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Instructional Design Lessons from Saturday’s Powerball Drawing

I did not win $590.5 million on Saturday night.  And I’m still a little bitter about this fact.  The silver lining is that in buying a bunch of tickets and not winning, I found a metaphor for instructional design.  Perhaps you’ll be able to relate.

At 4:03pm Pacific time, I realized I had not yet purchased my tickets for the Powerball drawing, and as the saying goes, you can’t win if you don’t play.  I dropped everything and ran to the nearest store.

At 4:10pm Pacific time, I asked the clerk at the store for 10 tickets.  The clerk gave me 5 tickets and charged me $10.  At first I was relieved.  I had planned to drop $20 on tickets, which is why I asked for 10 tickets.  Now I only had to spend $10 on this quixotic adventure.  But then I had second thoughts.  An extra five tickets would give me five more chances at the jackpot.  I told the clerk I wanted 5 more tickets.

At 9:41pm I had a chance to check my numbers.  I was feeling wealthier already.  I pulled out my tickets.  I went to  And I realized I didn’t win.  I didn’t win the $590.5 million jackpot.  I didn’t win $100,000.  I didn’t win $100.  I didn’t even win $7.  I didn’t win.  I felt empty.  I wondered what would have happened if I had just coughed up $10 more.  Maybe another 5 tickets of randomly generated numbers from the computer would have done the trick.  Or maybe I should have shelled out an extra $20 and picked my own numbers.

Of course, they say the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot don’t really go up very much if you buy an extra $20 worth of tickets.  Or even $40 worth of tickets.  And this fact reminds me a lot about what is so hard about good instructional design.

I’ve helped a lot of people put together presentations over the past several years. Colleagues who have been given 15 minutes to present.  Clients who are putting together a 3-day training workshop.  And every single presentation, regardless of length, always has more content than is possible to squeeze in to the time allotted.

“What happens if I just cut 15 minutes here and 10 minutes there… do you think I can squeeze in that one extra topic?”  “How about instead of spending so much time with the interactive components, why don’t I just tell them what they need to know? That way I’ll be able to squeeze more in.”  These are logical questions and comments, but they’re also not sound instructional strategies if you want to engage your audience and have them remember (or want to use) what you’ve presented.

Just like I could always buy more lottery tickets, presenters could always squeeze more content into their presentations. Just like nobody will ever be able to buy enough tickets to guarantee they’d have the winning lottery numbers, no presenter will ever be able to cover everything about a topic in their presentation.

Alex Rister posted this video on her Creating Communication blog several weeks back.

I truly appreciate the only three things that speaker suggests are important for your audience to walk away thinking:

  1. I didn’t know that
  2. I’m glad I do now
  3. I’d like to know more

Just like no amount of Powerball tickets are going to really make me rich, no amount of content that you put into a presentation will make your audience an expert.  Developing expertise goes beyond the training room.  As an instructional designer and presenter, the main question is: how will you get your audience to say: “I didn’t know that… I’m glad I do now… I’d like to know more”?

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow”!  And now you can find sporadic, 140-character messages from me on Twitter @flipchartguy.

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