Know your audience.
Do the right thing.
Those are two of the guiding principles I use in my training and HR work. Beyond my passionate focus on learning for performance, I strive to promote inclusion and diversity in the stories, scenarios, and cases I write.
Inclusion for me is the sense of “make this welcoming and engaging for all, regardless of what they bring to it.” Diversity for me is “representing the broad range of characteristics that different people bring to a situation, whether chosen or inherent.” Overall, I encourage people to strive for unity, and not uniformity. We know through research that people are more effective and can take more joy in work when they can bring “their whole selves and identities” to work. Training should encourage even more of that that.
Let me caveat this all by acknowledging that I’m a highly-educated, white, professional male. That comes with a certain set of perspectives, privileges, and experiences. I get that, and I’m mostly aware of it. I try to be very alert to my biases and mitigate as much of the impact of them as I can, with respect to inclusion and diversity in the work I do. After all, it’s not about me—it’s about helping my audience learn and grow, starting from where each one of them is.
Focus on the learning need, and limit what you show to just what is needed.
When I am working with a client, it is because the business needs help closing (or narrowing) a gap between how people are performing now and the performance that the business hopes to achieve. That is the reason for my work. Within the scope of that business need, there is a lot I can do to serve a diverse audience well. That requires that I get to know the audience!
In general, stories work for learning because they filter out details that are not important and include only things that are relevant to the situation. In training, we want people to focus on the performance situation and the factors affecting performance. Anything that does not directly affect performance is a distractor. Distractors must be used intentionally, or the effectiveness of the learning is reduced.
This is an important point, and one that hangs in tension with many efforts to promote inclusion and diversity simply by representing the maximum possible spectrum of diversity. More on this in a moment.
Write characters and situations that are as inclusive as possible, within the boundaries of “just what is needed.”
This is part of the “do the right thing” principle. For most workplace scenarios, this means that I can show inclusion and diversity through characters with varying names, genders, and backgrounds. When I understand my audience, I can select characters that show appropriate inclusion and diversity.
Less obvious details (those not immediately needed to establish a character in the mind of the reader) need more careful thought. For example, sexual orientation is rarely relevant to a leadership or sales training scenario. Disability or health status are rarely relevant to a customer service scenario. Does that mean that these things aren’t important? No. It simply means that unless the scenario requires a focus on these characteristics, they are not what is needed as detail in the scenario. Don’t distract the learner with things that are not relevant to the learning task.
There are many points of view on this. Some people would say that excluding these elements of diversity only further serves to underrepresent these populations. Potentially, yes, in the bigger picture. In the scope of training, however, even a single extra sentence of character description can add irrelevant detail that can distract from the scenario. That makes learners waste time while they sort out whether or not they need to do anything with that extra information.
The important thing here is relevance. For the same training topic, situation, and scenario, Organization A may feel that the extra effort to show diversity is unnecessary. Organization B, however, may have a diversity and inclusion strategy that makes such detail relevant, as part of a bigger context. The training audiences may agree or disagree with their organizations’ viewpoints, and they may or may not be able to handle “distracting” elements of diverse characteristics. Is attention to diversity a required part of the performance context? Quite possibly, but it depends on the organization and people for whom the training is being designed. It all comes back to that first principle: “Know your audience.”
As a writer, you don’t know. Ask.
It would be a mistake for me to assume that I know what a sponsor and its audience consider to be relevant. That is why I make a point of asking as I do my work. Sometimes, I can ask straight out, “How diverse should we write these characters and situations?” Other times, I have to ease into it with questions like, “What are the people in this audience like?” and “How well will these characters represent your ideal scenario?” It depends on the client situation, but it is always something I want to check on when I am doing custom work.
In training and human resources, we have an obligation to help organizations create an effective environment. Part of an effective environment is removing distractors that prevent people from being themselves, and in applying as much of themselves to their work as possible. Designing inclusive training that represents and welcomes diverse characteristics and points of view doesn’t take a lot of extra effort, but it does require a commitment to doing the right thing.
As a writer, I am committed to pressing the tension and doing the right thing for my audiences. Stories matter, and so does how we write them. For me and many of my clients, inclusion and diversity is important. I encourage you to keep up the commitment in whatever makes sense for your own professional area!