More effective online learning: Be person-centered and problem-focused.

Brenda Berkelaar, PhD, is a consultant and Faculty Affiliate at the University of Texas’ Moody College of Communication & Dell Medical School and a researcher at CIRANO (Montreal). Originally posted here.

It’s Thursday, just after three. Twenty-four recent grads and almost grads type intensely in their respective Zoom squares. They’ve signed up for a workshop with Cam Houser, founder of Actionworks. Most known for launching the 3 Day Startup, Cam is internationally-recognized for his ability to help people and companies be entrepreneurial in everyday life. (Full disclosure, Cam is a colleague of mine from Capital Factory who’s kindly sharing his expertise in online learning to help me share best principles and best practices in online learning).

Cam excels at using available resources to accomplish exceptional results. In today’s workshop, How to Talk to Important People, Cam’s focus is onhelping people who are good at their jobs, yet who struggle to create relationships with important people. I’m here to see why Cam’s approach to professional development works. 

Participants’ first task: Write an email to an important person to convince them to talk to you. “You’ve never met”, Cam reminds them, “You have ten minutes.” Everyone’s muted on Zoom. Still, hunched shoulders, rapid finger movements and furrowed brows all evidence focus. Public sharing is coming. PUBLIC sharing. A person glances at their Apple watch. Only seven minutes left. Back to typing. A few participants pause in their respective Zoom windows. Their eyes tilt back flipping through memories. What to write. What to write. What will convince their important person—funder, PR professional, technical expert, experienced founder, prospective employer—to help them, a less-experienced stranger? They refocus. Rapid typing resumes.

Time’s up. 

Participants post drafts into a shared Google doc. A link streamlines the process. Each email includes a salutation and an introduction. The basics of a formal email are present. Some have subject lines. Most offer a few paragraphs of evidence intended to convince the important person the sender is worth helping. The evidence is wrapped in generic, formal sentences and sprinkled compliments. Some included an implied request for an informational interview. A few ask directly. As participants read each others’ emails, they start editing their own: They add evidence or a sentence here or there; They change a phrase. Occasionally, they delete entire paragraphs. Some lean away from the camera, relieved. Some seem discouraged. Others unsure. Some lean forward, confident. Or forced calm? All stay on camera.

Cam interjects. Before they work through the exercise, he wants to share an email from a highly-qualified, affable computer science graduate he knows. The kind of person who is good at his job and is enjoyable to work with, Cam says. The kind of person, Cam notes, important people would enjoy talking to and who has skills they need. He screenshares the email. The side-by-side pages bleed to the edge of the slide in a too-small-for-presentations font. Over the course of eleven paragraphs, the computer science graduate talks about what he is doing in the European start-up scene; what he has been doing the last three years; his hope to connect with the founder, a multi-paragraph commentary on how he can help the founder; and a multi-paragraph argument of the value of the founder’s company and his own company, followed by a request for feedback, as well as a paragraph long request for the founder to come to Barcelona to help with a community event. The email essay outwords most college admissions essays. It’s two 5-paragraph essays with a bonus paragraph.

Cam begins to read the email aloud. He saves the punchline. 

Next slide.

 “This email is so long I can’t figure out what you want. What do you want? – pg.” 


Point made.

Our education system often doesn’t prepare students for the work of everyday life. In many classes, students are taught how to write long-form essays and give formal presentations. In many classes, getting to the page limit without going over is rewarded. The goal is not to hasten the demise of long-form writing, formal speeches, or complex, multi-step analyses. Assigned judiciously and evaluated effectively, such assignments can help people develop the discipline, higher-order thinking, and nuanced arguments society needs. Such analytic and communication skills help us understand complex problems and develop transformative solutions for society. We should not compromise these goals. They matter. 

Yet people also need skills to navigate everyday life. Those skills include communicating with important—read influential and powerful—people. We do students a disservice when we forget to help them see how to translate the higher order thinking, mental discipline, and analytic skills of higher education into everyday life. Learning when, how, and how much to communicate to whom is an essential skill—especially when there isn’t a checklist of word limits, a style guide, or a rubric. Education is idealistic; it should be. Education should also be pragmatic. Helping people bridge the idealism-pragmatism gap is what Cam, and Actionworks, do well. 

The question is how does he do it? Why do participants keep coming back? Where does the magic come from? 

In our conversations, Cam often emphasizes his action-oriented approach as essential to the magic. And action does matter—an effect exaggerated in online learning where distractions run aplenty. Learning-by-doing helps people transfer evidence-based principles into everyday practice. Done well, action orientations engage. Plus, participants often leave with a solution to an immediate problem. 

Still, I would argue that Cam’s action-orientation, while important, is secondary: It’s an effect of his approach rather than the cause. Cam’s workshops are effective for a different reason: His workshops are person-centered and problem-focused. In that order.  

In other words, the learning magic is not the tools nor the activities, it’s Cam’s philosophical focus and his ability to put that philosophy into action. He works to know people—who they are, where they are at, and where they need to go. Not to understand people, but to know. (It also helps him be insanely likeable). That’s where Cam differs from many people—especially when it comes to online learning. 

Discussions about online learning and facilitation often focus on the technology (and sometimes the content). In contrast, a person-centered approachto learning focuses on developing people. That may seem obvious, but professional development often focuses on what content needs to be taught, and even more often what technology to use, or how to use the technology, rather than on teaching the person. As schools and organizations moved to online learning in response to the pandemic, how many posts did you see on social media about how to know your learners? How many focused on people’s preferred technologies? 

Knowing how to use technology effectively is necessary; it is not the end goal. It’s kind of like saying the most important part of face-to-face training is the ability to use a whiteboard well. (Remember when standard and interactive whiteboards were a shiny, new technology?) The primary goal of professional development (or of training or teaching) is teaching people, not using technology, not covering content.

Person-centered learning encourages ownership, self-efficacy, and agency by creating a genuine, open, and supportive context which encourages people to take on challenges. It is a sensitive, yet sophisticated approach that encourages people to take ownership of challenging next steps while giving them the tools to be effective in accomplishing those steps—in this workshop, learning how to successfully connect and sustain relationships with important people. Becoming a person-centered facilitator is a multi-step process. It starts by caring about people enough to listen to them so that you know them, not just know about them. Person-centeredness takes caring, compassion, authenticity and time. It is an approach and set of skills that can be developed.

Research studies show how person-centered approaches offer value beyond the content being addressed: Perspective-taking, listening skills, teamwork, and interpersonal relationships are all enhanced by person-centered learning. Considering how each person feels, what they perceive, and what they need helps facilitators engage with their participants and facilitate ongoing learning—even after the workshop is over. By focusing on what matters to others, by being person-centered—individuals and the organizations keep learning even when the workshop is over. 

Being person-centered is foundational for effective online learning. Cam’s workshops are also problem-focused. Pragmatism matters. People enroll in entrepreneurial workshops and companies hire entrepreneurship facilitators to solve problems. Yet, even though a problem-focus often starts by addressing an immediate need, being problem-focused involves more than an immediate need. To really offer value, facilitators must avoid becoming myopic.  

Yes, Cam’s workshop start by addressing an immediate real-world problem—getting important people to respond to emails—but, and this is an important but—in each workshop Cam focuses on teaching broader principles that allows people to see similar problems in different domains so they can adapt and transfer skills and solutions to different domains. The email-an-important-person exercise is about emailing an important person; The principle in practice is understanding the audience enough to increase the probability of yes. 

To be problem-focused without becoming myopic, do your homework. Before the workshop. Know what principles will likely matter to the people you serve. Work so that the exercises can make different principles clear as needed by the specific people who attend the workshop. Why? Because then you can select the appropriate principles as needed and offer resources that help people continue to learn even after they’ve left the workshops.

The keyboards start clicking as 24 people start typing. They haven’t been asked to restart. They just know the first draft won’t work. Two minutes, Cam says. You have two minutes to ask your important person one question. Two minutes. One ask. No more. He doesn’t talk about how to pick the one ask. He just tells them one ask. No compound, complex sentences. No statements. One clear, direct, confident ask. One. People look uncomfortable. They stay. No one looks at their watch. They know they are going to learn something more. And they are only about 15 minutes in. They type. 

Two minutes are up. Another two minutes to post their draft into the shared Google document. The emails are shorter now. Brief even. 

The next half hour is spent in animated discussion as people revise and borrow and share and debate and help each other increase the chance that their respective important person will say maybe, or even yes. The chatter requires occasional redirection. What phrases are compelling? Which could be more economical? More unclear? Which emails would an important person say yes to? Why? Whose phrasing can we borrow? Make our own? Cam makes the wisdom of the crowd—mistakes and successes—visible. It works because he remains person-centered—attuned to each person’s feelings and perceptions. He cares. He attends. He continues to challenge because he knows they can do it. It works because he has helped each person solve their problem and addressed their immediate need. Awkward moments become teachable moments. And he has helped his participants see how the principle applies to other problems in different settings—Understand your audience. Respect their time and expertise—He’s already given them skills. He has helped them practice. And this workshop has just started. 

The session continues. It’s one of the regular workshops Cam offers along with custom professional development. His program works because he and his team are committed and capable of helping people to solve problems—now and in the future. Over the next few days, the participants practice other ways of talking to important people. They tear down an outreach email. They learn how to be persistent, but not annoying; they brainstorm the briefcase technique; they learn how to tell a story; how to pitch; how to signal confidence; and how to avoid the pre-apology (a challenge for those of us who are Canadian). They figure out how to increase the likelihood someone important will say maybe, or maybe even yes. 

A few days later, I followed up with Cam. He’s heard back from some of the participants. They thank him for the workshop and the value-adds. Their emails are brief, but specific: They’re getting more maybes. And yeses.

Learn more about Brenda’s work here.