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posted 30 Jun 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 9

Engaging training

Nick Davies likens training to any type of performance, and argues that it’s your responsibility to engage your people with compelling, emotionally connected and knowledgeable training – not theirs to ‘be engaged’.

When Ark Group’s conference producer asked me to deliver a presentation on ‘engaging your workforce in training’, I told her that it would take me about 30 seconds – if you want to engage your workforce in training, then make training engaging.

I’m not being flippant or facetious, but why should people be engaged in training? They have other things to worry about, their job to get on with and all those other things associated with work. Every day they receive countless e-mails, texts and voicemails demanding that things are done.

In the same way that it’s up to me to motivate you now, it’s up to you to be motivational when you train your people. It’s not their responsibility. I know want I want to tell you and it’s my job to condense it and disseminate the most important points – and that’s what I’ll do. So, I’ll give you a few practical tips to get you started.

First, base everything around the single most important thing in any training: your audience. It starts and finishes with them. It’s like delivering a speech or doing stand-up comedy – it’s not about you, it’s about them and they dictate what you do.

You know what it is that they need to know but your skill as a trainer is to adapt all that knowledge and put it across in a way that they will ‘get it’. It’s not just about you regurgitating everything you know. It was Lyndon B. Johnson who said: “Delivering a lecture on economics is a bit like pi**ing down your own leg. It might seem really hot to you, but it isn’t to anyone else.”

I once did a one-to-one session with a woman who ran a quarterly debt recovery training course (you’re probably falling into a persistent vegetative state thinking about it, unless you’re into debt recovery, in which case you need to get out more).

I asked her about it and she said: “They’re really dull”. Even though she found the subject extremely interesting, she probably wasn’t conveying that to the audience. If she was coming across in this way, with the mindset that it was boring, then that what was she expecting to project to those she was training? The lesson is that you can’t expect your people to be motivated about something if you’re not.

One size doesn’t fit all
Certainly there are themes, and I’ve discussed this particular topic time and again, but I still spend time preparing, bearing in mind the time of day, audience, numbers and environment. Instead of getting lost in Clip Art searching for the fascinating slide cartoon that will blow everyone away (which it won’t and you well know it) go through the ‘who, what, why, when and where’ of your audience. Who are they? What is their level of knowledge? What age and sex are they? What do they want to get out of the training? If they’re present because they’ve been made to attend they won’t be very motivated. Do you want them to leave motivated and contemplative? Do you want them angry, laughing or sad? It all makes a difference.

If you’ve ever been to a comedy club you’ll know that in terms of physical space they’re small, dark, tightly packed and intimate, with people sitting really close to the stage. Do you think this is a bizarre coincidence? No. When a performer is on stage they want the crowd nice and close so that they feed off their energy. In a large room any feedback you get dissipates.

When I’m training I like to get into the room at least 30 minutes before the start, even if I’ve been there before. Fifty per cent of the time I’ll be arranging furniture so that people are sitting exactly where I want them, so I can make an emotional connection with them – and also so I can visualise what it will be like standing at the front of the room.

I also sit in various positions and look at the view they’re going to have of me. Performers do this. Before they go on, stand-up comics will often stand at the back of the room watching the previous performer and audience; getting a feel for the physical space, where people are sitting, who the hecklers are, and so on.

You only have moments to make an impression
That’s why it’s so awful when someone stands up and starts fiddling with PowerPoint. My stepmother is quite senior in a UK education authority and she says it’s similar when a supply teacher walks into a classroom – studies have found that a teacher has nine seconds to stamp authority on the class and if they don’t, the children will eat them alive. This is because youngsters spot weakness and don’t have the sophistication or politeness that we have as adults.

Therefore, it’s up to the trainer to stamp their authority straight way. One of the reasons I don’t use PowerPoint is that it can make people confused as to whether they should be looking at the speaker, their notes or the PowerPoint – they should be looking at the presenter – it’s that person who brings it to life.

PowerPoint is great for images and video but it’s useless for text. Often highly intelligent people at the top of their game will bore people with slides, without actually realising that in training, less is often more.

In 1997, before Labour won the UK general election, what were its three priorities? Education, education, education. Why do you remember it? Because when Tony Blair sat down and wrote that speech that was what he wanted people to remember. Similarly, Winston Churchill – “We will fight them on the beaches…” – one man with a microphone mobilised a nation to go to war, with not a fancy slide in sight.

There will be more information to pass on and you can put the detail in handouts, but when you’re at the front of the room it’s your job to distil that information in a fashion that people will understand and retain.

All in the emotion
To make an emotional connection you need energy. It comes from your body language and from the pitch, tone and pace of your voice. Your actual mood isn’t the audience’s concern – once the microphone comes on that’s it!

Think spontaneity. All the people who deliver good training go off on tangents and can deal with situations ad hoc, which breeds confidence in the audience. By showing that level of comfort and knowledge of a subject you make them feel safe.

Many highly intelligent, systems-driven people can struggle with training, as creativity needs to tap into the right-hand side of your brain and they often use the left hand-side – the logical approach. I work with a lot of lawyers and these people are exceptionally ‘left brain’. They charge lots of money for their time, so if the training isn’t right they will just walk out.

Emotional connections can be forged using humour. When you’re out with your friends you make them laugh – not necessarily by telling a joke. Tap into that. Analogies, quotes, metaphors and stories all help to personalise the message.

One of the best uses of analogy I ever saw was on the TV programme Blue Planet. David Attenborough had thought about his audience and set out to describe the size of a blue whale in a way that a five or 90-year old would understand.

He could have said that a blue whale weighs 100 tonnes and is 75 feet long (these aren’t the correct measurements), but there’s no context with that. You wouldn’t want 100 tonnes to fall on you – but then again you wouldn’t want a tonne to fall on you either.

Instead he said that the blue whale is the largest mammal on the planet. It has a heart the size of a mini, a tongue the size of an elephant and blood vessels so wide that a human could swim through them. He immediately he made the emotional connection.

It will take a long time but go back to your training courses and rip them apart. Think about who you’re speaking to, what their background is and what time of day it is – the ‘who, what, why, when and where’ will provide the ‘how’. Think about spontaneity, energy, creativity, body language, and the pitch, tone and pace of your voice.

Take all your knowledge and think about how you can put it across in way that people will remember when they leave.

By constantly working on the material and throwing in new stories and ideas, you will finish with people who will go back to their desks feeling engaged and motivated and, similarly to having watched a good comedian, recommend the training to their friends.

Just remember, this is all your responsibility, not theirs.

Nick Davies is an LLB (Hons) barrister at the Really Great Training Company. He can be contacted at nick@reallygreattraining.co.uk

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