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20081105-training-delivery

So last time we talked about the training material. But while training material forms the foundation of the experience, how you conduct the course is the make or break point. You can compensate for poor material with solid experience and product knowledge, you can make light of a difficult venue, but without quality delivery you’ll either have your students switch off, or even worse, have them go offside.

Herein lie a few prescriptive suggestions about how to coordinate the course. Again, while I’m stating these as rules, this is only my view on how to handle things. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Learn your student’s names, and use them

I used to think this was a good but cheesy rule until attending a training course where the trainer, on the third day, didn’t know a student’s name. Hearing him fumble through that moment instantly dropped my level of engagement with him, and stripped any notion of cheesiness from the rule. It’s a matter of courtesy.

Remembering student’s names lets you be that little bit more personable, but most of all it shows that you’re listening, and that you care. Why should students engage with you if you won’t engage with them? Also, if you need to get someone’s attention, our brains are really well geared to listening for our own names.

Learn something about the students

Find out their technical background, where they’re coming from, and what it is they hope to learn on the course. After all, putting someone on a training course is a significant business decision. Partially because of the cost involved, but more so because of the significant opportunity cost of taking someone out of their job for five days.

So, find out what their goal is.

Also, a good icebreaker can be finding out something personal about the students – personally, I ask them for something they do with their spare time. If nothing else, it gives you a window into their world. Maybe the recent parent of twins is bleary-eyed and disconnected on day two because of feeding routines, not because of any issue with your delivery.

Asking some simple questions about hobbies lets you switch roles and learn from them, straight off the bat, too. Asking questions shows that you’re interested and listening. And knowing about people’s hobbies or interests allows can allow you to draw analogies when explaining things.

This can be a bit of a double-edged sword though, particularly if you overuse it. Basing analogies on layperson’s knowledge of something that is significant to a student can quite easily come off as condescending. So tread lightly.

The other big advantage to asking people questions about their life outside of work and the training course is that people can be downright fascinating. I found out towards the end of a recent project that a colleague made his own photo books, in a conversation sparked by a play script I’d left on my desk. If you don’t ask, you never find out.

Organise this information as a mud map

If you organise all of this information on a mud-map with a rough grid of where the students are sitting, it gives you a cheat sheet to use while you’re still learning names. Also, it keeps any specific student goals right in your face.

What you do with that information will likely depend on the pace of the course, but at least it’s available as a springboard for you.

Facilitate and guide ‘The Experience’

Calling training ‘The Experience’ does make it sound like a dodgy book, but training isn’t just the material, or the labs, or the delivery. It’s the conversations over lunch. It’s the tangents that conversations go down. It’s the sum of the experience of everyone in the room.

But you can’t get the most out of this without a guiding hand. Think of it like an electoral debate. Everyone’s got something interesting to say, but you need someone controlling personalities and keeping things on course.

Which leads into the next point…

Constantly evaluate what’s going on

While you’re presenting or helping out with lab exercises or having a coffee break with students or whatever else is going on, make sure that you’re constantly evaluating what’s going on with the students. Whether it’s asking them outright how the course is going, or reading body language.

Once you’ve delivered training for a while, there’s a fighting chance an amazing thing will happen – you’ll be able to do this while actively presenting material. You get the knack of stepping outside of the moment while it’s happening, and focusing for a moment on the meta cognition part of presenting. I’ve talked to friends who are professional actors, and they’ve told me it happens with acting as well. It’s not magic, but it is tremendously handy. I don’t quite know how to drive getting there, apart from Musashi’s advice on pretty much everything: this is a matter of practice.

Keeping an eye on personalities lets you deal with problems with the training course proactively. Do you have a disgruntled alpha who’s going to try to assert technical dominance and railroad the training course? Try to defuse the situation by surrendering status, and rendering any conflict pointless. Or, if that doesn’t work, pick a strategic point to fight on, and pull them in line.

Is the person in the corner quiet because they’re not being challenged, and they’ve completely disengaged, or is it because things are going a little too fast, and they’re overwhelmed? If they’re bored, maybe draw them out by touching on their areas of expertise and getting their input and the benefit of their experience in the course? If they’re overwhelmed, in a quiet moment offer to take them through concepts outside of class time to help them catch up.

If you look around the room and see a lot of long, tired faces, then pull the ripcord and call a coffee break, then and there. If people are falling asleep, then there’s not going to be much retention of information happening anyway.

Be an expert, not an authority

A good ground rule to establish is that you won’t know the answer to every question off the top of your head, but that you will follow up questions you can’t answer straight away. Realistically, no expert knows the answer to everything in a domain without research. Or, maybe you do. In which case, you rock. (and drop me a line, we’re hiring!)

Setting this expectation up front avoids you feeling like you have to be infallible, and the single source of truth. Which is important to making the experience collaborative. Students will sometimes know the answers to curve-ball or tangent questions that you may not. When this happens, it’s something to be grateful for. Partly because it’s helping you grow and learn, which is a great side benefit of training.

But most importantly for the students, because having everyone involved and contributing gives the most enjoyable and highest quality outcome. The sum of everyone’s experience is greater than just yours, and students will be more attentive in an active environment than a passive one.

So be as prepared and professional as you can be, but be thankful to students for good questions, for correcting you, or for answering a curve-ball question. Getting flustered or petulant as a trainer when you’re caught out not knowing something is an immediate reflection of a lack of self-confidence and assurance. And hell, if you’re thanking students, why not make a point of thanking them by name?

Accept input and feedback

Hopefully, if students are kept awake and entertained, they’ll offer input. It might be questions. It might be comments. It might be feedback.

Accept it.

Especially if we’re talking about questions. A question might be outside the core curriculum of the course, but if it’s related in some way, accepting the question and researching the answer is a great way to learn, and round out your knowledge. So, be grateful for questions. If it’s a comment, respond and acknowledge it in some way.

Treat it as an opener to conversation, and if you need to, a segue into somewhere you’re planning to go. If you keep an active ear on what you’re saying, you’ll find that near most any topic can be used as a segue back to somewhere in the course structure.

But the goal here, or one of the key goals, is to engage students and get them involved. So make sure you reward students for being active. If the response to a comment is a technical smackdown, students will be rightfully hesitant to be involved.

Ask questions

This is an area I’m trying to improve on myself… asking questions is a great way to keep students awake and involved, and snap them out of the half-trance it’s easy to slip into when you’re listening to someone deliver material.

Ask questions about putting the current material into the context of what they’re doing in their work environment… how would you do X or Y? Ask simple questions about yesterday’s material to help retention.

A great time to ask questions is just after lunch, too. Training courses often mean lunch vouchers, which often mean heavier lunches for students than they might normally be accustomed to. Combine the siesta effect of lunch with the fatigue that sets in during a training course naturally, and you’ve got a stupor-riffic cocktail.

A round of questions, with sugary treats for reward will help pep students back up. Hell, you could even run your own little game show…

In closing…

So that’s my current thoughts on the actual act of training delivery. Thanks for reading this far.

Next up, and the last of the three part series, is a few thoughts on what makes a good training venue. In the meantime, let me know what you think in the comments… got any golden rules for training delivery yourself? Violently disagree with something I’ve said here?

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