If the words we use matter so much, perhaps we need to be bilingual.

Is it a “learning experience” or a “training session”? Are they “goals” or “learning objectives”?

A few days ago, a non-L&D friend of mine was telling me about a company newsletter she had to release and an internal L&D person insisted that she use the term “learning” instead of “training”.

“What does the even mean? People understand ‘training’.”

She was right. This whole idea that we want learning to be a lifelong experience and that “training” represents an event, is a concept that gets a lot of mileage within L&D circles, but there are very few other people who actually care about this.ย 

As a sort of experiment to see what kinds of words I use most, I went back and examined the titles of all 629 blog posts that have been published onย Train Like A Champion and turned it into a word cloud. This is what the word cloud generator generated:

learning & development word cloud

As I stared at this for a while, I wondered what this meant. It was an interesting image, but so what?

L&D is big and in the middle, which makes sense because that’s my audience. The next biggest words are PowerPoint and training.

In a world that rolls its eyes at poor PowerPoint use, and begs people to find more engaging ways to present, there seem to be a lot of posts on this site focused on PowerPoint. That’s because PowerPoint (which is the catch-all phrase for Apple users who use Keynote, too) is a reality in just about every training (or is it learning?) program in the world today.

In a world where L&D professionals gleefully boast on Twitter or LinkedIn that they “don’t do” training, but rather they engage in learning experiences, the fact is the rest of the world participates in training sessions. Maybe those sessions are one hour, maybe they’re a week or a year, maybe they’re in-person or maybe they’re online. Whatever we want to call learning experiences, the rest of the world calls it “training”. And we should probably be using the words that resonate most with our customers (or are they learners, participants, attendees, students or audience members?).

Let’s make the highest quality professional development we can, but when it comes to delivering those professional development opportunities, let’s not get caught in the SME jargon trap. Let’s use the language that the rest of the world uses.

I’m curious about your observations on this word cloud. What jumps out for you? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comment section.

6 thoughts on “If the words we use matter so much, perhaps we need to be bilingual.

  1. Hi Brian! I enjoy many of your blog posts. This one is of interest to me as a career public school educator who has spent decades working in professional development for teachers (and school administrators, paraprofessionals, etc.). In my area, we’ve been slowly moving away from the words “training” and “staff development” to “professional development” and more recently, towards “professional learning,” my preferred term (I like the phrase so much I named my business with it!). I do agree with you that we can’t get too caught up in jargon, though. I enjoy your articles in fact, *because* of their focus on creating high quality, interactive learning experiences for our participants, regardless of what we name these experiences! ๐Ÿ™‚


    • Thanks for the note, Sheila! I totally agree with your comment (and those of several other commentors) that we need to nudge our people toward embracing the idea of the ongoing pursuit of getting better each day. And educating teachers may be a particularly tricky space to come up with new names for “training”. I know of teachers (I may be related to one even) who put together “Buzzword Bingo” cards and pass them around before a professional development workshop. It’s easy to be skeptical and jaded when people try to keep getting you to use different words. And. As professionals responsible for the performance of large groups of people, it’s our responsibility to keep the focus on continuous improvement, regardless of the title that’s given to it!

  2. I loved your write up Brian…and do so connect with the learning vs training lingo.
    In fact, it’s an insight for me as I am in the middle of actually urging folks around me to use the term ‘learning’ vs ‘training’ in an attempt to get their heads around a more permanent attitude of long term learning vs ducking in and out of a class expecting to be transformed!
    How ironic….coz I do realize some may get my vision and most others will really not! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Thanks Leena. Yes, I do think it’s more of an inside L&D vs how we speak to the masses type of discussion. My thinking is that staff in general should be encouraged to always be developing their skill set and to never get complacent (they should always be learning), and… when it comes to how we market or label what we offer to staff, we should probably use the terms they’re most familiar with (training). I like what you said about the need to temper expectations around being transformed after a 60-minute or even an all-day class… I don’t think it matters what that event is called, the facilitator probably needs to reinforce that point (you won’t be completely transformed following this class, so what else can you do once you leave to keep working on this?) and the instructional designer probably needs to build so ongoing learning possibilities into the design (these are some specific things you can do once you leave if you really want to be transformed).

      Thanks for your comment, I love this post-article discussion!

  3. A few years ago the company I worked for really got behind the “learning” movement and our titles were change from Sales Trainer to Sales Learning Specialist. I bought into the whole learning position and saw the difference between learning and training. I think you make a very valid point in using words that our customer/client etc understands. Too many times industry jargon can get in the way of understanding or clear communication. Making concepts simple for a learner also means we use words that are easily understood and are commonly used.

    • Thank you for that anecdote, Cindy! Yes, internally, it makes a *huge* difference in how we view the work we do, and we should have the mindset of lifelong learning as opposed to crafting individual events. It’s like the backstage of a performance – actors know what’s happening back there – they know all the stage tricks behind the magic that the audience sees, but the audience isn’t interested in the stuff that happens backstage, they don’t care if “stage left” means the actors’ left or the audience’s left – they want a good show that they can understand and enjoy.

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