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Simple steps to better training

After years of walking the training tightrope, I’ve had more than my share of embarrassing slips. Along the way I’ve found a few key ideas that improved the impact of my efforts.

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Training is tricky.

When teaching people a new process or tool you’re walking a tightrope in a windstorm.

Whether you’re onboarding clients, working with new hires, or looking to level up your team, striking the right balance is key.

Go too far in the weeds and people lose interest once they feel it’s no longer relevant for them. Keep things too conceptual and they leave with unanswered questions. Or worse, they leave not even knowing what questions they should have asked.

Stick tight to a text packed set of slides and everyone will wish you sent them the slides instead of the invite. Focus all of your energy into keeping things fun and they’ll remember the good time they had instead of the content you covered.

So what’s the secret to delivering better training?

After years of walking this training tightrope, here are the key insights I’ve learned – and relearned.

Build backwards

When I started creating training sessions my first instinct was to list all the things I thought they should know. Then I put all of that information onto some slides with a few extra notes for myself.

It was a simple straight line from what I wanted them to know to what I would say. 

The results were not so simple. No matter how fast I talked or how many bullet points I crammed into a slide there was always too much to cover. Important information was cut for time, or because I didn’t think to include it until after the training was done.

Even if I happened to say it all, how much of that did people remember? Not much.

The problem, ironically, was my focus on covering everything I thought they should know.

Effective trainings aren’t built around what you want your audience to know. They’re built around what you want your audience to do

If your training doesn’t drive people to do something, then your training didn’t do anything.

Driving action requires starting at the end and building backwards. Start by writing out the action you’re hoping your audience takes.

Let’s say you work in HR and are presenting your company’s benefits with the hopes everyone signs up before open enrollment closes. There’s lots of relevant information you could include, but only one thing you need everyone to do. Enroll.

Now work backwards through what they need to know to complete each step. What would prevent them from taking the next action? What’s the minimum information they need to not get stuck?

Imagining yourself going through it for the first time will help you boil it down to just the essentials.

Does your audience also need to know a comparison of every plan’s out of pocket costs for an urgent care visit in Montana? Probably not.

Do they need to know where to click if they have a question? Absolutely.

Any excess information is baggage that gets in the way of them remembering the essential information.

The less they have to remember, the more likely they are to do what you’re training on.

Make it interactive

I took an embarrassingly long time to understand the difference between speaking and communicating. Speaking is what you say, communication is what your audience hears and understands.

You can speak to a wall, but to communicate you need another person.

Intentionally including that other person in the process of communicating increases the chances they’ll understand your message. Creating breaks in presentations to answer questions helps. Also stopping to ask questions of your audience is even better.

Having your participants practice the action you want them to take is ideal. This embeds the learning more deeply than watching you go through the steps or listening to you describe them.

If hands on practice isn’t an option, you can still benefit by adding smaller opportunities to interact. Asking your audience to provide examples or generate ideas can break up long stretches of only you talking.

These little breaks also serve as attention onramps for people whose focus is drifting.

Back to our HR example. Simply asking people to “Raise your hand if you’ve ever been surprised or confused by a medical bill” helps. It's a small chance to participate for those listening, and it pulls back in the distracted ones- if nothing else it makes them curious to figure out why hands are going up.

Tell a story

In their book Made to Stick Chip & Dan Heath share research revealing that when we listen to a story our brains are anything but passive. In fact, our minds are hard at work reconstructing a simulation of what we hear. We even put ourselves in the role of the protagonist experiencing their hopes and fears unfolding with each new twist.

This combination of mental and emotional activity is why good stories impact us, and stay with us, so long.

Your presentations may not have the same emotional pull as a telenovela, but a small change can help them stick in people’s heads. Instead of describing the action you’re wanting people to take, frame it as a character following the steps.

Using stories concretes examples that people remember. This is especially useful when communicating more conceptual ideas.

The saying “persistence in your limited ability is better than talented overconfidence which leads to failure” won’t stick with your audience the way a tortoise beating a hare in a foot race will.

Great stories are the closest thing we have to Inception. They are one of the best tools you have to get something to stick in someone else’s head.

Break it up

I squeaked out a passing grade in sophomore Spanish by cramming the night before. The next week I forgot it all. If instead I took that same amount of study time and spread it over the course of the semester, I might still remember the difference between es and está.

Language teachers use spaced repetition to grow their students’ vocabulary. This technique relies on our tendency to internalize information better when we encounter it more frequently. Each time we’re exposed to that word or concept it gets embedded slightly deeper in our memory.

In-person training comes with high organizing costs like reserving a space, arranging travel, and clearing large chunks of everyone’s calendar. As a result, trainings can span several hours to several days and tend to be one off events.

The rise of virtual training tools makes it easier than ever to schedule multiple small sessions over the course of weeks. It’s easier to coordinate an hour-long weekly invite than find an entire open day. Virtual trainings can also scale up more efficiently since there’s little additional cost for each new person joining.

The ability to space out smaller sessions instead of cramming everything into one marathon session is a key factor in why virtual trainings were found to be more effective at driving change than in person trainings.

If more than an hour is needed for your session, split it into multiple 30-60 minute bite size chunks instead.

Before and after

Have you ever joined a meeting and thought “what are we doing here?”. Or worse, left a presentation wondering why you needed to be there in the first place.

In doing all of the work to pull off a great training it’s easy for me to forget the simplest area to improve for maximum impact: the communication before and after.

Sharing specifically who each session is for and what will be covered ensures the right people attend and know what to expect. Small things like adding these details to the calendar invite help get people in the right frame of mind before your session starts.

After the session is over, you can extend its impact by sending out a short summary and recording for those who weren’t able to make it. Follow up the next week with links to additional resources or an offer to provide help to anyone interested. That extra reminder can be the nudge people need to follow through on the action you’re looking to drive.

This type of over-communication isn’t just professional courtesy.

Using the time before and after your training to bring your topic to people’s attention further reinforces your message.

After years of walking the training tightrope, I’ve had more than my share of embarrassing slips. Along the way I’ve found a few key ideas that improved the impact of my efforts. 

  • Building backwards from what you want people to do, not just know, focuses your content on what’s essential. 
  • Creating opportunities to actively participate improves attention in your session and retention after. 
  • Incorporating stories engages listeners’ minds in unique ways that make your message stickier. 
  • Spacing out several smaller sessions drives behavior change. 
  • Communicating clearly before and after extends the effectiveness of your training sessions.  

Looking to try something new for your next training? See how a Switchboard room can make your session more engaging and dynamic.

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