For the first time in a long time, I attended a training course in April as a student,. I’m hoping to attend more training courses soonish, particularly some of Sun’s Java internals courses. I’ve just finished delivering a block of training in Sydney, so now seems like a good time to talk about something that’s been ticking over in my head since that course – golden rules of good training delivery.
Watching a course unfold as a student is a great learning exercise. Not just in terms of learning the course material, but also watching how trainers present the course, and help the class learn. Watching the course in April reinforced for me some things I believe about training – a number of them by negative example.
So, here’s my current viewpoint on what makes good training, and it’s exactly that – just my viewpoint. I’m starting with a few thoughts about training material, because training starts with the material you’re delivering. I’ve got a couple more posts planned here: one about delivery (and managing the experience) and the other on what makes a good training venue.
Please let me know what you think in the comments. Part of the benefit of putting this down down in pixels is challenging what’s inside my head, and improving and evolving it. So feedback is, as always, more than appreciated.
(also, I apologise for the length of the post – believe it or not, this is an abridged version… I need to get these puppies shorter)
Know your material’s theory
No matter how familiar you are with a particular product or technology or skill there is still a gulf between knowing it, and being able to explain it coherently. I remember hitting that brick wall when I started delivering Tuxedo training back in 2001. It’s like the difference between knowing a word well enough to use it, and being able to give a concise definition of that word’s meaning.
Going through dry runs of the material you’re presenting is critical, particularly for new material. Even though you’re not likely to go into every detail when presenting, make sure that you can coherently and concisely explain the points of theory on each slide you’re presenting. Even the obvious ones. Because it’s much easier to find a way to explain something when it’s you in front of a mirror than when it’s you in front of ten eager students.
And sometimes, the things you gloss over initially as obvious are the ones that catch you up. You might find some surprising gotchas in trying to clearly explain concepts that you’ve worked with for years. But that’s a great learning step. It’s being able to clearly explain this to other people that helps you crystallize key concepts in your own head as well. It forces you to eliminate any fuzziness from your thinking. You build a rock-solid foundation of concepts that you build the rest of your theory on.
Know your material’s flow
No matter how well you know the theory, know the order that your material presents information in. If you’re unfamiliar with the flow of the material, no matter how well you know the subject, it’s easy to come off as unprofessional.
It’s paramount to a smooth, consistent experience for students to be able to talk through the concepts you’re conveying using the structure that presentation slides use. If you establish the context of what you’re talking about from the information on the slides and the physical material the students are reading, that ensures that one medium reinforces the other.
The flow of the course provides a logical spine you can use to hang your own asides off. If you’re unfamiliar with the flow of the material, you’ll be presenting in spite of the material – ducking in and out of the logical spine the course provides.
Even with courses I’ve presented before, in fact especially with courses I’ve presented before, I find it’s really important to flick through the slides as a refresher before presenting. To jog your own memory about what you’re talking about and how – to set it all in context.
Speaking of context, that brings me to the next point.
Establish the material’s context
It’s a golden rule I picked up from Kathy Sierra’s awesome blog (sadly now long defunct) As much as possible, direct the experience to be about the students.
Part of that is, when talking in terms of a new piece of functionality, establish why it’s relevant or significant to the students. How will it make development easier, or their application more robust? How will it save them time as an administrator? By constantly bringing the material back to why it’s useful for the students, you’re also reminding yourself of why you’re there – not to show the students how much you know, but to tell them the relevant parts of the knowledge that will help them.
Find the awesome in the material
I maintain that the hardest part of training is keeping people awake in a room for five days.
Sitting in a room and listening to someone drone on can become a real challenge. You find yourself holding out for the next practical exercise just to stay awake. So, as a trainer, it’s important to remember where the awesome is in your material.
Web service security standards might not be the subject of Jerry Bruckheimer’s next film, but to me the fact that public/private key encryption can be used for identity assertion AND ensuring message integrity in one step is pretty damned keen. So convey that to the students! Don’t be afraid to get enthused – to show your nerd love for the topic at hand. Being enthused yourself will help keep the general energy level up. It’s infectious.
There is however, a fine line to walk here. If everything becomes the AWESOME way to do the AWESOME thing, you’ll come across as plastic, and wear people out quickly. You need to be engaging, but authentic at the same time.
So work yourself around to being enthused about key points in the material you’re presenting. Look for the fun nerd stuff you might have missed in the race to be across the content of the course you’re presenting.
Next up: The Delivery.
In the meantime, let me know what you think. Good/bad experiences that have stemmed from course training material? Horror stories of The Course Manual That Came From Snoozeville?
…we wanna hear them all.