Saturday, 26 May 2012

Delivering a better presentation / training course. No. 5. Eliminate typos from training materials!

This is the fifth in a series of posts where I plan to discuss my ideas, tips and best practices for delivering a great presentation / training course. Eliminate all typos and spelling mistakes from your materials!

Before I start, I must warn you that I will shortly be referencing a scene in Men in Black 3 which will to some count as a spoiler. Particularly as many of you have probably not seen it yet. So if you would rather not read on, why not check out some of Bryan O'Connor's posts? He's been a busy guy this month.

This isn't the first time that I have written about spelling. I was going on about it in the following post: How hard can it be to write a paper that contains no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors?.

And before you write in, yes I do now that it contains a spelling mistake. It was an attempt at humour.

There is a scene in Hell Boy (this doesn't count as a spoiler as it such an old movie) where HellBoy is running down a corridor and his chunky right hand thing is on his right hand side as you would expect. He turns a corner and suddenly it is on his left. Then he turns another corner and it is back on his right side.

The editor presumably flipped the footage due to continuity. i.e. emerging the right way out of a corner. I would have thought that chunky right/left/right hand thing would constitute a more serious continuity gaff?

A mistake like that spoils the movie for me. With all of the millions they have spent and they can't fix that?

Crikey. Oliver Reed died whilst filming Gladiator and they still managed to add him to an extra scene!

MIB3 is another offender. I won't get into how they tackled time travel because that's always tricky. They did it pretty well in fact. Loved the film. But there were some stupid mistakes that spoiled it for me.

There is a scene towards the end of the film where agents J and K are detained by some soldiers at Cape Canaveral. At least one of the soldiers, a Corporal, is wearing an Iron Cross. All of the soldiers were wearing plenty of medals but it is the GERMAN Iron Cross on an AMERICAN soldier that I object to.

My first reaction was that some dumb Muppet in the Props Department had simply grabbed a handful of medals. Then I thought "No way". A multi-million Dollar movie like this? All the attention to detail that has gone into creating an authentic 1969? It must be deliberate. So then I'm thinking that perhaps this is a clever reference to Wernher von Braun who was whisked away to America at the end of the Second World war and was a leading light in the NASA space program. And then I thought "Nah!". Some dumb Muppet in the Props Department has just grabbed a handful of medals from the dressing up box.

In the moments that I took to process and be annoyed by the medals, I was distracted from what was happening on the screen.

Now talking about gaffs in movies is just as common a topic as the weather or perhaps politics. More so. And is often a source of amusement.

But mistakes in training materials is more serious. Just as the gaffs I just mentioned lower my opinion of the movies slightly, the same would be  true of courseware.

Typos and errors in courseware say 'poor quality' and are very distracting. Now typos in new material is understandable. Typos in material that has been in use for some weeks, months or even years is unforgivable.

They either mean that no one in the organisation has spotted the typo (nor indeed any delegate) or more likely, no one has taken responsibility for correcting the error.

Let's put that another way. No one could be bothered to correct the mistake when it was spotted. So how highly should a delegate value the course material and the course?

I once attended a Train the Trainer event for Visual Studio 2005. Whilst working through the exercises, I found and documented 169 mistakes. I was particularly keen to spot any errors as I would shortly be redelivering it. I couldn't believe how dreadful the exercises were. Fortunately, I was able to get hold of the Word documents so that I could make my own corrections before redelivery.

This was the tenth time that the course been delivered by the same trainer. Why had he not made the corrections himself?

Typos are a bad thing in two ways. A misspelt word here and there is bad enough as it just says 'poor quality' and can be distracting as I have already discussed.

However, on technical courses where you are showing code that delegates are expected to type in, if there are any typos, the delegate is unlikely to spot them as they are perhaps learning a new language.

They are more likely to type it in good faith and then spend the next 10 minutes trying to debug the program. How do you think they are going to feel when you come by and say "Oh yes, that's a typo"?

You could just bluff and pretend that you hadn't seen it before. Which means you are asking them to believe that no one has ever typed in that incorrect code before or that perhaps you could use the trusty "Ah, this is a brand new reprint. Perhaps the typo was introduced in this edition?". Keep digging!

The error has been there for months and you were too busy doing other stuff to correct the mistake or get  someone else to correct the mistake.

Where you or your company own the material, you are well positioned to correct the mistake. With  QA Authored material such as Developing Windows Presentation Foundation applications with Visual Studio 2010 and Expression Blend 4, if I or  a delegate finds a typo, I update the material and upload it to our courseware repository the same day. That way, the next print run will not contain the same mistake.

It is not so easy when the material is bought in. QA, like many training companies use training materials written by software vendors such as Microsoft Official Curriculum.

We have no access to the source documents. That doesn't mean that you cannot deal with typos. Most courseware contains typos. That is to be expected. It is how you manage them that matters.

It is no good to simply say "Mmm, Yes. There are a few typos in here. Well of course we buy it in so there is not much we can do".


Whenever I prepare to deliver someone else's course, I maintain a log of all the typos. If the typos are in the slides, I can at least ensure that I correct my electronic slide deck. If the typos are in the exercises, I will know to warn the delegates just before they reach them. If there are several mistakes, I will usually give the delegates a copy of my error log as a PDF to keep on their Desktop.

Fortunately, I mostly deliver my own material these days and so do not have to deal with many typos.

The first couple of runs of a course are going to throw up some typos that weren't spotted during the writing and proof reading stages. However, I always enlist the support of delegates on new(ish) courses and award points for any typos found. Winner gets a Mars bar on the last day. During the first few outings for a course, 30 or so typos might come to light. By the 3rd or 4th outing, we are down to perhaps 10. By the 5th and 6th, we are probably hearing of spaces before question marks.

So if you or a delegate discover a typo, correct it immediately, just walk over to your computer and load up the document that you carry with you (you do don't you?) and fix it!

Perhaps you don't keep a set with you? Well, access whatever remote content management system you use and fix it!

If you cannot do it immediately because you are fire fighting 12 stressed delegates who are trying to cope with the typo rich exercises, do it on your next break.

If it's not your own material, update your own error log immediately so that you never have to 'discover' the typo again. You could also feed this information back to the people who wrote the material in the first place. You never know, they might actually fix it.

That'll do for now. I have checked this post through several times and am pretty sure that it is free of typos. However, if you do find any mistakes please let me know and I will correct them immediately. You never know, you could win a Mars bar.

Finally. I did a quick check online to see if anyone else had written about American Soldiers wearing Iron Crosses. Look at what I found: 14 American Soldiers awarded the Iron Cross. Spooky!

[Update. My colleague David Walker got in touch to say that the medal was in fact the US forces veteran medal from the end of WWII. So that's OK then.]

[Update. Except for the fact that MIB3 is set in 1969 which would have meant that this particular youthful soldier would have been 6 months old at the end of World War II!]

Just saying!

See you soon

Phil Stirpé
"I don't do average!"


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