Create Compelling Educational Programs by Copying 7 Moves from Queen’s Gambit

If we could meet around the office watercooler, I know what everyone would be talking about… Queen’s Gambit. This Netflix series has been the buzz of social media and the web. If you haven’t watched it yet, let the binging commence!

Queen’s Gambit is set in the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s. Beth Harmon is a chess prodigy who learned to play the game in an orphanage. She trains obsessively to become the best chess player in the world, even learning Russian in case she faces Soviet champions one day.

7 elements of compelling educational programs—and TV series

After the series ended, I wondered, what makes Queen’s Gambit such a compelling show? Can associations apply those principles to create more compelling virtual conferences and online learning programs?

If you haven’t finished the series, beware, there are possible spoilers ahead.

#1: Story of transformation

Queen’s Gambit follows the classic hero’s journey formula. Beth is on a quest, in her case, to become a world champion. But, like all heroes, she must overcome the odds stacked against her and surmount challenges along the way, including some substance abuse issues. One critic called her “the thinking woman’s Rocky”.

You feel the story is racing against time. Will she have her fairy tale ending before her addictions catch up with her?

We love stories of transformation on the screen and in real life. Why do people join associations and pursue professional development? If you dig deep, it’s because they want to be transformed in some way. Nobody may come out and say it, but that’s the motivation.

Your marketing messages must remind members, customers, and prospects about the power of education to transform careers and lives. They can be winners, not victims of circumstances, if they take steps to improve their skills, increase their knowledge and earn credentials.

Don’t let up on this messaging when someone registers for an online course. Address the challenges they may have to overcome. Make sure they see their progress throughout the program. Recap the skills they’ve learned and the knowledge they’ve gained. Help them celebrate their own story of transformation.

compelling educational programs

#2: Showing a path forward into an unknown world

Chess was a man’s world. Beth went against the social norm of the time—the mid-century housewife, an unfulfilling role for many women. But thankfully, a janitor at her orphanage taught her how to play chess. The game gave Beth a sense of purpose and an opportunity to make a living and express herself.

Many people never consider joining an association, attending a conference, or taking a course. They don’t understand what a powerful and transformative experience they’re missing because no one around them belongs to an association or pursues professional development. Like Beth, they have no models to emulate.

Many people never get a chance to reach for more. They may not think they’re the joining- or learning-type. How can your association reach this untapped market? How can you tear down some of the barriers standing in between them and your educational programs?

#3: Binge-worthy content

Who’d imagine a show about chess would be such high drama? First of all, it’s a great script. Critics called the series “smart, smooth and snappy” and refer to the director as a “master of pace.” But what makes it so binge-worthy?

Like an effective microlearning experience, a limited series like Queen’s Gambit is shorter and more compact than a regular show. Each episode offers a balance of narrative closure and surprising revelations—those binge-inducing cliffhangers. You get invested in the characters, either caring about them or becoming intrigued by them. Best of all, the series transports us to a different world than our pandemic life stuck at home.

Can you make an online course binge-worthy? Well, perhaps that’s a high bar, but you can entertain, educate and connect emotionally with learners. You can give them the dopamine hits they seek—a sense of progress and reward. You can even simulate cliffhanger endings for each module by getting them excited for the next one with previews or teasers.

The best learning is social. Help learners connect with their instructors and their fellow classmates or attendees so they’re more emotionally invested in the program.

Series like Queen’s Gambit spend a long time in development before the first scene is shot. You must invest in instructional design if you want to offer riveting and effective learning experiences. Get the best SMEs involved. One of the set consultants for Queen’s Gambit was chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov who designed the chess moves and provided advice on competition scenes.

#4: Seeing the magic up close

It’s strangely mesmerizing to watch chess champions work their magic close up. We like watching geniuses or experts at work and getting a peek at what goes into a championship performance. Watching Queen’s Gambit, you also get a sense of the thousands and thousands of hours of study and practice required.

Give your learners a peek behind the curtain with practical and inspirational advice. Invite industry leaders and influencers—or perhaps professionals five years ahead in their careers—to share how they’ve applied the skills and what lies ahead once they’ve mastered them.

compelling educational programs

#5: Escapist treat

Queen’s Gambit came along at the right time since we’re all looking for an escape from pandemic fatigue. We follow Beth on her travels around the world to competitions in Las Vegas, Mexico City, Paris and Moscow.

The series is visually stunning, especially the costumes—featured in this virtual exhibit—and set design with its mid-century hotels and furnishings. You can lose yourself in another place and time where, as one critic said, “being smart is glamorous.”

Your conference attendees used to get a taste of escapism—arriving in an exciting new place and planning adventures in a strange city. It’s tough to get away from it all at a virtual conference. Can you at least provide some element of surprise and delight to keep them focused on the program? Can you go against and exceed their expectations?

#6: Peer support

Some of Beth’s early chess opponents became her friends. They made a long-distance group call to the Soviet Union to give her advice and encouragement before her big match with the Russian grandmaster. It was only at the end that she finally felt a sense of belonging to this tiny community who shared her victory celebration.

People join associations to belong to a community—a community where even competitors can become allies. Members join to find people who get them—people they can lean on and people they can give back to. Give learners the opportunity to develop relationships with classmates and peers in online communities, discussion groups and networking meetups.

#7: Viral buzz

How do you hear about hot new shows like Queen’s Gambit? I’m guessing you first learned of it from the recommendations of friends or family, reviews, articles, or advertisements.

You have these same promotional channels available for your educational programs and conferences.

•    Past or registered attendees and learners can spread the word on your behalf, especially if you incentivize them to do so.

•    Partner with industry influencers so they’ll share your marketing messages. What can you do for them in return?

•    Content marketing sells products. Attract eyeballs with relevant and related content—and then make your pitch.

•    Use all digital advertising channels—social media, search, retargeting, etc.

Aim high. Create a compelling educational program or conference that becomes the talk of the industry—an experience that will differentiate your association from your education competitors.

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