Virtual Training Design Lessons from a Weekend of Wine Tasting

Last weekend I had a chance to visit several wineries in Walla Walla, WA. A lot of people wondered why I was going to wineries if I don’t drink. Honestly, if I have an opportunity to sit outside on a gorgeous day, surrounded by beautiful scenery and amazing views while having fun conversations and learning about things I knew nothing about, then count me in.

As we sat in the final winery we were visiting over the weekend, I began to reflect on the experience and realized there might be some lessons to take away that can be applied to virtual training design.

A good story can capture even the most ambivalent person’s attention. A place named Sleight of Hand was one of my favorite stops. While wine tasting can carry an aura of pretentiousness, there was nothing too fancy about this particular place. The name of the winery conjured images of a magic show (and I’m a total sucker for magic shows), but it turns out the owner actually named it after a Pearl Jam song.

Perhaps like many learners attending virtual meetings these days, when I’m visiting wineries I don’t tend to give my full attention over to many of the educational portions of the visit. Whether something is a syrah or a merlot doesn’t always hold a lot of relevance for me. But when the friendly gentleman explaining all of the wines began talking to us about Neil Patrick Harris’s connection to their wines, my ears perked up and I wanted to know more. Because of this story, I was suddenly interested in what it meant to become a member of their wine club.

The lesson here was in the importance of finding stories that can connect learners to our content. Sometimes those stories aren’t always self-evident at first, but a good story can be a powerful attention grabber.

Sometimes you need more than just a taste. Ok, I confess, I profess to be someone who is not interested in alcohol, but when the glass was pushed toward me with a friendly smile and an invitation to at least give it a taste, I happily obliged.

The first 20 or so times this happened, I’d raise the glass to my lips, I’d feel the first sensation of liquid, I’d take a small swallow, sometimes I’d wince, then I’d smile, politely push the glass back across the table, and suggest that it tasted like church.

Each one kind of tasted the same. Sure, the whites were generally cooler and the reds warmer. But they all tasted like church.

Until one friendly host greeted us and said: “I see we have one taster, and one driver.” With a wink he added: “I’ll give you a pour and a half just in case the driver is curious.”

Set up with my own glass and some excess available on each pour, I was given more than a tiny sip that stopped almost as soon as it began. I was given a full-on taste. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I suddenly have an evolved palate that can find a hint of sage and a wisp of… is that hazelnut? No. I couldn’t tell you if something is oaky or buttery.

But I could suddenly taste a little more than church. I could tell whether something was subtle and smooth or… well, I suppose I’d describe it as strong and yucky. But I could point to some and say: If I were to drink wine, I’d drink that one.

Similarly, there may be times in our virtual sessions in which we’re hesitant to give our learners more than a taste of our content. Perhaps we’re afraid of “Zoom Fatigue” or perhaps we think the content is too technical for virtual delivery. I’m not saying we need to give our learners a “full pour”, but we ought to do more than just have them press the liquid up to their lips.

If participants aren’t writing things down, they’re probably going to forget. In the final place we visited, the hostess was so friendly that she brought, and this is just a rough guess, about a bajillion different wines to sample. At one point I had to run to the car to get a pen so that we could note down which ones we might want to purchase and which ones we should definitely avoid.

In the same way, I think that there may be a tendency to forget to remind our participants to physically take notes during a virtual session. We’re removed (physically) from our participants, sometimes we don’t even see them.

A while back I shared a post about a variety of ways that we can make virtual training feel less “virtual”. Whether you’re able to send printed materials – a Participant Guide, handouts, note-taking sheets, etc – to your participants or whether you just remind them to have a pen and paper handy, encouraging participants to physically jot things down during a session can help the session feel just a little less virtual (and perhaps increase the likelihood that they’ll put those things they took notes on into action after your session).

You don’t need to just give them all the information. Perhaps one of the most engaging parts to our winery tour was when one hostess brought out several wines that looked and smelled very similar. She shared a little information about each. One was a mid-tier wine and one was a top-tier wine. She didn’t tell us which was which, she wanted us to guess whether we could tell the difference.

In the same way, we don’t always have to just give out all of our information during a virtual session. There are a lot of different tools at our disposal that allow us to be a bit more playful with our content and with our learners. Offering a taste of information and then posting a poll or asking participants to use the chat to hypothesize an answer based upon the content you’ve shared can keep learners from multi-tasking and half-listening.

The bottom line here is that instructional design inspiration truly can be taken from anywhere. In this day and age of virtual meetings and Zoom fatigue, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to our every day experiences and figure out how we can bring the best experiences into our learning design.

What are some things that have caught your attention or inspired you during this age of COVID? I’d love to hear about them in the comment section!

2 thoughts on “Virtual Training Design Lessons from a Weekend of Wine Tasting

  1. “Story-telling” as connection: “a good story can be a powerful attention grabber.”

    Unless you have a monolithic, all-the-same target audience demographic, “story-telling” unrelated to the topic is as likely to be repelling as it is to be attractive.

    Your example is perfect–if the topic is wine, introducing random celebrities as attention-getters, unrelated to the topic of wine, will surely turn off as many participants as it turns on–assuming the participant demographics are not all the same.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Kent. I’m not 100% sure I’m clear on your point, but I’ll do my best to respond. A story unrelated to the topic at hand and which doesn’t meet the learning objectives probably shouldn’t be used at all. The example I gave connected a surprising fun fact with the actual topic at hand. I *think* your point was: know your audience before you craft a story to be used in training (and any time you use storytelling as an instructional device, be sure it’s relevant). And if that’s the case, I’m 100% on board with that.

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