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How do we squeeze all of our content in when time is limited?

A few weeks ago, I was preparing to deliver a 60-minute workshop revolving around the concepts from my book, What’s Your Formula? My challenge, which is probably a variation of an issue many of you have run in to as well, was: how do I cover all the things from a 200-page book in 60 minutes… and leave time for interactions, activities and Q&A?

As I stared at my screen, preparing to write a lesson plan, an idea came to me. I thought it was brilliant. When I went to test my idea in a practice session with some colleagues in advance of the real session, I received feedback that helped me to feel I was actually going to cover everything I needed to in the one hour I was allotted for my session.

The Problem

For me, I was trying to squeeze 200 pages of content into 60 minutes. For you, perhaps you’re trying to appease a subject matter expert who feels everything is important to cover, perhaps you’ve been given a slide deck and need to figure out how to cover it all in the time allotted, or perhaps you just have really important material that you feel people should be exposed to but you’re not sure how to do it all.

Where to Begin

Of course, before we get to the activity that I chose to help me cover a whole lot more content than I would have been able to cover had I simply lectured for an hour, we need to begin with the fundamentals. More specifically, we need to begin with what the learners should be able to do new or differently or better – the learning objectives.

Any time you need some help getting an SME (or simply getting your own brain) to separate the “need to know” from the “nice to know”, I find it helpful to complete the following sentence: By the end of this session, learners will be able to…

For me, as I thought about what was both most important and realistic for the learners to take away from my session about my book, I decided that a key learning objective would be for the learners to be able to decide how to combine different kinds of learning elements to generate innovative yet simple training solutions.

There was just one small issue with this.

My learners may not have been familiar with each specific element to know which ones they had the option of using and combining, and I didn’t have time to talk about all 51 elements and to do an activity too.

My Alternative to Lecture

It’s so tempting to just want to tell the learners what I feel they need to know, and then to move into the activity. In this case, even if I were to only spend a minute on each element in the book, my session would basically be over.

During a practice session with my colleagues, someone suggested that I have my learners discover the elements when they walked into the room and were waiting for my session to begin. In order to do this, I needed two things:

  1. I needed some sort of vehicle that the learners would be curious about and would want to interact with prior to the session beginning, and
  2. I needed to make sure people had some instructions on what to do when they walked into the room, even if they were early and weren’t expecting to be asked to learn something until the official session start time.

The “vehicle” I chose to encourage the learners to interact with my content turned out to be a deck of playing cards that I had printed, with a different element on each playing card.

Card FU

While I stood at the door to welcome participants who arrived early, I couldn’t catch everyone, and so I also had this slide projected at the front of the room to help ensure my participants began getting familiar with the various elements:

Instructions Slide

I didn’t just want my participants to flip through the deck of cards and glance at each of the elements. I needed to ask them to do something with this deck. This is why I asked the participants to be ready to identify the three elements they could use most often in their training. In order to complete this task, participants would need to think critically about each card they flipped through, and couldn’t mindlessly flip through the deck.

After giving participants a high-level overview of the elements, I asked them to work in groups and decide which elements they would string together to address a business challenge I gave them in the form of a case study. This activity again forced the participants to think critically about each element, discuss the various elements with others in their small groups and decide which elements they would ultimately use.

Through the opening activity and then this small group discussion/case study, the participants thought about and discussed the elements in much more depth that I ever could have done had I simply lectured for the entire hour.

What happens if you can’t always print custom playing card decks?

I’m fortunate to work for an organization that was excited to promote certain concepts and was willing to spend money on custom decks of playing cards. Of course, you don’t need custom playing cards to present a lot of content in a limited amount of time. My key points from this post are:

  • You don’t always need to lecture. In fact, as tempting as it can be to just tell the learners what you feel they should know, it lecture may not even be the most efficient way to squeeze in all of your content.
  • If possible, you can “stretch” the amount of time you’re allotted by using a messy start activity – that is, an activity designed to get participants thinking about your content before the official start time of your session.
  • Don’t just give your participants your content – whether via lecture, in a handout or through some other method in which learners are asked to review your content. Give them a challenge so that they have to think critically and really pay attention to key concepts.
  • Offering an opportunity for participants to talk with others in a small group setting about your content can further help critical thinking about your content. When someone needs to say things out loud and discuss your concepts and content with their peers, they are forced to take more active control over their learning. This is also where good questions about your content may arise, questions that may not always come up if someone is simply sitting and listening to you lecture.

Have you found other ways to present your content in a short amount of time without needing to lecture? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comment section.

Think it could be fun to inject creative thinking like this into the design of your next training program – whether instructor-led or elearning? Drop me a line (, I’d be happy to kick some ideas around with you and brainstorm. If you need an extra set of hands putting together a training program, our team at Endurance Learning would love to partner up with you – drop us a line!

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Want to learn more about how to effectively craft a story for learning purposes, how to combine learning elements for better training design, how to troubleshoot common training problems and how to engage learners to share what they’ve learned? Next week, ATD Puget Sound has arranged a series of speakers and authors to talk about all of these topics during Employee Learning Week. You don’t need to be a member of ATDps to attend, you just need to be interested in the topics! Here is a link for more information and to register.

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