Semantics in Learning

semantics impact perception in learning programs

A recent LinkedIn group discussion got me thinking about semantics – the meaning of a word, phrase, sentence or text.  How are our programs being perceived by participants?  By the managers of participants?  By executive sponsors?

Is it possible to gain adoption, engagement, or improve performance based on how we name or market a program?  I think yes.

Perception is reality.  How we perceive a situation is directly related to our response to it.  Here are 3 examples of how semantics can make a difference in learning programs:

1.  “Training” vs. “Learning”

There is a time and a place for training.  I believe training is an event, and learning is a process.  Training, however, is not always the answer!  Sometimes, a learning need is better addressed through coaching, mentoring, on-the-job observation, or other methods.  As learning professionals, and consultative advisers in our organizations, we must be adept at recognizing learning needs, and providing an appropriate solution.

So, what about semantics?  If we refer to everything as training, we risk enabling our stakeholders to believe that everything is a “training issue”.  Look at the bigger picture, do your research, and develop your program around the learning needs, rather than simply training.  True, training is a major part of what we do, but there is greater depth than many recognize.  There’s an old expression, “If everything in your toolbox is a hammer, then everything will look like a nail.”  Diversify your offerings, and be on the ready to offer relevant solutions…a hammer will not always get the job done!

2.  “New Hire” vs. “New Employee”

I will not refer to our Orientation program as “New Hire Orientation”.  Ever.  It may be splitting hairs, but to me, this devalues the expertise a new employee brings the organization, and just sounds impersonal.  People naturally think of a new hire as inexperienced and lacking knowledge, even when that person brings years of experience.  Referring to that person as a “new hire” gives the impression that this person isn’t really an integral part of the team yet.  Simply put, I don’t feel that referring to someone as a “hire” sends the right message.  That “hire” is a person.  A new member of our team.  That person is an employee when s/he walks through the front door on Day One; we chose that person for a reason, and we need to welcome that employee and the talent s/he brings to our organization.

3.  “Soft Skills” vs. “Professional Development Skills”

The LinkedIn discussion I mentioned earlier was the inspiration for this third example.  It is such a good point, and a great reminder of how the description, planning, and marketing of our programs can make or break the support we receive from business leaders and program sponsors.  A good friend and colleague said it best in that LinkedIn discussion:

“I avoid using the term “Soft Skills.” I especially avoid it if talking with non-training professionals. I think it de-values the importance of courses such as Diversity & Inclusion, Communications, Business Etiquette, etc. As an alternate term for those courses I use the term “Professional Development Skills.”

What a terrific alternative!  As soon as I read that, I immediately stripped “Soft Skills” from my vocabulary, in favor of “Professional Development Skills”.  What did “Soft Skills” mean, anyway?  It was a vague, meaningless name for some very valuable learning experiences.  “Professional Development Skills” clearly conveys the benefit for the participant.  I’m all about sending a clear message, aren’t you?

Semantics are a big deal.  An earlier post was all about clarity.  Clarity when you communicate with others, and clarity when you deliver content.  Our programs should be clear – start to finish, from needs analysis to evaluation, and at every point in between.  Check it out, and tell me what you think!

Your turn:  How have semantics played a role in your Learning & Development program?  I’d love to hear what terms, buzzwords, and descriptions work (or DON’T work!) in your organizations!

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8 thoughts on “Semantics in Learning

  1. I totally agree Michelle. Our choice of words definitely do matter. Certain words have various associations/baggage (good or bad) that other words do not. For example, I would never use the term social media with business stakeholders as it often has too many connotations for people who don’t understand it which can be very difficult to get beyond. So many may think what’s the big deal but I suggest that you can shoot yourself in the foot if you don’t give it some thought.

    1. Hi Mike – thanks for your comment! I think we’re on the same page. I agree about the term “social media” – many business leaders immediately react negatively…because no one can possibly LEARN anything on social media, right?! ;)

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