A handy guide to L&D stakeholder conversations

March 23rd 2021 | By Charlie Kneen

L&D is an order-taking function because it hasn't learned how to say 'no'. Using the phrases in this guide could help you turn a training scoping meeting, into a discussion about a business challenge, setting you up to do some audience research.

When a stakeholder comes to you asking for a course with a deadline of ‘yesterday’, below are some things you can say. The best outcome for the conversation is that the stakeholder respects your input, understands why you are pushing back, and is open to research with the target audience. Showing stakeholders a Design Thinking model (such as Nick Shackleton-Jones’ 5Di) can give them confidence that there’s a process behind your assertions, and that it’s a tried and tested approach.

When to say 'no'​


Of course, occasionally you may meet a stakeholder who is under pressure themselves and reacts emotionally to your challenges and questions. In this situation, stay calm and if necessary, escalate to your line manager. You cannot do Performance Consulting without support from leadership to ‘do the right thing’. This means support in saying ‘no’ to projects that don’t meet the following criteria:

  1. The stakeholder is open to you validating their assumptions by speaking directly to the target audience.

  2. The stakeholder has metrics for what will demonstrate impact of the project. If this doesn’t already exist, they are open to you recommending some.

  3. There is enough time for you to complete audience research, even if it’s a few one-to-one interviews, shadowing or focus groups.


Questions and comments for a stakeholder who wants a course

  • “You’ve said you need a training course; can we take a step back and discuss the problem that you think this will solve?”

  • “What is the target audience currently doing that you want to change?”

  • “This sounds great, really exciting! The first step in our process is to define the impact metrics for the project, then we’ll conduct a short research phase to validate the TNA”.

  • “Let’s discuss what we can measure to see if this has been successful. Obviously, there’s no point in doing it if we don’t know if it’s worked or not”.

  • “Where has this need come from? Is there data to support this or do you have anecdotal evidence at this stage?”

  • “I’m sorry, if you’re not comfortable with us speaking to the target audience, this isn’t something we can support”.

Questions and comments for a stakeholder who wants a solution tomorrow

  • “What already exists that you might be able to use as a ‘stop-gap’ whilst we do the research?”

  • “What’s driving this deadline?”

  • “How quickly can you provide us with details of individuals we can speak to in the target audience?”

  • “Do you have any Personas we can test our design with?”

  • “We really want to help but we don’t have the resource to support you at the moment. Is there a way we can support a member of your team to deliver this?”

  • “Are you comfortable if we deliver a Minimum Viable Product next week and then go back to the target audience afterward?”

Top tips

  • A Training Needs Analysis already assumes training is the answer: If a stakeholder says, “yeah, we’ve already done the TNA, we just want to build the course”, explain you need to “validate the TNA with the target audience first”.

  • If you feel pressured into committing to a project without the necessary agreements in place, finish the meeting and promise to follow-up with an email. Here you can raise your concerns and outline next steps on your terms.

  • Show don’t tell: Most stakeholders won’t know what you’re talking about until you’ve delivered something with them. Until then, show them something that’ll paint a picture of the experience e.g., Storyboards, Mood Boards and Wireframes.

  • Stakeholders buy shiny things: The same information presented in a pretty PowerPoint is much more likely to be agreed with. Make sure your slides look and feel awesome!

  • Always have one eye on the case study: Capture great quotes, images, screenshots, testimonials, and quantitative data as you go. This material will be invaluable in future stakeholder conversations.

  • There’s never a perfect project. Be prepared to compromise the purity of the process.

If you say 'yes' to everything, you're not a Performance Consultant, you're a course or eLearning shopkeeper. 

Let's not pretend that there is a certain social awkwardness in saying 'no', so start thinking about it differently. You're not saying 'no' you're saying 'yes, and...'. Potentially saving you, your stakeholder, and the business you work for, heaps of time, energy, and cost.

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