Take control of your learning content: cut the fluff once and for all

Who’s in control? You or your content?

Does this sound familiar?

‘It’s clear in my head until I try to explain it’.

Are you wrestling a mutating beast in a battle to tame your expertise? For every head you chop off do two more spring to life?

We’ve all been there. So you’re not alone.

Want to be the hero of your own content creation story?

Well, it’s surprisingly simple. To take back control you need to focus on the right thing. Do this, and you eliminate the fluff. You create helpful content. The process feels less hit-and-miss, so you enjoy it more.

So what is the right thing? How do you create this happy ending?

Well, to slay the content beast, first you need to understand why it exists.

How you unwittingly create a monster

Monster incubator #1: You want people to love what you do

It’s only natural.

When you believe in what you do, you want others to get it too.

Your subject gives you a buzz, fits your values and makes you feel good. So you want to share the love.

You’re passionate, but are you fired up about the right thing? Hold that thought and read on.

Monster incubator #2: You want to help

Do your good intentions trip you up?

It seems like a good place to start. So you focus on everything you know that makes you a marketer, copywriter, videographer — whatever your expertise is.

But the more you focus on what you know, the more you get distracted by nuances and interesting asides. Because it energises and motivates you.

‘I get wrapped up in my own gems of wisdom I’m preparing to impart.’

You keep adding insights and ideas because they’re important. And before you know it you’ve created a multi-headed beast.

You’ve slowly fallen in love with your content. But secretly, you know it’s a monster. You’ve ended up with the dreaded information dump. And you don’t know what to do about it.

Want to know what’s gone wrong?

In your eagerness to help people you’ve forgotten what your learners care about.

The brutal truth — your learners don’t care about you or your solution

Your audience care about their goals and the problems they need to solve.

They don’t want to become you — they don’t want to be a copywriter, video maker etc — which may take months or even years to do well — they want to achieve their goals. They want to write attention grabbing headlines or make a welcome video for their website.

Ash Maurya, author of ‘Running Lean’ puts it like this:

Having more passion for your solution than your customer’s problem is a problem.

In fact, he says that falling in love with your solution is the number one reason why products fail.

I attribute the entrepreneur’s singular passion for their solution as the top contributor to this failure. This is the Innovator’s Bias that causes us to fall in love with our solution and makes ‘bringing our baby to life’ our sole mission.


So, back to the question …

Are you fired up about the right thing?

Focusing on the wrong thing — what you know, not what people want to do — feeds the learning content monster.

Because what you know is amorphous. There are no boundaries; you can always add more. But what people want to do creates a framework for your expertise.

It’s the difference between content that teaches people to write great copy and content that helps them write stand-out headlines. One is limitless, the other has parameters.

3 ways to charm your content

Image by Susanna Lycke

Content charmer #1 — Love your customer’s problem, not your solution

(Thanks to Ash Maurya for this wording).

Move from getting people excited about your subject to helping them achieve their goals.

So reframe your thinking from:

  • ‘How can I pass on everything I know about XYZ?’
  • ‘How can I make my expertise accessible?’


  • ‘What does my audience want to do?
  • ’What problems do they need to solve?’

Here’s an example.

Q: What do people need to know to make great videos?

A: They need to know about audio, lighting, composition, location choice, equipment etc…

This is the perfect breeding ground for the learning content monster. It’s open-ended. So it’s easy to lose yourself downloading everything you know from your brain. And get caught up in any number of ideas, theories, techniques and what-ifs along the way.

But, these questions create a tighter focus.

  • What problems are small businesses trying to solve?
  • What type of videos do small businesses want to make?

They want to make:

  • Welcome videos for their websites
  • Video blogs
  • Meet the team videos
  • Case studies
  • Product demos and tutorials

This breaks down your expertise into things people want to achieve. Now you have strict parameters to work within. Because the information beginners need to make a welcome video is limited.

Make your learners’ problem your passion. Focus on their goals. This is the first step to taking control of your material.

Content charmer # 2: If it doesn’t help solve the problem, cut it.

Ever catch yourself thinking, ‘Ooh, and another thing…’ or ‘Oh, this is cool…’ or ‘It would be shame not to include this’?

Warning! Digression-on-the-horizon.

Excess information confuses. E Learning expert, Julie Dirksen uses instructions for assembling an apple pie to explain:

…don’t digress into alternate explanations of how you can also do a lattice top, or a streusel, or a side discussion about different theories of steam vents, or a lengthy explanation about the way proteins react if you overwork the gluten in the dough.
Julie Dirksen, ‘Design for how people learn’

I don’t bake. I have no idea what a streusel is or what steam vents do. And I don’t need to, to put the top crust on an apple pie. These digressions bloat your content and confuse me.

So only include information people need to achieve each goal.

People who want to make product demo videos don’t care about techniques to frame ‘meet the team’ shots. It doesn’t help compose shots that show off the product. So leave this information out.

The rule is if it doesn’t help solve the problem, cut it.

This rule also forces you to cut interesting — but unnecessary — history, theories and background detail.

You may find that academic stuff interesting, but extrinsically motivated learners would rather stab themselves in the eye with the free pen…If you’ve got a backstory and you can’t say exactly why it’s important, then you should cut it.
Julie Dirksen, ‘Design for how people learn’.

Be brutal. Review your work with a critical eye. Ask yourself ‘can people achieve their goal without this information’? If they can — yes you’ve got it — cut it.

Content charmer # 3: Beware interesting (to you) red herrings

Nobody sets out to mislead or distract their learners. But when you love your subject, it’s easily done.

‘I get wrapped up in what I think is clever and forget my audience.’

I recently planned a post on why teaching is more than providing information — teaching is helping people do something with information.

I thought of examples and mused on the difference between watching information-packed TV cookery programs and following a step-by-step recipe:

‘People love Jamie Oliver’s shows; they’re energising and inspiring. But can you actually cook anything without the recipe’?

And before I knew it, I was pondering the Reithian values, ‘educate, inform and entertain,’ that launched the BBC.

‘What makes entertaining and informative TV programs different from teaching?’ I wondered.

I got totally wrapped up in a stimulating train of thought. I was enjoying myself. I forgot my audience and what they needed to do.

So how do you get rid of red herrings?

When you get excited about a new idea, stop and ask yourself ‘Is it purely because it interests me? Do people need to know this to achieve their goal. Or is this fluff?’

And yes — all together now — if they don’t need it, cut it.

The quickest way to cut the cr*p

It starts with a chat. Not an email, text or tweet. Have a person-to-person conversation for more honest and accurate responses. So that’s telephone, Skype or best of all a natter over tea and cake.

Pick your favourite clients, anyone you’ve helped, or ask for an introduction.

Find out first-hand what people want to do. What are their goals? What problems are they trying to solve? Don’t make assumptions. You need to ask them.

Write a list of specific, tangible goals e.g. the videos small businesses need to make. Because when you work with tight parameters it’s easier to eliminate the fluff.

Focus on the right thing and win the battle of the content bloat.

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Rebeccca Wallace has been designing and delivering training — face-to-face, blended and e-learning — in the corporate world and adult education for 25 years. She has an MSc IT & Learning and is a graduate of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.