Don't Just Tell, Show: the Value of ExamplesI found something interesting while cleaning off an old shelf recently. It was a children’s story called Officer Buckle and Gloria, by Peggy Rathmann. I planned on reading it one last time and then donating it. Instead, I kept the book.

Here’s a summary. Officer Buckle is a police officer. He spends a lot of time reading important safety tips to school children. But the children never listen. He is assigned a police dog, Gloria. He brings Gloria to his presentations and has her sit, to show how important it is to follow directions. Suddenly the children start paying attention and even send thank you notes. What Officer Buckle does not realize is that Gloria does not stay seated. She gets up and acts out what happens if each safety tip is not followed. That is what got his audiences’ attention.

It’s a beautifully simple reminder. Examples get people’s attention and are also fantastic memory aids. Uninspired eLearning tends to fail on both of these points. Perhaps your association has best practices, regulations, or new techniques you’d like your members to follow. You could just tell them by sending out an e-mail or making an eLearning course full of animated text that lists all of the information. They’re not necessarily going to pay close attention or remember it though.

If you reinforce the same key information with examples, it provides context and lets your members see why the content is important. This works well because humans inherently want to know “why.” If you just tell someone “do (or don’t do) this” they’re probably going to wonder, “Why?” You can use examples to answer this question by showing them why.

Tell: Start using this computer program.
The learner thinks: Why should I?


Show: This computer program has helped our main competitor significantly increase their productivity. We need to learn how to use it too because we’re falling behind them.
The learner thinks: I don’t want to fall behind. Maybe I should learn how to use it.

Good examples are also specific. As Lisa Cron observes in Wired for Story, people only have a general grasp of abstract ideas. Concepts like love, success, and safety are familiar to everyone but they’re really hard to pin down or visualize. Specific examples are a great tool for concentrating these abstracts into something concrete learners can latch onto and commit to memory. I can say that hot coffee can burn you, or I can tell you about the time Jim from accounting scalded his tongue because his coffee was too hot. They’re both related to coffee-drinking safety. They give the same warning. But which one caught your attention?

There are a number of ways to put examples to work in your association’s eLearning:

  • Present case studies
  • Include testimonials
  • Show data, charts, or other visuals that support the idea
  • Play a video
  • Role-play
  • Use example scenarios with characters to illustrate a point, instead of making generic statements

Without Gloria, Officer Buckle’s presentations were just a bunch of telling. With her, they became show-and-tell. That’s what got the children excited about learning the safety tips. Examples help learners understand why something is important and allow them to form clear mental images that aid memory. What kind of creative examples have you seen or used? Sound off in the comments section.

If you’d like to learn more about custom eLearning course creation from Digitec Interactive, visit our eLearning page.

If you’d like to read more about instructional design best practices, check out the rest of this author’s blogs.

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