Vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, science-based.

These seven words created quite a stir when it was reported that the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued an internal style guide advising employees to avoid these words if they wanted to get their programs funded by our current Congress. While official statements attempted to minimize the fallout, the recommendation to avoid them remains. I’m more than a little bit nervous that my tax dollars are deliberately avoiding programs that rely a bit too much on science for the comfort of my elected representatives. How did we get here? Just when did it become a detriment to say that your recommendation was based on evidence?

I must point out that there are probably people on both sides of our political divide who cringe when they hear testimony from scientists. After all, as Stephen Hawking points out, we haven’t done ourselves much good by making science and math frightening to many folks. In recent years, attempts to either dumb down or over-complicate explanations haven’t helped, nor have “pay to publish” outlets and the rush to publish before findings can be replicated in duplicate studies.

As learning professionals, we are science workers. We live and breathe science, technology, engineering and mathematics every day, although we often use different terms to describe what we do. Instructional design, learning management systems, authoring tools, training analytics and other tools of the trade are also given to us by science. We accept them because we know that there is evidence to back them up. But something strange happens when we get ready to make a presentation to a stakeholder group.

Typical Scenario

Let’s say you’re a training director getting ready to make your case for next year’s budget. You’ve done your homework, completed your analysis and aligned your plan with the goals of the business. As you start working on your presentation to senior leaders, you probably have conversations with colleagues that go something like this:

  • “Let’s cut out that chart on how we arrived at our conclusions – too complicated and will just slow down the presentation.”
  • “I don’t think you need to explain how the technology works – they won’t care.”
  • “This type of program (insert your own example here) is very unpopular; can we call it something else?”
  • “Let’s drop all this neuroscience and learning theory stuff; it sounds like too fluffy.”

Consultants Have an Obligation

I believe we are doing our colleagues and clients a great disservice when we censor our updates by trying to tell them only what they want to hear. As consultants, we have an obligation to use our education and experience to uncover the evidence and put together a plan that is based on that evidence.

Tips That Will Help You Sleep at Night

Here are a few strategies to help you fulfill your audience expectations while meeting your obligation as a learning consultant.

  • Become Skilled at Data Visualization
    It is true that messy graphs at tables can often just over-complicate the discussion. But that’s more likely because the presenter hasn’t found an elegant and immediately understandable way to represent the data. If you want to get better at this important part of your job, learn about Data Visualization. You will find free resources online and some excellent free courses online.
  • Prime Your Audience Before the Presentation
    Great consultants make sure they understand what their customers need and are willing to pay for, before they make their recommendation. Schedule some time to meet with your stakeholders well in advance of your budget recommendation, so that you can understand how they will make the budget decision and what evidence they need from you to say “yes.” These meetings also give you a chance to introduce a few more technical terms and concepts that you’ll be referencing in your presentation, so that your audience is ready to absorb what you’re telling them and doesn’t need you to “dumb down” your content.
  • Provide Backup
    If you have survey results, white papers, external research and other supporting documents, quote them in your presentation and provide them as backup for further study. While many reviewers won’t have time to go back through the evidence, at least they will know you’ve done your homework.
  • Link Your Recommendations to Business Outcomes
    We’ve been hearing this message for decades now, yet many learning consultants still have a hard time showing the direct link between training and achieving business results. That is the story that will likely be the most compelling to your senior leaders, so take some time to be sure you fully understand the strategic plan your programs are intended to support. Note that this might mean you need to have some preliminary meetings to be sure you are on the same page with your audience.
  • Have the Courage to Be Who You Are
    You are a learning professional. You’ve worked hard to understand how people learn and you keep up on best practices. Don’t be afraid of being who you are. If that means you’ll get into the theory of learning occasionally, so be it. You might be surprised at how refreshing and even inspiring you can be when you let your passion for learning science show.

Ten Words You Can Still Say

In support of the scientists at the CDC, the EPA and elsewhere, there are thankfully many terms it is still acceptable to say in the learning profession. So, let’s use them with pride:

  • Research
  • Science
  • Evidence
  • Behavior
  • Neuroscience
  • Cognitive
  • Analytics
  • Diversity
  • Design
  • Technology

Any similarity to the CDC is list intentional. After all, science is the same everywhere; it just pursues the answers to different questions through its expression in different disciplines. Let’s keep pursuing the questions about learning with integrity and see how far it will take us.