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It’s simple.

I hear it all of the time.

“Today I have some simple tips…”

“This workshop will cover 5 simple strategies for…”

“Don’t worry! Today’s staff development is covering some pretty simple stuff.”

“It’s so simple you won’t even believe it.”

We start staff developments this way, we say it at the beginning of lessons in classrooms, we type it in workshop descriptions. Simple – Simple – Simple!

When I look up “simple” in the dictionary it is described with adjectives like “basic,” “uncomplicated,” “fundamental,” “straightforward.” When working with technology, these adjectives rarely apply. No two systems are truly identical, and no two users are ever the same. When we describe something as “simple” we are either being dishonest, or disregarding the levels of skill people are walking in the door with. No matter why we say it, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

I think I understand a number of reasons we might say it, but generally we are attempting to set the bar lower in order to de-stress an audience. No harm done, you might think. Think again! By claiming that what we are about to do is “simple” we are sending a message. That message will be decoded differently by people around the room, and as far as I can tell none of the implications are good.

Caging any topic or skill as “simple” is a lose/lose/lose proposition:

  1. The people in your audience with low tech skills just had a pang of fear flash down their spine. These skills might NOT be simple to them. In that case, they feel even worse about their abilities than they already did.
    “This is supposed to be SIMPLE? I have no idea how he is doing this!”
    If they are able to accomplish the task/skills, they may feel like “So what. This was just simple stuff, apparently.” They have been robbed of a feeling of success and empowerment.
  2. The people in your audience with relatively normal tech abilities will be able to follow along and complete the tasks/skills as you work through them, but will also not feel a sense of accomplishment because
    “This was easy, but it sounds like I should have already known how to do this.”
    Again, any emotional reaction short of success is a missed opportunity when you are working to change a mindset or culture.
  3. The people in your audience who feel confident in their abilities just tuned you out because they feel like they already know the simple stuff, even if they don’t or this is new content altogether. Worse yet, they might distract others in the room through their overt “Look at me, I don’t need to pay attention” behaviors.
    “Whatever, buddy. This is a waste of my time.”

With this in mind, how can we respect the various skill levels, and attempt to engage all learners? Here are a few variations on a theme I might try out at the start of my next workshop:

  • “Today we are going to do some things that may be new to some of you, while others may do this every day. If you have experience, please help me by keeping your eyes open for neighbors who may need a hand here or there, and we will learn as a community.”
  • “Some people would call the skills we are covering today “EASY”. Not me. Nothing is easy the first time you do it. Hopefully by the time we leave today everyone in the room will think of the things we are doing today as EASY, but it is OK if you don’t feel that way right now.”
  • “When you hear someone describe all of the things a tool can do, or watch someone like me who is experienced with this tool, you may feel overwhelmed. This is normal. We’ll start by watching, then tackle this one step at a time. Others may see me demonstrate these skills and remember how you felt the first time you tried it on your own. Once you have walked through this a time or two it will feel much less intimidating. Before this session ends, maybe we will have time to share some “pro tips” from people who have done this before. Most importantly, know that we have a number of resources that will support you once you leave here today. Some are online, some are on the phone, some may be sitting in the chair beside you.”

What are some other ways to lower the stress in the room without calling something “simple?” I’d love to hear your ideas!


Posted in My Thoughts, Tips & Tutorials.