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Nothing Is Important If Everything Is Important

Have you ever watched a movie with five plot lines running simultaneously? It’s challenging to keep track of what’s going on, and sometimes, you’re left confused and feeling like you just wasted two hours of your day.

Training is no different when there’s too much going on. If everything seems like an extra that’s nice to know but you don’t need to know, that’s TMI (too much information). That’s when training walks a fine line between being helpful and falling into unhelpful overwhelmingness, leaving you with a state of train brain.

When everything in a course is important then nothing is important. That’s because something went wrong in the design process, and everything was allowed to be important. Or, perhaps the design process was skipped entirely, which is precisely why an instructional designer is essential, and no step in the process can be skipped.

Image of city street plastered with ads and signs so everything is so busy it's hard to see anything so everything becomes nothing.

That’s also why the instructional designer should be a partner rather than an order-taker. Working with stakeholders, business partners, and subject matter experts is essential. Determining what’s necessary and what’s nice to know is also important.

How do you get to just the essentials? First, define the goal of the training based on performance since performance is what company training is typically all about. Without a well-defined goal of what employees need to be able to do after training, training will fail. Then, focus every piece of content in the course on how it helps employees meet the goal.

The more non-essential information a course contains, the more likely important information will be forgotten. People have a limited capacity for learning and absorbing information during training.

People have less of an attention span than a goldfish.


While all people have a longer attention span than a goldfish, we are still limited and must abide by the human limitations of cognitive load. When too much information is put into training, it risks becoming disjointed and overwhelming. That will quickly make people lose focus and interest.

Good content will be used and enjoyed when it’s relevant to employees because, in training, relevance is king. Relevance ensures that what employees are learning can be connected to their work, making it automatically engaging and interesting. Training that has nothing in it for employees will never be engaging, no matter how many bells and whistles or interactions you put into it.

Now it’s time to look deeper into the problem of loading too much into training.

The Problem with Training Overload

You may have guessed it already, but the biggest problem with training overload (including content overload in eLearning) is that nothing is important if everything is important. Overload means too much information for someone to process and remember. It becomes overwhelming, and very little is remembered.

That’s because our brains are infinitely powerful, but there’s a limit to how much we can grasp and remember at any given time. People tune out, become tired, or get distracted by the outside world. That even happens with a captive audience in a classroom.

I was a big daydreamer in grade school, so I’m all too familiar with distractions when learning.

There have been many studies about how much a person can remember. While there’s no specific number, time, or quantity of information, it’s safe to say that for training where the content is heavy, anything more than 20 minutes is risking going in one ear and out the other. If the content is a bit lighter and easier to grasp in nature, then you may get away with 30 minutes.

In the world of learning science, this is often known as cognitive load theory. Meaning we only have so much memory to work with. There are tools instructional designers can use to maximize cognitive load, but for the most part, it’s still limited when learning new information.

Nothing’s important if everything’s important.

There’s nothing worse than cognitive overload in training. Someone taking a course, for instance, can quickly go from learning something new to being burned out and losing it all. Just because you’ve learned something doesn’t mean you’ll remember it.

It’s more difficult to remember anything if you’re asked to remember or process too much information. At that point, you’re putting the onus on employees to pick out and remember what’s important. That won’t work out as intended, and learning won’t help employees.

You want to get employees the information they need to master the training, but do they need to master everything?

With a lack of focus and an “everything’s important” mentality, there’s a considerable risk of wasting everyone’s time. Who’s time is wasted? People taking the training, instructional designers, subject matter experts, business partners, and anyone else involved.

Worse yet, if too much is trying to be trained for and training content isn’t helpful, employees won’t be ready for whatever they’re supposed to be learning.

So, how do you determine what’s essential for training and what should be left out?

Figuring Out What’s Important

This can be more difficult than it seems. If you’re developing training, you may find that after working with a subject matter expert (SME), they think everything is necessary. Part of your job is figuring out only the essentials for employees’ success.

Anything not essential to an employee’s success is a risk to the training. But how do you determine what is necessary?

Working through a sound instructional design process (don’t forget to go through each ADDIE step!) is the most helpful way. We wrote a blog post about how an effective self-paced eLearning course should start with nothing. We don’t start with all the content we’re given to build training. Instead, we begin with nothing and then make the content with only what’s essential to the performance (not learning) objectives.

That means you start with nothing and only include content in the final training that is essential and contributes directly to meeting the performance objectives. Anything nice to know but not essential should be scrapped.

Always ask what employees need to do to be successful?

Throwing non-essentials on the scrap pile is best because that will strengthen the training. Every piece of content you cut from training will enhance it that much more.

Subject matter experts are just that, experts. But, the goal of any individual training isn’t to make employees experts. That only comes with years of practice or multiple courses; even then, it requires years of practice. Keep that in mind: SMEs are essential to work with, but they sometimes don’t realize how much they know, and beginners don’t need to learn.

It’s important to keep the project on track and only extract what’s essential to meeting the primary goal of the training. Anything else will distract attention from the learning goals and lead to poor outcomes. Instead of making experts, give employees the essential tools they need to be successful at their jobs.

If you can successfully work through complex topics and determine what’s essential, you can benefit employees in many ways. This process is complicated and takes time, but it’s worth it for you, stakeholders, and especially employees.

The Benefits of Focus

Working with business partners to focus training on only the essentials requires practice and experience. However, with practice, many benefits can be gained by focusing on essentials only.

Keep in mind that the definition of essential could be advanced, too. The goal of the training will dictate what’s covered; it’s all a matter of making sure each piece of content makes sense to the goals of the training.

There are endless benefits to training focused on critical information only. We came up with a few, but depending on your project, there will probably be others besides these common benefits.

  • Employees will learn precisely what they need to be more successful in their jobs.
  • You’ll save employees massive time by cutting the fluff.
  • Comprehension will increase with more focused content.
  • There will be more time to make the critical content stick with stories and scenarios that make it more relevant to employees.
  • More information will be retained after training simply because remembering is easier when there’s less to remember.
  • Employees will be more efficient at their jobs because they won’t be bogged down by information they don’t need.
  • Better performance because employees will remember the key points to perform better.
  • Everyone is happier when less of their time is wasted, and they can return to their job.

We’d love to hear some of the benefits you think of or have seen in the workplace by having more focused training. Feel free to leave your experience in the comments.

To see some of these benefits, you must learn to quickly access the most critical information and stay focused on it only. This takes time and practice, but training can only be successful if it has a focused performance goal and remains focused on it throughout.

How To Focus on Important Information Only

We introduced you to our start-with-nothing strategy. While we framed it with an eLearning course, it could easily be applied to creating any training. It all boils down to knowing your stuff and turning experts into champions of simplicity.

Experts worked hard to achieve their status. They practiced, worked hard, and consumed whatever knowledge they could to master their skill. But it took them a long time. There’s no way to turn someone new into an expert in one training session. It has to happen over time.

That’s why it’s essential to focus the content on essentials only when creating training. There needs to be a goal, which must be the focus. Experts sometimes have a hard time understanding just how far they’ve come. If you can help them see that and stay focused on essentials, you’re on your way to creating focused and more effective employee training.

These steps help us focus training on the essentials only:

  1. Start with a blank document with nothing at all.
  2. Work with stakeholders and SMEs to determine the training goal that matches the project’s business goal. These should all answer the question, “What do employees need to do to be successful?”
  3. Determine the performance objectives of the course that all work back to the main goal of the training.
  4. Work through each piece of the content and connect it directly to one of the essential performance goals.

If you’d like to review our process of starting with nothing, check out the post about it and you can download the template on our resources page. It’s the simplest template you’ll find online, but it’s helpful to keep things focused every step of the way when creating training.

Start with nothing and build up essentials only. Never start with everything and try to cut things out.

Using the steps we used when starting from nothing, you’ll have focused objectives and an outline that helps you organize the content and stay focused on the essentials. If employees are hungry for more, nothing keeps them from using external resources as long as you provide that option.

For example, if you leave nice-to-know information out of a course, you can add a resource center with additional user guides, job aids, or other types of performance support available.

Employees who want to become experts or learn more should have the resources to do so. However, those resources should be separate from the training. There’s no point in offering a few interested employees everything at the risk of losing everyone else who doesn’t need or want to know it all.

You can also allow employees to ask questions. Whether you provide an email address or phone number in the training, offering employees support in their learning journey is always helpful.

Wrap Up

Nothing is important if everything is important.

That’s what this all comes down to. You can’t be expected to get it right immediately because just like a SME doesn’t become an expert overnight, you won’t either. It takes time to practice figuring out the right objectives in training. Then it takes even more work and practice to chisel away at all the content you receive from a SME to get it down to the essentials.

Ultimately, all your work to create essentials-only training will benefit you, stakeholders, employees, and others. It leads to better, more successful training. There’s nothing more refreshing than taking training that directly applies to your job and is focused on precisely what you need to know to do that job.

Training is essential for every project, especially company technology for non-techies. It’s also vital to bring training professionals into a project early enough to have a positive impact. When training is focused and helpful, employees are better prepared to do their jobs and will have higher engagement and success in their jobs.

We specialize in designing digital training solutions that help employees learn how to use your company’s technology to do their jobs better. We’d love to hear more about your next project and how we can help deliver better training solutions to support your employee’s success. Schedule a free consultation so we can discuss your next project and how to make training for it a huge success.

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