Monday, March 28, 2011

Tip #368: How to Make a Boring Topic Interesting

"Never fail to know that if you are doing all the talking, you are boring somebody."
Helen Gurley Brown

"Any subject can be made interesting, and therefore any subject can be made boring."
Hilaire Belloc

There are no boring topics, there are only boring training methods. Topics that are highly technical and very dry are typically considered boring. However, the topic is really not the problem. The problem is the training method, which is almost always a lecture. There are many ways to enliven a highly technical or dry topic:

1. Approach the topic from a different perspective.

Instead of citing rules and regulations, put the participants in the role of individuals who need to work within or apply those rules and regulations.

For example, a state training program for new supervisors initially involved a long lecture about hiring policies and procedures. The topic was made interesting by having the supervisors assume the role of the personnel staff who would have to review the hiring-related documents submitted by the supervisors. In their personnel roles, the supervisors saw first hand the importance of providing specific and complete information in accordance with the hiring policies and procedures. Without it, there would be a frustrating delay in the hiring process (while the necessary information was collected) or the resulting candidates would lack the necessary training and experience (because the supervisor did not completely or accurately identify

the position’s requirements).

2. Provide a self-discovery activity.

Instead of citing rules and regulations, have the participants find the key information themselves.

For example, for a training program on sexual harassment laws, the participants are given a worksheet that asks them to identify either where key provisions of the rules and regulations are located and/or what those key provisions are. They work in pairs to review copies of the relevant rules and regulations. To expedite this activity, the information that the participants are asked to find has been highlighted. As a result, the participants not only know what the laws say, they can now locate those provisions.

Another example: for a training program on industrial fans, the participants are given a worksheet that asks them to identify the appropriate fan for a specific application. Rather than lecturing on this information, the trainer provides reference sheets from which the participants can determine the correct answers.

3. Use an experiential learning activity.

Instead of telling the participants about the rules and regulations, give them an activity that will enable them to experience the impact of those rules and regulations.

For example, a learning goal of a training program for state rule writers was for them to recognize the impact that different state regulatory rules had on small businesses. Rather than a lecture or discussion of this topic, the participants were divided into teams of five and asked to name their “business.” They were then given large plastic tinker toys, with the assignment to build a merry-go-round according to directions.

Each team also had two additional participants who acted as the Voice of Reality and the Observer. The role of the Voice of Reality was to continually interfere with the team’s building process by adding various rules and restrictions. To avoid having to put the Voices of Reality into a witness protection program at the end of the activity, they were told to stop interrupting the building process after ten minutes so that the teams could successfully complete their merry-go-rounds.

The impact of this activity was much greater than a lecture could have. The rule writers experienced the frustration, anger, and powerlessness that small businesses experienced when they were regulated right and left by different departments in the same state agency, sometimes with conflicting expectations.

4. Incorporate a case study.

Instead of telling the participants the theory and steps involved in a process, let them see firsthand what it looks like when the steps are followed or what results when the steps are not followed.

For example, a training program for supervisors to build delegation skills begins with small groups reviewing a case study in which the delegation is poorly handled. The groups are asked to identify what went well, what went wrong, and what, if anything, they would have done differently. The case study shows what happens when the three key components of delegation (responsibility, authority and accountability) are mishandled.

5. Organize key information into a questionnaire.

Instead of lecturing on a topic, isolate the major information and create a questionnaire around that information.

For example, a training program on performance evaluation begins with a questionnaire that consists of twelve statements about the topic. The questionnaire is used as an organizing device to introduce the various topics in the sequence that they will be covered during the session. Working either individually or in a small group, the participants have to decide whether to agree or disagree with the statements. They then report and explain their answers, but the trainer does not confirm the correct answers at this juncture.

The trainer refers to the relevant question at the beginning of the section on that topic. The trainer asks the question again at the end of the section, when the participants should know the correct answer. Only then is the answer to that question finally confirmed.

6. Bring the topic to life.

Instead of listing work expectations, provide a newspaper clipping that illustrates the impact of appropriate or inappropriate conduct.

For example, for a training program on customer service and public relations, the participants were given an actual letter to the editor in a local newspaper. The letter writer was very angry about how the company had mistreated her. It was an excellent example of how the company did not want to be perceived by the public.

7. Include real-life stories.

Instead of going through work rules, have the participants review real-life situations to determine if they were handled appropriately.

For example, for a training program on organizational ethics, the participants were given the descriptions of ten different ethics-related scenarios. These scenarios were based on actual employee behaviors. The participants had to decide whether or not the behavior was ethical and consistent with the work rules. If they decided it was not ethical, they had to propose an alternative behavior that would be ethically appropriate.

These seven training techniques will make a highly technical or dry topic interesting and engaging, because they actively involve the participants in the learning process.

May your learning be sweet.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Tip #367: How to Incorporate Participatory Activities When Time is Limited

“Life is entirely too time-consuming.” Irene Peter

"You will never ‘find’ time for anything. If you want time you must make it." Charles Buxton

There are excellent reasons to incorporate participatory activities that engage an audience, even when time for a presentation is very limited. Luckily, there are also many quick and simple learning activities that are very participant-centered.

First of all, why should trainers and presenters incorporate participatory learning activities into their presentations? If the intent of the lecture is to educate rather than simply entertain, then some level of learning is clearly desired. Lecture alone will not provide any feedback about whether or not the audience has “bought into” the ideas presented or learned anything. The audience will need to do something to at least indicate that they have understood the message.

Second, what participant-centered learning activities are quick and simple to incorporate into presentations? Let’s consider four different categories of activities that engage learners and enable them to demonstrate their learning in one to ten minutes: written, verbal, visual and physical.

1. Written Activities:

a. Questionnaire- This can be used to organize the presentation by including statements or questions that cover the major points. A questionnaire can be an easy way to convert a lecture into an interactive learning activity.

b. Crossword Puzzle or Word Search- There are free internet sites that enable trainers to create these puzzles. Crossword puzzles are particularly good for checking learner comprehension.

c. Worksheets- Fill-in-the-blanks worksheets enable learners to post key points as they learn them. Match up worksheets check learner comprehension.

2. Verbal Activities:

a. Shout Outs- Learners shout out answers to questions posed by the trainer.

b. Question and Answer Session- Learners and presenter can interact, with the nature of the questions providing

direct feedback to the presenter regarding the audience’s level of understanding.

c. Paired Conversations- Asking participants to turn to someone next to them to discuss a point or share information about a topic requires them to articulate their thoughts and enriches their learning experience.

d. Debate- Participant volunteers take two sides of an argument and debate them in front of the entire group, which

is split in half to provide verbal assistance to their designated representative. A debate clearly reveals the

learners’ awareness of both sides of an issue.

e. Competitive Brainstorming- Table groups compete against each other to list the greatest number of responses to a question posed by the trainer. The winning group gets a small prize. The competitive nature of this activity adds interest and energy, while checking for learner comprehension.

3. Visual Activities:

a. Video Simulation- Trainers can show pictures that simulate on-site situations on Power Point slides and ask the

learners to analyze what they see and report out.

b. Demonstration- With live demonstrations, either the trainer or participant volunteers can show the steps in a

process. Demonstrations can also be on video, giving the learners an opportunity to see what to do or not do in

given situations.

4. Physical Activities:

a. Pop Ups- The trainer poses a question and learners who have an answer stand up to respond. Pop ups get learners out of their seats and let them articulate what they have learned.

b. Relay Race- The trainer divides the group into teams of a manageable size (8-10 people). The teams race against each other to list content items or fill in the blanks on flip charts. Relay races take very little time to set up and facilitate, and they invigorate the learners.

c. Signaling- Learners indicate by a show of hands or thumbs up or down whether they agree or disagree with a statement. Learners indicate by the fingers of one hand their degree of satisfaction with the training content. Signaling adds a physical aspect to the learning experience.

d. Koosh Toss- The Koosh ball (or some other soft object) indicates which learner has the floor to speak on a topic or report out key learning. It helps to have the learners stand and then, after they have received the Koosh ball, spoken and tossed it to someone else, they sit down. The Koosh Toss gets participants out of their chairs.

These are just a few of the many quick and easy ways to incorporate participatory activities into lectures or presentations. The important point to keep in mind is that both trainers and learners benefit from participatory activities. Trainers benefit because they get real-time feedback about what the participants learned. Learners benefit because they are more engaged and, therefore, more likely to learn and retain what they learned.

May your learning be sweet.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Tip #366: How to Manage Time Limitations for Lots of Training Content

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” Charles Swindoll

Companies are doing more with less, so their employees have limited time to spend in training sessions. As a result, many trainers are frequently charged with what appears to be an impossible expectation: deliver training in a fraction of the time necessary and usually allotted for it.

The bad news is that trainers may react to imposed time limitations in two ways that produce ineffective learning results.

First, trainers eliminate learning activities in order to have more time to lecture on content. There are at least two problems with this response:

(a) Learning activities are designed to help learners achieve desired levels of learning and competence. Removing the activities will eliminate the opportunities for the learners to demonstrate and practice new learning.

(b) Lecture only achieves the most basic level of learning (knowledge). It also does not meet the needs of many learning styles. Lecturing minimizes the likelihood that learners will achieve the desired learning levels and resulting competencies.

Second, trainers resort to the “fire hose” approach to training. They spray learners with huge streams of data at one time.

Studies have shown that the brain can absorb only 3 to 5 new pieces of information per training segment. More than that results in cognitive overload. (A training segment may be 5 minutes, 20 minutes, or more than an hour- whatever amount of time it takes for that specific content to be learned).

When trainers are not selective in the amount of information they deliver, many learners are overwhelmed and can therefore neither learn nor retain much of the information. So these two responses should be avoided.

The good news is that training is still valued and imposed time constraints offer a great opportunity for trainers to decide what parts of their training are truly essential. In essence, the trainers can do some spring-cleaning, where they throw away clutter and polish up what is left.

Time limitations should compel trainers to distinguish the content that absolutely must be taught in the classroom from the content that can and should be provided for the learners’ later reference. The real challenge and opportunity for a trainer is to sift through the training program to identify and remove content and learning activities that do not need to be included in the training day.

Some trainers have a difficult time with this culling process, because they are invested in telling the stories or facilitating the activities that they have always included in their training programs. They need to measure their training content and learning activities against the core competencies that drive the need for the training. They should remove whatever is not essential to successful achievement of those core competencies.

When time limitations are imposed on training programs, rather than eliminating learning activities and subjecting learners to information overload, trainers should assess their training programs more closely to eliminate unessential clutter and identify and polish up essential training content.

May your learning be sweet.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Tip #365: How to Address Valid Participant Concerns

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle

There are many reasons why participants have a negative attitude when they come to a training session. Some of these reasons include the fact that the training program is either: (1) mandatory,

(2) repetitive, (3) misdirected, (4) inconvenient, or (5) controversial.

None of these reasons have much to do with the trainer, although they all impact the ability of the trainer to effectively deliver the training program. So what can a trainer do when faced with these situations?

Acknowledge the participants’ concerns. This is vital, particularly when the participants’ concerns are justified. Then refocus them on something more constructive.

1. Mandatory Training: No one likes to be forced to do something, so it is understandable if participants resist a mandatory training program.

In this case, the trainer should be prepared with an activity that will encourage participant buy-in to the value of the program. For example:

(a) Mark Ups. Have the participants individually identify, mark and report a few learning objectives of particular value to them.

(b) Benefits Question. Divide the group into two smaller groups to brainstorm answers to a question that asks them to identify the benefits of the training. Have them post their answers on a flipchart and report out at the end of the brainstorming time.

2. Repetitive Training. Sometimes the training is repetitive because of legal or recertification requirements. It is no wonder that participants chafe at having to attend the same training over and over again.

In this case, the trainer may want to adapt the training content to accommodate the participants’ needs and take advantage of participant expertise. For example:

(a) Problem Solving. Ask the participants to identify problems or issues that they are facing in relation to the learning content. Next, either direct a large discussion of each item or have small groups work to determine possible workarounds or solutions for an item relevant to them, which they then report out to the larger group.

(b) Challenge Activities. Bring work problems and case studies that will challenge the participants to achieve higher levels of learning, such as analysis, evaluation or creation.

(c) Seed Expertise. Have more seasoned participants sit with groups of less seasoned participants. Their role in the groups is to coach the other participants to the correct answers.

(d) Co-Facilitation. Ask the more seasoned participants to be ready to provide information and examples from the field when necessary.

3. Misdirected Training. If management is using the training program to address what is actually a specific employee’s performance issue, the participants who are already performing acceptably and do not need the training will be justifiably resentful.

In this case, to avoid teaching the participants what they already know and insulting their intelligence, replace any lectures with learning activities that will give either individual participants or groups an opportunity to provide the necessary content. Examples of these learning activities include: open questions, directed large group discussion, small group responses to questionnaires or worksheets, participant volunteers providing demonstrations, etc.

4. Inconvenient Training. When training is scheduled during the busiest work season or when the participants are overwhelmed with assignments that have pressing deadlines, the stress of spending time away from the office even for valued training can generate grudging negativity.

However, the reality is that the training has been scheduled and must be delivered. Sometimes, the best that trainers can do in these instances is to acknowledge the validity of the participants’ concerns, point out that they were not involved in the scheduling decision, offer to make the day as pleasant and useful as possible, and ask for the participants’ cooperation.

5. Controversial Training. When training is part of a change implementation strategy, it will often be controversial. If the participants had limited or no input into the change, have had their work lives disrupted by previous changes, or have had negative experience with this change at a different worksite, their reluctant attendance might not be unreasonable.

In this case, the participants may need time to vent their concerns and frustrations. There are at least three different activities that can provide structure to the venting process and limit the time it takes.

(a) Sealed Concerns. Give the participants five minutes to individually write down their concerns and place them into an envelope. Have them seal the envelope and put it away. In this manner, they can retain their concerns but they won’t have to focus on them during the training.

(b) Flipchart Recommendations. Have small table groups brainstorm recommendations to address their concerns and post them on a flipchart. The trainer can offer to collect and collate their recommendations and bring them back to management, with the caution that there is no guarantee that management will respond. This will give the participants a welcome sense of control, if only for the moment.

(c) Oral Relay. Ask half of the group to list negatives about the change and the other half to play devil’s advocate and list positives about the change. Have them stand in parallel lines facing each other. Go down the line, with each facing pair stating a negative and a positive. Plan this oral relay so that the very last person who speaks will identify a positive and close the relay on a constructive note.

Ideally, trainers should be aware of possible participant concerns prior to a training program and plan for them accordingly. However, unanticipated participant resistance to training may surprise even the best and most prepared trainers. In these situations, it is helpful for trainers to know what learning activities they can use to minimize or possibly even avoid the adverse impact of the participants’ negative attitudes.

May your learning be sweet.