Writing is easy. Your character has a problem. When the problem is solved, the story is over.
– Ben Bova
Ben was a friend and a mentor to me many years ago. He’s a world famous writer. You might not have heard of him if you are not a science fiction fan. He’s brilliant.
Think about your favorite story. Harry Potter, or Percy Jackson. In the Harry Potter series, for example, each book sees Harry, Ron and Hermoine confronted with a new problem. Once the problem is over, so is the book. Of course, JK Rowling also wrapped the entire series into a bigger story. Harry must defeat Voltamort. Once he does, the story is pretty much over.
I don’t write fiction stories. (Well, not that get published.) But, I did spend a good portion of my career writing training courses for Microsoft. As I thought about his simplified version of the basics of a story, I realized his advice didn’t just cover stories. It was a great explanation for training materials.
At one point at Microsoft, we hired a new manager. She came from a traditional corporate background. (Something Microsoft was not known for.) She thought it was a good idea to have our team create a mission statement. I have to say we didn’t take it very seriously. In fact, after an entire hour the best we came up with was,
We’ll learn ya.
To us, our team wasn’t about grand designs, or complex strategies. We were a bunch of instructional designers. We wrote training materials. And we were pretty good at it.
We wrote two types of training. We wrote new-to-product training that had to cover every feature. Have you ever looked at every option in Windows? Or Outlook? The training was affectionately called the Powerpoint slog. At least I think that’s what it was called. I’ve blocked a lot of it out. It was boring to write and boring to teach.
But, there was a second type of training. It was unoriginally called Advanced Topics. And it was written to solve a specific question,
How to read network traces
The course was three days long and focused on how to decypher those 0-9, A-F characters that computers use to talk to each other.
Sounds exciting right?
No, students didn’t think so either. At least not at the start of the class. By the end of the class, they thought it was the greatest course they’d ever been through.
The reason is that the Advanced Topic course had a specific question that it was trying to answer. And when the course was over, the students could answer the question that the course started with.
The best training tells a story and the best stories teach a lesson. My friend Ben taught me that.
Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.
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