Good Training

Mark Tisdall, one of the HMA Associates reflects upon what makes good training.

When I first read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in 2003 I thought I could relax – I had a ‘big picture’ of the world as we know it from the big bang to now – having read the ultimate ‘rough guide to science’ (John Waller, Guardian) my world now had a 6 billion year context and I was a happier man for it.

I like to have a context. I like to have a framework. I like to know how things came to be the way they are and I like to learn new things.

What I don’t like is small talk – especially party small talk. My personal hell is to stand around holding a glass of wine, balancing a paper napkin, munching small savouries and be asked by an earnest stranger – ‘so what is it exactly that you do?’

What kind of a question is that? What is it exactly that I do? “What is the context of this enquiry?” That’s what I want to say. To my credit I don’t – not ever. We all know the context. S/he is asking how I go about the business of earning my living.

Even if I limit my answer to a conventional understanding of the question there’s still a short answer and a long one. How much time do we have?

The short answer is “I travel a lot and spend many of my days delivering corporate training”.
So do a lot of my colleagues and recently the talk amongst us has turned to the question of what really works in a corporate training room – i.e. what’s truly effective? Corporate training in social service delivery meets a range of needs. There’s an ongoing demand for ‘change training’. As health and social service delivery demands grow, so too does the need for practitioner skill training.

At the end of most courses the expectation is that trainees will walk out with new frameworks for professional practice and that they will be willing and able to adopt new ways of thinking and put new skills into immediate use with their clients. I’ve been in the business of working with people to effect social and behavioural change for many years and in many contexts prior to and alongside my work as a corporate trainer. So the enquiry about what it is that I do, and whether I do it effectively goes right to the heart of my world.

Trainee evaluations provide useful and valuable feedback to trainers, training companies and clients. They allow course participants to reflect on their learning experience, and ensure we trainers get useful feedback on how we were experienced. But immediate post course feedback only goes part way to answering the big questions for any trainer.

What is the long term influence the trainer makes to the way participants will work with clients in the days, months and years ahead? What could I, as a trainer, do to more powerfully influence professional practice? Getting serious answers to such questions involves one of two things – long term academic research, or using pesky “follow on post event” market research telemarketers. I haven’t the time to take on a big research project right now and recent experiences of telemarketing haven’t been heart warming.

There was a wonderful call from some poor unfortunate the day after my cell phone had been off the XT network for a few days.
“Hi Mr Tisdall – this is just a courtesy call – how’s the new model of phone we sent you working out?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, yes, ummmm …. of course not … sorry about that – I’ll phone you again next week.”
“Good luck with that.”

While I’m still pondering how to get answers to the big trainer questions, I have been generating my own personal checklist of what I expect from an expert trainer. Here it is.

I believe a good trainer needs to be personable and socially engaging.

All the best trainers I see take time to establish a personal connection with each participant. They greet people at the door of the training room, introduce themselves and maintain a personal connection throughout the training. A good teacher is like a good host – they keep circulating. So for me, an excellent trainer is one who moves.

I personally like to find myself learning from someone with excellent facilitation skills. That said I believe a good trainer;

  • Knows their material well, to the extent that they “own” it.
  • They are able to provide examples of the teaching concepts from their own experience.
  • They’re able to answer questions knowledgeably and with confidence.
  • Creates effective linkages between the modules in a session.
  • Varies their presentation style according to the needs of the group.
  • Has an understanding of group dynamics and is sensitive and responsive to changes in the group.
  • Works with the culture of the group or organisation i.e. they acknowledge the accepted values and ways of doing things and take the time to learn about these.
  • Develops, guides and maintains the “energy” of the group.
  • Is flexible (I’m not thinking of Tantric Yoga!) and has the ability to respond creatively to whatever situations and behaviour arise in the group.

Everything in the list so far is about skills. But for me good trainers bring with them a centeredness that allows them to be with anything the training room throws up. Trainers have to believe in what they are doing. Participants sense that and it is part of what makes training important and useful for trainees.

In my opinion you simply can’t be a really good trainer without a sense of humour. A willingness to laugh at yourself and with others goes with the territory.

My final criterion for a good trainer has to do with how comfortable he/she is in their own skin. Good trainers are themselves and don’t pretend to be something they’re not.

How do I as a trainer judge when participants have had a good training experience? Well I think it is best summed up for me when they say “I’m really looking forward to getting back to work to put this into practice.”

Published on Friday, May 7th, 2010, under Practice tips and techniques

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