-purple prose: “rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace”, “gathering clouds and raging storms”.  It seems too much, when read, but when I pictured it as being spoken, it has a whole different effect.  That’s important.

Reading and listening are different, and we (should) write differently for each.  It’s difficult in elearning, when we are often required to have written transcripts of all audio.  We have to strike a balance in that instance. But we tend to overwrite; I can take pretty much any designer’s prose and hack 40% off (including my own first pass :).

So how can words that seem over the top on the page come across so sincere and important face-to-face?  It has to do with the delivery, the transparent sincerity and obvious passion.  And that’s the lesson.

For me, I have a personal passion for learning and technology to help individuals and organizations achieve their goals; it’s what I’m here to do.  I talk about putting emotion into learning, too, but I don’t practice it in my speaking as well as I could, and should.  I do use humor, but I need to put more passion into my speaking.  And, with the inspiration from yesterday, I will.

More broadly, however, is something I heard Lance Secretan say: “don’t just motivate, inspire”.  It’s something I try to bake into elearning introductions, inspiring interest in the coming materials. I don’t see it enough, and I think it can be ramped up more than we do.  The clients and the SMEs say that we can’t treat such material in this way, but I think the audiences prefer it.  It’s got to be authentic, but when it is, it’s amazing!

I find that people are most often in the learning field not by default, but by choice; they like creating a difference.  Despite the challenges to doing what you really believe is good work, you persevere, because it matters.  Tap into that passion, and let it show in your work.  Tap into the passions of others when you’re channeling a SME, and let that show.  To the SME, the topic is interesting, so find their passion and channel that, not just the knowledge.  It’s one of my tricks in learning design, and I hope it will become one of yours.  Here’s to better learning!


  1. It moved me in a similar way – immediately after watching it we went back and watched videos of W’s first inaugural speech, Kennedy’s, and then FDR’s first. Aside from loving the fact that we can do that so easily now, it was enlightening to compare what was said. Then we took a vote on what we thought would be the “Ask not what your country can do” line from that speech – you know, the one that 20 years from now everyone will claim to remember hearing because its been repeated so often in the meantime. I’d tell you what our guess was, but I don’t want to colour your thinking…

    Comment by Rob Moser — 21 January 2009 @ 2:10 PM

  2. Great post – you’ve got me inspired!! Passion is the key to success in everything in life.

    Comment by Nicole Fougere — 21 January 2009 @ 2:42 PM

  3. Nicole, great! Rob, what a wonderful idea; I’ve tweeted it, we’ll see what people say.

    Comment by Clark — 21 January 2009 @ 4:01 PM

  4. A speech like King’s or Obama’s had the dimension of sight and sound — and for those present in person, a kind of presence that we who experience it secondhand can only grasp dimly. Even if you were twelve blocks from the speaker, you were there with thousands of others, all of you by choice, and most of you in agreement from the outset.

    The passion in a learning opportunity needs to be one that the participants can share, and they’ll share what they believe in. My experience says they’ll share what makes sense to them, and that’s not usually “Amalgamated MegaCorp is great!” More like, “thinking smart can improve customer service.”

    Comment by Dave Ferguson — 21 January 2009 @ 4:07 PM

  5. Insightful, Dave. Agreed, it can’t be a trivial sentiment, it has to ring sincere and authentic to the audience.

    Comment by Clark — 21 January 2009 @ 4:44 PM

  6. Probably one of the most valuable (personally and eventually professionally) things I did in school was competitive debate and extemporaneous speaking. I think you’re absolutely right about the experience of it. The written word is far more filtered through the reader’s own thoughts and prejudices; oratory has additional avenues by which the speaker can sweep the audience up in his own passion.

    Comment by Breanna Hite — 21 January 2009 @ 9:42 PM

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