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Kirsten Liston on Her New Book: Creating Great Compliance Training in a Digital World

by Ann Allsopp

It’s an exciting time here at Rethink Compliance, where we’re celebrating a book launch for our very own Kirsten Liston. Creating Great Compliance Training in a Digital World: How to Really Reach and Persuade Your Workforce, her new title with the SCCE, is now available!
 

If you read one book about compliance this year, make it this one. Chapter by chapter, Kirsten offers key insights and practical guidance on how to reach your audience and make your compliance program more effective, complete with examples and exercises.

And unlike many business books, this one won’t put you to sleep. Kirsten’s writing follows her own advice to “talk like a human,” so the pages read like you’re taking a friend out to lunch—a super smart friend who has worked with hundreds of companies and is willing to share all the secrets to her successful 19-year career.

I recently sat down with Kirsten to chat about the challenges facing the industry and her advice for crafting compelling compliance messages.

Ann: In the book, you talk about the importance of making your audience care. So let’s start there. Why should people care about Creating Great Compliance Training in a Digital World?

Kirsten: As compliance professionals, the stakes have really gone up in recent years. The DOJ has made it clear that they are seriously scrutinizing programs—are you doing something that really works and is creating behavior change, or are you just putting a paper program in place?

If we’re spending all this time and money creating compliance communications, we owe it to ourselves and our companies to make sure we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck. And when you start with your audience and tailor your message to them, you create more effective compliance training. That’s what this book is all about—how to reach your audience and create real behavior change.

Kirsten and Roy Snell at the SCCE CEI Conference 2019

Ann: You begin the book by saying: “We are all professional creatives now.” The first few chapters focus on communication strategies to capture an audience’s attention and craft meaningful training messages. Why start there?

Kirsten: When I sat down to write the book, I thought back to my last two decades in compliance training. There’s been a massive change in technology and how we communicate, and compliance has had to grapple with those new technologies. But technologies come and go. Trends for communicating come and go. So I wanted to focus on the timeless principles of communicating that apply, regardless of what technology is available to us.

Ann: You borrow a lot of those principles from journalism and advertising. What inspires you about these industries, and what do they have in common with compliance?

As an industry, we’re really trying to think through what’s effective. That starts with having an impact on our audience. ​

Kirsten: As an industry, we’re really trying to think through what’s effective. That starts with having an impact on our audience. I personally spent the first five years of my career as a journalist before moving into compliance. Tricia, who heads up our Creative Services team, came to us from an advertising agency, and you (Ann), began your career in content marketing, so I’ve had exposure to those fields. It made sense to start with industries that are already thinking about “how do you capture human attention,” and look at what they’ve learned and been practicing and ask: “Is any of this relevant to compliance? If so, how?”

Ann: One of those lessons is writing simply and clearly. Why do you think that’s a challenge for compliance professionals?

Kirsten: It’s a particular challenge for anyone who has had training in the law or in other types of risk mitigation. Typically, the practice of law is all about trying to anticipate and manage risk. If you’re a transactions attorney, you want to put into a contract any foreseeable situation or outcome, so you add things like secondary clauses and bulleted lists with examples.

With compliance training, it’s the opposite: you need to say something clearly and simply so employees can quickly grasp your message. By definition, this means leaving out a lot of details and caveats and justifications, which makes attorneys and compliance professionals nervous. It feels like a risk to leave things out. But what they often overlook is the risk that if you include everything, people will tune out. They’ll stop paying attention.

It feels like a risk to leave things out. But what they often overlook is the risk that if you include everything, people will tune out. They’ll stop paying attention.

So many times I’ve worked with lawyers where, after the writers on our side have distilled a training message down to a few key sentences, the lawyers will go back in and expand each sentence into a paragraph. But the way people read online, they’ll only read the first sentence. If you turn a sentence into a paragraph, the majority of readers will skim it, and then you don’t know what they’ll take away. When you condense the language, you’re more in control of the message, and it’s more likely you’ll end up communicating what you want to get across.

Ann: You also talk about the importance of thinking about compliance training as persuasion, not information.

Kirsten: That has been my number-one insight in the area of compliance training, and it’s driven about the last six years of my career. It’s ultimately what caused me to leave my old job and set up this company.

Once I started to read a lot of books and articles about behavioral psychology, I had this realization that simply giving information to people is not enough to make them change. Behavioral psychology is all about the other steps to make people change. I realized I was in an industry that, for the last 14-15 years, had been doing exactly what behavioral psychology said wasn’t enough: giving information in hopes that people would change their behavior.

If just telling people what to do were enough, we wouldn’t need a compliance industry. We would only need to train new hires, and then employees would just do the right thing.

But information isn’t enough. Information is necessary—you need to know what’s against the law, what the expected behaviors are—but it’s not enough. So to persuade someone to do what’s right, you have to figure out: who is my audience? How do they think about this topic? Where are their natural obstacles or problems? Why should they care?

If just telling people what to do were enough, we wouldn’t need a compliance industry.

Ann: And separate key behaviors from facts.

Kirsten: That’s a critical distinction. Are you starting with facts, or what it means to the employee? The average lawyer starts with the facts, because that’s what they know. But facts will only be interesting to people if they’re relevant to something you’re saying. So start with what’s at stake, or you’re going to lose your audience.

One of the reasons to start with behaviors is to earn the right to talk about the facts. Not all lawyers can write in a plain-language, conversational way. Some can, which is fantastic, but even those people need to learn what to hang a course on. In the book, I provide a series of exercises and charts and examples, and make the point that you should start with the behaviors, then support those behaviors with the facts, and screen out any extra details.

So let’s say you’re writing training on competition law. You’d want to start by saying, “Be careful when you talk with a competitor, because it’s possible to break the law over a cup of coffee.” Then you can add the facts: “Over a hundred countries have passed competition laws because they protect markets and consumers and allow for better pricing, more innovation, and more customer choice.” If you start with the behaviors and then use the facts to say, “Here’s why…” it can be very persuasive. But you need the first to make the second relevant.

If it’s all facts you’re summarizing and not behaviors, you’re going to lose people.

Ann: In an ideal world, people have all the time and money and customization levels to make training that’s really unique to their audience. But most compliance professionals have limitations on time, bandwidth, or resources. How can clients who are using a library solution make the most of the principles you’ve outlined in your book?

Kirsten: It’s such a good question, because this has been a core challenge for so many in our industry. Almost no one has unlimited time, budgets or energy, so it can make a lot of sense to start with off-the-shelf training, rather than starting from scratch.

And yet we know training is better and more effective when it really speaks to your specific audience—with your branding and visuals, and about your risks and specific workplace situations.

The good news is that technology developments have created new opportunities for what I’ll call “tailored” customization options that start from existing library courseware. Early compliance course authoring software WAS clunky and it WAS hard to make changes to really make a course yours—but it’s honestly so much easier and faster now than it used to be.

Given that, you can apply all the same principles whether you’re editing a course or building one from scratch. Go through the exercises in the book; think hard about your audience and your key messages. Then layer these in along with some visuals that are custom to you—it can really make a difference in making the course feel personalized to your company.

Grab your copy of Creating Great Compliance Training in a Digital World: How to Really Reach and Persuade Your Workforce here.

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