Nuts and Bolts: How (and Why) to Show Your Work

In August 2012 I wrote a column about narrating work, focused largely on watching my friend Gloria work and learn out loud on Facebook about the art of cookie making. The experience of seeing someone share photographic examples of small challenges, mistakes, and wins over a span of months—and watching others comment and even join in learning with her—was fascinating.

I was intrigued by the possibilities that doing better at showing our work could have on organizations, on each other, and on our own professional development. That column turned into an Ignite! session at DevLearn 2012, then into a popular longer conference session. And now—it’s a book.

Why show your work?

Really, we know that a lot of “traditional” knowledge management approaches don’t work very well. We have piles of status reports and documented standard operating procedures and what have you, and still, data says we spend a quarter of our time looking for something—or someone—with the information we really need (Figure 1).

Figure 1: One of the best reasons for showing your work is that it ultimately helps you

You find out after a project is finished that someone in another building already did something just like it, or a key person leaves and no one can step in. Or you struggle to self-learn enough to complete a project and later run into someone at the office holiday party who, it turns out, has a degree in the thing you struggled to learn last spring. We are constantly documenting procedures while learning and relearning to handle exceptions to them, often keeping that data in our own heads.

Working efficiently and effectively isn’t just about capturing “information.” We need to do better, not at documenting what people do, but how they get things done. This will help our organizations, our coworkers, and others who engage in our practice. It will support your credibility and establish or strengthen your brand. And it’s how we help each other learn.

What does it mean to show your work?

It means telling others at a meeting, or blogging, or making a video on your phone, or sketching on a chart pad, or drawing on a wall, or tweeting pictures, or uploading a document to SharePoint. Or perhaps, mentioning on Yammer something like: How I learned that. Where I got that idea. My problem and how I solved it. Before-and-after examples. What we did in class today. My slide deck from the big sale last week, with notes about how I handled objections. An obstacle and how I overcame it. How I spent my day. What was hard about that? Why we did it that way.

How about some specific examples?

  • “I Was Struggling to Figure Out What to do with this Content”: Instead of showing off a finished, polished course, Matt Guyan took to his blog to describe his struggle to come up with an interesting treatment for the content—and where he found the inspiration for his solution:
  • “This Doesn’t Happen Overnight”: Kevin Thorn (Nuggethead Studioz), while working on a serious comic for HIV awareness, shows the evolution of the comic’s characters from rough sketch to final form as the story itself developed:
  • “Why I Did It That Way”: The process for choosing a font, with considerations alien to many of us but critical to designers, and from which any of us who design instructional materials can learn:
  • “Here’s What I Did. Please Ask Me About It”: The eLearning Guild hosts wonderful events at which attendees can show their work: mLearning DemoFest, which happens every summer at mLearnCon; eLearning DemoFest, held in the fall at DevLearn (Figure 2); and SolutionFest, which takes place at the spring Learning Solutions conference. Conversation is lively and often goes beyond just “how did you do that?” to “how did you do that with no money?” or “how did you do that given the time constraints and conflicting stakeholder ideas?” Guild members can access the “Best of” webinars after each event; for example, “Best of SolutionFest 2014.”

Figure 2: mLearning DemoFest and MobileFest in the summer, eLearning DemoFest in the fall, and SolutionFest in the spring feature dozens of designers and developers showing their best work

  • “This is How I Managed That Project”: Nancy Duarte tweeted about her process for designing a book. She lays it out in PowerPoint, then prints out the slides and gets down on the floor with them.
  • “We Learn From Sharing Our Mistakes”: Hospital mortality and morbidity conferences routinely held meetings at which physicians gather to discuss unusual cases, how they handled them and why, and what they might do differently next time.
  • “What I Learned Because Others Showed Their Work”: Leslie Jensen-Inman talks about an early job in a design studio, and learning from pressmen how to make her design work better—to make her work stronger—by avoiding things that could cause common printing problems. “They shared with me design decisions designers made that really ticked them off—things that made the pressmen’s jobs harder and sometimes impossible. In essence, the pressmen showed me how to make my work stronger. They showed me how to think beyond just being a designer and they helped me to design as a maker. They did this by encouraging my curiosity. They did this by sharing their experiences and their knowledge.” (

Want to start? Don’t over engineer

Want to share your work or help others share theirs? This shouldn’t be hard, or involve big launches or implementations of platforms, or require the use of tools with a long learning curve. Pay attention to where it could fit into your workflow. Look at your existing systems and channels. When considering how to show your work, or encourage others to show theirs, Charles Jennings reminds us: “The point is to extract learning from work, not create more work.”

Want more?

Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-Tos of Working Out Loud, is available from,, and other booksellers worldwide.

More examples—including yours, if you send them Jane’s way—are available at

From the Editor: Enhance learning with social and mobile elements!

Learn how to create an awesome collaborative learning experience by connecting mobile learners through social media! You can, by attending the great sessions at the leading mobile learning conference and expo, The eLearning Guild's mLearnCon 2014 in San Diego June 24-26. Multiple sessions addressing the state of mLearning + social media today and the directions we are moving toward tomorrow, together with the new Mobile Foundations program (included as part of your conference registration), will give you comprehensive guidance for defining your mobile learning strategy, enhancing it with social media, and connecting to business results. And we've added mLearning DemoFest to show you mobile learning solutions that your colleagues have already executed in a wide variety of organizations!

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