Train-the-Trainer 101

Throwing Candy Isn’t Enough: Back-to-Basics Tips for Running Successful Training Sessions

Have you ever been to a training session that you thought would never end? Maybe you had no choice about attending. Maybe you had a lousy seat or didn’t like the people sitting near you. Maybe you never saw anything of the trainer except the back of his balding head as he read every word on the screen during a four-hour PowerPoint presentation. Maybe you came away saying to yourself, “Heck, I could have done a better job than that!”

You’re not alone. Probably everyone reading this has attended at least one miserable, mind-numbing course or workshop. Maybe you’ve even been unfortunate enough to lead one.

In many a train-the-trainer course, facilitators have shared their war stories and the hard lessons they had to learn in order to get it right.

Whether you’re tasked with training co-workers in house or total strangers in public venues such as hotels or conference centers, there are steps you can take to prevent training session disasters. Some of these tips may seem so self-evident that they may not even be worth mentioning. That’s the point! Getting it right is about paying attention to details and anticipating opportunities for anything and everything to go wrong.

Confirm Everything before Show Time

Unless you’re responsible for everything from reserving a room to teaching the class and then cleaning up, you will probably have a point of contact at your training destination. Get this person’s complete name, location, and contact numbers including a cell phone number. Security guards may not have a clue who Betty Sue is or how to reach her when you arrive to conduct a course unless you have the pertinent information.

In keeping with this necessary measure, know where you’re going. Get as much information as possible from your contact ahead of time about where the session will take place. This is critical if you’re running a session for a Federal agency or at a military installation. People who work in such places know exactly where they need to go. You don’t. Get a physical address. Get the names of the closest cross streets.  Get the name on the building if it has one. Get a GPS! Find out if you’ll have to go through security screening and how long that process will take. If you’re driving to the location, find out where you may park without having your car towed.

If you don’t ask such questions beforehand, at least give yourself plenty of time to get lost, panic, prevail on the kindness of strangers, and regain your composure before someone comes to escort you to the training location.

If you’re not hauling training materials with you because they’ve been mailed, confirm well ahead of time that they have been received and who received them. You don’t want to find out minutes before the gang arrives that their workbooks are MIA. As for your own stuff, always have it with you and not packed away in your suitcase. It will still be sitting in the airport in Bakersfield long after your session ends in Yuma.

If you’ll need special equipment like an LCD projector to use with your laptop or flash drive, make sure with your contact that such items will be available. You don’t want to waste precious training time sending people to find the IT guru who can set things up once the session starts.

If you’ll need something to write on during the session such as a whiteboard or flipcharts, make sure these are available as well. And here’s a helpful hint: take your own markers. That way you’ll know yours still have some life in them and are within reach the minute you need them.

Do Your Homework

Assume nothing about the group you are training. Even if they’re employed by a huge urban medical center, they may work in Accounts Payable and never interact with patients. Find out what you can about the organization itself, and then probe your contact about the people you are to train. What do they do? What problems should be addressed during the session? What skills need improvement?

Don’t hesitate to ask questions. The more you know about the people you will be instructing, the better your session will be.

Arrive Early

Whether your session will occur in your own workplace or elsewhere, get there well ahead of time to get the “lay of the land.” If the set up isn’t what you expected, you’ll have time to do something about it. If your contact has already distributed materials, make sure this has been done accurately.

In some cases, food is on the agenda, so you may be trying to set up your materials at the same time servers are bringing in platters of pastries, fruit, and beverages. They are not for you. You’re there to work, not eat. Ignore the servers.

Inevitably there will be some participants who show up prematurely. Don’t ignore them. Even if you’re frantically getting everything ready, stop long enough to greet each person who comes into the room. Introduce yourself. Shake some hands. Ask their names. These simple gestures go a long way toward building rapport, and you’ll already know some people by the time your session starts.

Establish the Ground Rules

No two trainers have the same expectations about participant behavior during sessions. Things that drive me nuts while I’m instructing might not bother anyone else. If the sound of cell phones going off during your presentation will send you over the edge, let your folks know this from the start.  You may want to have the participants set their own ground rules.  It’s harder for people to break rules they had something to do with creating. 

Be sure everyone knows about scheduled breaks and any consequences they can expect if they return an hour after the designated return time. I know of some organizations that require their instructors to lock the door if students are late.  When that is the case, it is important for everyone to know the consequences up front.

Overprepare!

Seasoned trainers know the value of this tip. All of us have planned activities that we think will take a group at least a half an hour to complete only to have them finish in five minutes. Have backup material ready so you don’t spend the next 25 minutes just looking at each other. 

And speaking of activities, plan on including some that require movement. One thing I’ve learned from training adults is this: They have a million other things they could be doing during the time they spend with you. They just can’t sit still indefinitely, so keep them busy, and always show them value. This is especially true following a lunch break when they may be comatose. Break out some relevant exercises that will get them changing seats, working in small groups, and discovering answers to workplace challenges.

Providing variety is critical. No one enjoys a full day of straight lecture or completing one worksheet after another. Review all the things you plan to have your participants do during the session, and then ask yourself: Would I want to take this class?

Know Jack

The time to master your subject matter is not while you’re flying from DC to Pittsburgh or while participants are on break. Know your material backward and forward, and even then, admit you still won’t know everything. Be willing to admit this. Participants can tell in an instant if you’re floundering or making up answers to their questions. If something does come at you from left field, admit it.  Most of the time, the people you are training will appreciate your honesty about not knowing the answer, but indicate your willingness to try to find the answer for them. Then do it.

Check In from Time to Time

Look at the people you are instructing. The expressions on their faces will tell you if you’re connecting with them or if they’d like to throw you down the elevator shaft during the next break.

If you’re not good at reading body language, here’s a novel idea. Come right out and ask them what they’ve learned so far. Ask for their input about your pacing or if the subject matter is too simplistic or difficult. Indicate your willingness to speed things up, skip some material, focus on other points if needed, and so on. If you ask for honest feedback, most participants will tell you what they think.  After all, they want the course to be as good as it can be.

Managing Problem Participants

Remember when I said earlier that it’s a good idea to find out all you can about your participants before the session? Despite what you’ve been told by your contact, you may find yourself in a room full of “reluctant learners.” This is a diplomatic way of describing those who have been ordered to take the class for one reason or another. Whatever that reason might be, they aren’t there by choice, so attitudes may be lousy from the get-go.

Your job is to turn them around if you can, and this is where a little humor can work wonders. I’m not suggesting you perfect a stand-up routine just for the sake of making people like you. You’re there to offer instruction in a specific subject area, but it doesn’t have to be deadly dull. Surely you can come up with something amusing to say while discussing team building, customer service, critical thinking, Excel or Windows 8.

In addition to those who must attend mandatorily, you may find yourself dealing with others who are just flat out irritating: the “over participator” who won’t give anyone else a chance to say anything; the “text master” whose face you never see; the “great debater” who wants to argue against everything you say.

Never lose your cool.  Calling people out in front of their colleagues can destroy the session for everyone.  By changing your pace, moving people around, or switching to a new activity, you may be able to solve the problem easily.  If none of those things works, you may have to take a break and speak to the person privately.  Just keep this good thought when working with people who are truly difficult: your time with them will end.

Getting Feedback

When a session ends, it’s usual for participants to fill out evaluations that are supplied by either their own organization’s training department or by you. If you’ve paid attention to participants, chatted with them during breaks, watched their body language, and maybe caught up with your contact who’s gotten reports throughout the day, you should have some idea of how the session has gone. Even so, there are times when you’ll be in for a surprise.  I’ve had plenty of evaluations that exceeded my expectations.  I’ve also had the occasional feedback form that came as a complete shock.

Learn from any negative comments you may read or hear, but don’t beat yourself up if not everyone loved the experience. One negative evaluation in a stack of 50 great ones is hardly something to cry about.  If the ratio is working the other way, however, you probably need to make some adjustments.

Winding Down

Once the session ends, you may have the chance to continue speaking with participants who stay after. If your travel schedule permits, take advantage of this opportunity. I usually view this as a compliment, and the hangers-on frequently provide insights about things that were said during the session that I didn’t know about. You have the chance to make a positive impression because of your willingness to listen, and you may find yourself invited back for additional sessions.

For a brief while, you have been not only a trainer but also a guest in this workplace or conference room. Behave like a good guest. Gather your stuff. Clear up any debris. Leave the whiteboard clean. Make the room ready for the next training session even if there is a custodial team that will do a more thorough cleaning job later.

See your contact before you leave if that person is still around. It’s never inappropriate to thank this person in conversation or in writing for having you present your program. Do this immediately before you get caught up preparing for your next engagement.

For beginners and seasoned professionals alike, I think it’s important to remember that each training program you conduct is an opportunity to start fresh and improve. Don’t lose sight of the basics or be afraid to try different approaches.

Best of luck with your next session!     

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