Perfect Training

Have you even attended a really good training session? What about it made it good?

I’d like to develop some training sessions. I get a lot out of preparing and presenting (and I hope the attendees get something too). Rather than developing training that looks like every other session I’ve attended, I thought it would be worth while to take a critical look at what I like and dislike.

One of my recent training experiences was very typical. A presenter read PowerPoint slides for eight hours. I could try to explain this more deeply in my usual acerbic tone, but I think everyone reading has been to this session. Quite simply, it sucks. I have no idea who would like this type of training, but I suspect it’s nobody. It’s just a lazy presenter, I guess.

Saul Griffith - Pop!Tech 2008

Last year, Mike Alexander and I did some training in Dallas. I wasn’t enrolled in the class, but I sat it on some of his sessions. They are terrific, but they are that way because of Mike. He can’t hand his materials over to someone else and get the same effect. He has a special ability to speak in a language that the attendees understand and he has a great sense of humor. While I’m not a wet blanket, I’m not even in the same league as Mike. Few are.

A few years ago I went to a training session in Jackson Hole. It wasn’t software training. Rather it was leadership training, or some other warm, fuzzy thing. I knew it was going to be terrible. It was the opposite of terrible. Every activity was thought provoking and engaging. We were drawing on big whiteboards or hiking through the woods or stacking rocks on top of each other. They intermixed the lessons with this physical activity and nobody was ever bored. Not for a second. Not even a little. It would be tough to do the same with an Excel class, but I need to figure out a way to introduce some level of physical activity. Exploring different ways to eat protein powder could be a simple yet effective addition to daily routines.

Those are three training scenarios that are swimming around in my head. I’ll use the first one to remind me what not to do. Even if I can’t be as witty and funny as Mike, I can make sure I’m speaking to my audience in a language they understand, like he does. I also find his examples to be very realistic, which is important. Finally I want to be inspired by my Jackson Hole experience to try new things.

Here is what I think I want in a training session:
Road map: I want to know what we’re going to accomplish and on what schedule. I never want to wonder how long this session lasts or what we’ll cover in the next session.
Bite-sized: I want the information broken up so that nothing lasts more than an hour. Even if it’s artificially broken up, I think it’s better. Rainier Wolfcastle says that what we like about music is the notes. I think the rests are equally as important (and easier to play).
Firehose: I want so much information that I can’t possibly remember it all. And I want it delivered at a frantic pace. One problem with classroom training is that you have to move at the speed of the second slowest person in the room. There’s always one person who is in way over his head and pretty much gives up. But that second slowest guy isn’t going to give up and, therefore, he won’t let you get too far ahead. That’s good for him; less good for the lady in the front row who is playing solitaire while the rest of the people catch up. I don’t know how to solve it, but I find myself in the latter person’s role more than the former.

I think there are some givens that aren’t worth discussing. It has to be hands-on, learn as you do, learning. The facilities have to be accommodating. And various other things that we can assume.

I’m going to throw some ideas out there just to see who salutes.

  • Stand up desks – would you go to a training session where you stood up half of the day? Where could the session be held that could accommodate that?
  • Prep work – To attend, you have to submit some homework. It would ensure that your competence level was appropriate for the class. It could eliminate some of the tedium so the class could focus on important/interesting issues.
  • Group projects – Oh boy I hated group projects in college. Remember those? What if I took a 20 person class split it into four groups and gave each group a project. Then after 30 minutes, that group would “teach” their project to the other groups. Hmmm…crowdsourcing training classes.
  • Big project – If I was whipping up a training course right now I might do an hour on pivot tables, an hour on sorting, an hour on array formulas, etc. What if instead, I set up a big project, say, preparing the quarterly production reports. I’d set up all the sample data and even have a copy of last quarter’s report handy. For eight hours we prepare this quarter’s report. Along the way, we have to learn how to bring data in from Access, create a pivot table, read in a text file, and even record a macro. Maybe more engaging than if those topics are discussed discretely?

I haven’t really thought through all of those; I’m just brain dumping them to see what stinks and what doesn’t. Tell me what you love and hate about classroom training. Tell me about a really good or really bad session you attended.

25 thoughts on “Perfect Training

  1. my personal preference is to
    1. demonstrate a technique to everyone
    2. get the participants to do some exercises themselves using a special workbook (singly or in groups), to reinforce their knowledge, to engage them, and to provide variety
    3. briefly review the key issues that came up in the exercises

    this gives you time to walk around and sort out individual issues. The workbook could contain some advanced exercises to keep the early finishers occupied (so it allows you to span a wide range of skill levels), and most importantly of all, it acts as the take away which people can use later to remind themselves how to use the techniques

  2. I agree with dermotb — do a demo, then allow time for hands on work. You could include some short videos with the handouts, so those who’d like to, can watch the steps again, before trying the exercises.

    Assigning prep work would probably result in an even wider disparity in the attendees’ skills. The competent would do the prep work, and be further ahead, and the incompetent would say they didn’t have time to complete it. Unless, of course, you plan to ban those who don’t submit the completed work ahead of time. That might work for an in-company session, but hard to enforce in a pre-paid public workshop.

    I’ve done those ‘big project’ workshops, and they can make the day more entertaining. You need an amusing back story though, so it doesn’t seem like just another boring day at the office.

  3. Don’t underestimate that second slowest person, don’t over-estimate those impatient people playing solitaire, they might have grasped it superficially, but do they really understand?

    I remember my mate Carl telling me of a VBA class he gave earlier this year. One lady was your ‘typical’second slowest in the class, ‘holding the rest back’ But she was making sure she properly understood, went home, delved in deeper, and by the end of the course (a number of half-days over several weeks) she was the one best placed to actually use what she learnt, and she soon moved on from her job to another better able to deploy her new skills.

  4. My ideal training class is when the instructor says, “OK, you signed up for this because you need to learn it. Now go home and learn it. You can use the Internet, and feel free to experiment.”

    In other words there are two general types of learners: (type A) those who thrive on being taught, and (Type B) those who would rather teach themselves.

    I’m definitely a Type B, but I make my living from Type A’s who can’t afford to take a class and think a book is an adequate substitute.

  5. Working through examples is key. I’ve learned a lot from books – John Walkenbach’s and others – especially if they’re structured to provide hands-on exercises. An excellent example is “Pivot Table Data Crunching” by Bill Jelen and Michael Alexander. It provides online data you can use to carry out each function described in the book. You know you’ve done it right when your results look like the printed ones. By working through the steps, you learn “through your fingers” in a way that stays with you better than something you’ve just read or seen.

  6. JK, try this:

    Sub Test()
        Dim x As Long, y As Long
        Dim x1 As String, x2 As String
        For x = 0 To 5
            x1 = x1 & Chr(x * (x * (x * (x * (-0.75 * x + 7.2917) – 22.5) + 16.708) + 28.25) + 72)
        Next x
        For x = 0 To 6
            x2 = x2 & Chr(x * (x * (x * (x * (x * (0.425 * x – 6.8667) + 40.833) – 109.58) + 122.24) – 23.05) + 87)
        Next x
        MsgBox x1 & x2
    End Sub
  7. I teach groundwater classes occasionally for the US Geological Survey. I have found that hourly breaks and an hour-and-half lunch period help regardless of subject matter. I might present a 20-30 minute discussion of a topic and periodically ask students if they might have examples that we can solve. The remainder of the hour is spent solving problems. The problem preferably is a student example where the work needs to be delivered soon, but I have canned problems if no one speaks up. Chatty classes where students provide examples and ask questions are much more enjoyable and informative for everyone in the room.

    The general goal of our classes is to introduce individuals to a range of techniques and approaches for solving groundwater problems. Lectures and exercises provide a flavor and demonstrate that these problems are tractable. Mastery of the methods is not the intent. Fiddling with the methods and tools later is the only way to master a subject. Classes encourage self-learning because the individual knows the approach will work.

    I also advise younger hydrologists on training. I encourage them to go, drink with their peers, meet the smart ones, and identify the dumb ones. Learning the material in the class is lagniappe.

  8. JWalk –

    I don’t get the last part of your first comment at all. I’m absolutely a type B, and you’re making your money off me specifically because I can learn far more and faster from a book than from a class. The way I see it, self taught means you learn concepts and theory and application, whereas instruction almost always means you learn methods to a single end and leave helpless to apply those methods to even a slight alteration of that situation. I don’t think the type A would buy your book at all, except maybe just to put it on a shelf a work for show.

    As a type B, my ideal training class is any training class my company pays for where I don’t have to sign an attendance sheet. That way I can figure it out on my own at home in my pajamas in two hours while getting paid for the full day plus expenses. Needless to say, I try to “attend” as many training classes as I can!

  9. One cant learn from a book. However having learnt something either through your own experience(best way) or from a Guru(2nd best way) the book serves as a reference – So that you can remember the concept and forget the syntax

  10. “One cant learn from a book.”

    Sure you can. You just have to put what you learn into practice.

  11. Halford,

    Langniappe – what a wonderful word! I have never come across that before, but I will henceforth endeavour to use it every week.

  12. I read this book last summer; The Brain Rules. It has some really interesting paragraphs about learning and presentations. I think there is plenty in there you can use in a training course. If not, it’s still worth reading, even if it has nothing to do with excel…

  13. About the class, I think the number of students is important. It’s always good to have the class involve (discussion and everything) but with a 30-40 students class, it’s much harder then with a 10-20 class.

    Second, about your “Firehose”. I like XL stuff like you’re not suppose to, but still, I agree with the saying “the less is more”. If you try to teach too much stuff, you’ll go so fast that pretty much nobody is gonna learn anything. Like someone said, exercices that faster people can get ahead will keep pretty much everyone busy, without the running like crazy paste. And with the exercices, maybe you could try to get the faster students to help you help the slowest. Like you said, you learn a lot by teaching. Well so does pretty much every one. I’m not sure how to work this, but it’s an idea.

    Will you ever give training session outside Texas? I’m interested but it’s a 2000 mile trip…

  14. I spent a number of years as a military instructor, and was fortunate enough to be assigned to actually teach the “instructor training” course (where one learns the skills necessary to become an instructor). Depending on where you pick up these skills, you will have different labels that you are used to calling things… but I believe that there are some very basic “truths” that transcend lables.

    1. Some people learn differently than others, but we all fall into a few simple categories. Some people can learn in whatever format is presented to them, but others can only learn in that one particular format that suits them. It is the responsibility of the instructor to modify their presentation to suit all the students. But that’s the rub… when you change for one, you alienate others. It would be ideal if you had several classes that covered the same material, but was presented in various formats (and could segregate your students into the proper class for them). I wish we lived in an ideal world, but only you can determine that balance in your class (and it will be different for each group of students, so you will have to adjust on the fly).

    2. Do your homework. I know you know the subject. But for each hour of presentation, you need to spend a minimum of five hours of preparation. The guy reading the power point slides did NOT do his homework. You should rehearse what you are going to say, how you are going to say it, and how you are going to use your training aids. Condense this down to bullets that you can glance at yet not stand there “reading”.

    3. I could go on with dozens of points… but I’ll leave you with what, in my opinion, is the most critical one. TEACH BY QUESTIONS. Not just a light sprinkling… but a heavy downpour. And not rhetorical ones either. Ask a question to the audience (expect the blank stares), then walk over to the 2nd slowest student and say “so, John Doe, what do you think?”. Use their response (right or wrong) to build your next question on, and call on the person in the front playing solitaire. Your students will never know when they will be called upon (and you make sure that the ALL get called on several times), so they all have to pay attention. Since it didn’t matter if they got it right or wrong, they don’t feel picked on. In a one hour topic, I usually ask over 100 questions (and yes, I know that you can’t do this in a room of 500 people… but that’s not a lesson, that’s a lecture… and it’s also not teaching).

    Ok, I’m off my soapbox now. Best of luck to you!

  15. I attended some training recently where the “road map” lasted 45 minutes. Don’t do that! Tell me what you’re going to cover, then dive in! I absolutely hate spending vauable time listening of details about what I’m going to be taught later.

    I personally learn much better from a person than from a book. Don’t get me wrong, I learn a lot from books, but I learn BETTER from a person. You can’t ask a question of a book.

    In terms of learning, I say walk me through an example, then give me a similar (though not identical!) exercise to work out on my own using the same principles. It’s got to be different enough to be challenging, but not a problem where I need to use knowledge I do not have, if you know what I mean.

    I think stand-up desks is not a good idea. It would be okay to alternate between stand-up desks and sitting, but standing at a desk all day would really get old if I’m not able to move around.

    Give examples of where you’ve used a technique – tell a story! Tell a joke. Confess where you’ve blundered. We can learn by others mistakes as well as their successes!

    One other issue. If you use PowerPoint slides and do not actually read them, give your audience time to read them themselves. If the audience cannot read the entire contents of the slide, then those contents are useless and unnecessary and should not be there in the first place.

  16. I was at a brilliant session a few years back heres why:
    He had stacks of relevant interesting facts
    the slides were just nice pictures to illustrate the points he talked around. very few words (he had his own notes)
    there were multiple formats, pics, vids, on-line forums
    we did individual activities, we voted for answers, we did group activities, we did full audience activities.
    all of it came across as natural not forced, there were no stand up and move seats type stuff. There was friendly competition – left side v right side etc.

    When I do training I try and start with a bang – something that will make the audience think ‘I want to know this’. then a 2 min overview then get them doing an activity. People like tales from the trenches.

    people who go on training courses aren’t like many of us here who from the sounds of it prefer self directed learning. If I go on a course I like to see a million things then have good enough reference stuff to fill in the gaps and get more comfortable in my own time. Others might like to get a good grip on just one or two items.

  17. I think the most important thing is not so much what you show, or even how you show it, but your own enthusiasm. I went to a seminar on GST(VAT to the rest of the world) and land transactions just to make up my professional hours. Expecting a morning of dreary case studies, and inane examples, the guy presenting it had real enthusiasm for the topic. I was enthralled, and came out of it wondering where th morning went.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think enthusiasm can be manufactured – you have either got a real interest in it, and can see the importance of it, or you don’t.

  18. If you’re after another good book or good audio book try “Made to Stick”. It lists the 6 things that help make ideas stick. Great for shorter presentations – its harder – but not impossible – to apply to a full day of training.

    Stay away from Powerpoint bullet point slides if possible – use Powerpoint to show pictures that compliment what you are saying – they’ve come to see you – not Powerpoint slides (well we hope they’ve come to see you)

    When creating training sessions I prefer to run through “real world” examples. You need to through in difficulties and explain how to get around them.

    Also really encourage questions from the audience – this is harder with larger groups. Many questions are viral and spread easily to other things that are really uueful for the audience. Don’t be afraid to stray widely from the course outline if the audience wants to go there.

    With tips and trick sessions the firehose / shotgun approach is worthwhile because people use Excel so differently.

  19. I’d say that the typical two-day excel or VBA course has a number of problems:
    – Classroom layout, with delegates hidden behind large flatscreens, poor access for trainer. Better to have paired desks facing out around the room.
    – Not enough time to get to grips with decent examples – and delegates never seem to understand just how long a big exercise takes.
    – Can’t enforce prerequisites for a public course (apart from asking someone to leave!).
    – Can’t really give delegates experience of the research/experimentation aspects – especially of VBA programming – which is in many ways more important than the factual knowledge.

    Unfortunately, people (or their managers) regard a training course as a substitute for any more extended period of learning – (some) delegates turn up wanting a ‘blood transfusion’ of knowledge, without any real effort on their part. Unsurprisingly, they can be disappointed.

    That all sounded a bit negative… I think there are potential solutions, but probably only for in-house courses.


  20. Many trainers are trying to do two things: provide quality training of course, but also attract potential clients for additional training and/or development projects.

    I may be a masochist, but I tell stories during training of my… screw ups. Tales from the trenches as mentioned above.

    It’s not pure masochism, I actually believe that reviewing errors – even hearing about other people’s – is very instructive. They provide a backdrop to the topic (how were we attempting to use this technique?) and caution about when NOT to use a certain technique.

    They also provide a great deal of humor during training (at the teacher’s expense… maybe that is just masochism.)

    It needs to be balanced with the things you do right, however, if you do expect that some of the students will engage you at their company to design mission critical applications.

    Sales Autopsy contains some brutally painful mistakes made by salespeople and how to avoid them ( see the John Madden video… ouch). Is there an equivalent for developers and trainers? I’ll write a couple chapters…

  21. Theo –

    In my programming classes, I just do what I usually do when developing, and invariably I screw something up and get an error message. Then I go through debugging, find what’s wrong, and fix it.

    These trips into the tools and capabilities of the IDE are very informative, and I’ve had people in the class comment on how smoothly I’d integrated these simulated errors as a learning tool. Little do they know.

  22. The best training I ever had, and the best one I’ve ever taught, is the ‘Jigsaw’ performance-improvement lesson I wrote about in PED. It’s fun, competitive and very easy to for the instructor to switch between a simple problem that everyone can understand (doing a jigsaw) and a difficult theoretical problem (improving the performance of a computer program), while applying the same concepts to both – identify the unstated constraints that you impose upon yourself and question them.

  23. @Stephen

    May I take this (timely!) opportunity to thank you for the jigsaw lesson, I re-read it last week and it helped enormously with some training I was planning – good stuff.

    Sorry for the blog hijack – carry on :)

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