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Ingredients of Great Training Content

Take your favorite training example, toss it in a simmering stock pot and let the flavors reduce. Watch as the well-designed visuals and engaging interactions evaporate away. What’s left as you peer into the pot? I’m willing to bet it’s really great content.

Great content is the foundation of successful training—without it everything crumbles.

But what makes great content can sometimes be tricky to define. Great content is one of those items that’s easy to see and difficult to explain (and even more challenging to create), which is why a formula for quality content provided by Ann Handley in her recent book Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content struck such a nerve with me. The formula is deceptively simple: Utility x Inspiration x Empathy = Quality Content. Though Handley is writing primarily with a marketing content writer in mind, this formula may be even better suited for instructional design.

Let’s tear this formula apart and consider its application in developing training content.


If good content is the foundation of effective training, then utility is the cornerstone. It determines where every piece will go. In training development it means you have identified something that employees need (or even want) to be able to do but struggle to achieve, and you have developed the solution. As Handley puts it, you help them “do something that matters to them.”

Training content typically begins with a utility in mind, but it may get lost in communication between teams and the learners. You’ve got to ask yourself from time to time, “What am I helping learners do that matters to them?”


Inspiration is when the content comes alive. It might be the inspiration for the right metaphor, story or visual representation. It’s about the making the content engaging and clear for the learner.

The inspiration for your next successful training could come from many places: the evaluation data you gathered after your last workshop, a really great Pinterest board, or—as is often the case for me—a creative conference call where members of various teams contribute to help shape a project. Wherever it comes from, good content becomes great content when we take time to get into it—when we get our hands dirty with the material. Taking the time to dig in early on leads to much more inspired training.


Great training content oozes empathy for the learner and is never condescending. Great content reads like it was written by an understanding colleague sitting next to you in the office during your first weeks on a new job. It’s a mix of understanding, humor, relevance and precision—all coming from experience. If you can imagine one of your target learners speaking your content to a colleague, you’re on the right track.

Developing great content is not a simple task, but it can be one of the most rewarding in instructional design. Taking the time to consider the utility, inspiration and empathy when developing content will lead to training that connects with learners.