Often the success of instruction is inadvertently sabotaged by none other than the instructor him or herself. Quality curriculum and exceptional preparation can be discredited by avoidable training faux pas which often leave the learning experience wanting. In exceptional cases these mistakes can be detrimental to future efforts both of the instructor as well as the learner.
A lot of times instructors will go through the motions of training assuming they have a formula that works and that any dissatisfaction is the result of a "tough crowd." Even the most well intentioned instructor needs to know that lack of awareness around these damaging habits will taint the stronger qualities which give them their comparative advantage in training. Moreover, neglecting to correct these mistakes can become damaging and habit forming.
10. If I can't hear you, I will stop listening.
The most correctable of mistakes in training, and yet, probably one of the most common is when your class can't hear you. If your class or audience ca'’t hear you, it will take all of a minute for them to stop listening. By nature, a student will not feel comfortable interrupting a full classroom to tell you to speak up. If you are so lucky as to have such a student, while you should be thankful someone is alerting you to the problem, it leaves an almost immediate dent in your credibility as an experienced instructor who would anticipate such an issue.
What is worse than not being heard initially is if you correct the problem and then revert back to a soft voice soon after. Imagine the willingness of a student to speak up twice. Now this doesn't mean you should be screaming to the point where you are obviously straining throughout your instruction. What it does mean, however, is that you make whatever accommodations you need in order to ensure the success of your students. If that means buying an inexpensive microphone, do it! You should hear this feedback only once, as it is easily correctable. If you hear this feedback more than once, you need to over prepare for it, no excuses.
Start off by checking with the back row. After all, if they can hear you, everyone else can as well. This demonstrates you know what you are doing and getting ahead of any problems early. You are setting the stage for the rest of the training.
9. Don't set the expectation of failure
Some trainers are less confident, or when they begin training, begin their session by having 101 excuses for why the training might go poorly. If you start any session with; "I'm sorry, I didn't have a lot of time with the materials," "I'm not as strong with this particular section," "I didn't create this curriculum," or "I inherited this class," you're asking for permission to be a bad trainer. Don't make excuses as to why you won't do well. That serves no other purpose than to undermine your credibility, and to set yourself up with your audience for failure before you even begin.
It's OK if you are not confident, but are you competent? That is more important. If the answer is yes (which I argue should always be the case in training), then you will work it out. If you are a strong trainer and you are limited by your curriculum or time, no problem, adjust your style for it. If the curriculum is poor, you would have known that prior to the actual training day and can make last minute tweaks to buffer the impact.
At the end of the day, it is not your student's responsibility to make you feel comfortable with the circumstances surrounding your training. That is your job. So take responsibility, do your best, and if things do not go great, but your doing great with what you have, that speaks very loudly. In fact, rarely do survey results lump the trainer and the training together. Students are smart; they can tell when the trainer is doing the best given circumstances outside his or her control.
8. Who is in charge—YOU are!
There is nothing more uncomfortable than a trainer who has lost control of a classroom, or lacks the physical presence to drive the direction of training. Trainers that allow one student to take over the class for fear of being rude or, even worse, because they are intimidated, lose the respect of their audience quickly. After all, the students came to class to listen to you, not the overbearing participant.
You are in charge of your class. That gives you the right to appreciate and respectively minimize participation from a dominating student, take any ballooning topics offline, or offer your services outside the training to alleviate any confrontational pressure. Again, you are in charge. You can direct folks to sit where you need them to sit, to politely end distracting side conversations, and to walk through the invisible wall that is the front of the room separating pupil from teacher. Unless you want your audience to doodle, surf the net, or disengage, you need to define the boundaries when they chose to test them.
Does this mean you have a carte blanche to shower terror and fear into the hearts of your students? Of course not. Authority is not about a few letters after your name, a frown, or a stern tone. Your degree may have gotten you to the classroom, but your ability to maintain composure and control in your classroom will earn you respect going forward.
Without you as the focal point, the class will slowly disassemble and lose focus. If you don’t feel comfortable correcting rogue activity in the classroom in real time, set up your expectations of the class ahead of time. That way no one is called out, you don’t have to be confrontational, and it will intercept potential problems.
7. You lead the materials; the materials do not lead you
A diligent trainer often falls into the trap of having prepared materials that are so strong they become dependent on them for delivery. I have seen trainers put together spectacular, almost stand-alone PowerPoint slides. They were so comprehensive the trainer used the PowerPoint to drive the conversation making sure they hit every bullet. What is the role of the trainer if everything is spelled out in the material? You need to make sure there is value added to your presence in a classroom. Don't pour everything in your head onto a PowerPoint slide. It will handicap you in your presentation.
If your PowerPoint slide is that good, you will be tempted to read it, and the class will come across as you acknowledging points written on a screen rather than presenting or teaching them something. Your presentation and curriculum should be strong, but make sure you don't cripple your own flexibility by including so many points that if you don't have time to address them, your class will think you forgot to explain things.
Unless you are a very strong presenter, or the training is in a workshop format where a handout drives the participation, do not give out your handouts until the end of your session. Your students will start to read ahead of you and decide quickly if it is worth paying attention to you and using the curriculum as a reference. Again if you have done an exceedingly thorough job on the curriculum, listening to you becomes redundant.
6. You are a piece of moving art—enjoy it
Whether you like it or not, when you are in front of a classroom, you are a piece of moving art. Training and teaching effectively is a skill and an art form. You can easily sabotage your purpose by breaking the fluidness in the physical pieces of training that fit together. Don't stand in front of your own presentation, dress inappropriately, fidget, play with something in your hands, play with your hair, or speak to the PowerPoint or the back wall. Any and all of those things will distract your audience.
Imagine yourself as the student. What do you want to see in front of you for the duration of the training? First of all, you want to see your trainer. Don't hide behind a podium, paper, or your own insecurities. As a trainer you must interact with your own visuals. If you just talk about your visuals, you leave the burden of matching your words with the talking point bullets to the student. Point to your PowerPoint, make notes as you speak, or ask students questions. Something as simple as gesturing to your display will force the audience to absorb both you and your visual materials.
Some excellent, although advanced, strategies I have seen include repeating a gesture every time a certain point came up to create a connotation between the gesture and the action. Others include jumping on the table to make a point and falling to the ground when someone answers incorrectly. Obviously such strategies are not for everyone, and aren't required for successful training. Have a strategy that suits you, but have a strategy.
5. Neglect your audience, and they will reciprocate the favor
Often you will have the skilled trainer who has exceptional curriculum, but forgets the main reason they are there. The best way to get ignored is to neglect your audience. Don't give the presentation of your life without ever checking in with the people you are inflicting it on.
You need to engage your audience in your training. Getting real time feedback into whether your intention in training is being accomplished is crucial to a successful session. Trainers will hurt themselves if they undermine a students' question, laugh, or patronize the student. Some trainers, while intelligent and skilled, incorrectly manipulate the social structure of the classroom. They are concerned with being "accepted" or "cool," and will build relationships only with a few of the students while neglecting the rest.
You can engage your class with something as simple as maintaining eye contact. Don't pick just the student who is nodding and laughing at your jokes. That is the one you have to worry about least. Make eye contact with everyone so you can see when your students look confused or as if they are following along.
Remember, you are not teaching yourself. Pay attention to your class, and they will pay attention to you.
4. If you are in doubt, don't downplay your own training
This faux pas is slightly different than setting the expectation that the training will be poor. This is the scenario when it is obvious the trainer is not sure of his or her own abilities. You can see this as facial expressions or embarrassment when questions are asked. In really bad scenarios, the trainer just gives up or breaks down.
You need to come to terms with the fact that you will never know everything about what you are training. Be comfortable with that. The reason you are training is because you know more about that particular piece of information than your students. It is rare that you will go through your entire training career without ever having a student who knows more than you about most things. Leverage those students; don't rebel against them. Ask them for input, but be confident in your own abilities. You are in front of a class for a reason. If you don't believe you are adding value to the knowledge base of the student, then why would the student believe it?
If you don't know something, say you don't know but make sure to follow up and find out. This shows you care about your students for a duration longer than just the end of the class. It shows you are dedicated, and gives more validity to everything else you were saying. At the end of the day we are all human. Do your best, and if you only know 10 percent really well, be confident and secure in that knowledge. With the other 90 percent, be honest, tailor your training, and don’t panic or show obvious signs of doubt.
3. Inflexible? Prepare to break.
There is nothing more rattling than an unexpected change in a classroom schedule or plan. There is nothing more professionally empowering than expecting that change. You should walk into a classroom expecting to be driven off the path you have devised. If you don't get driven off, you don't have a problem. But if you are, you are prepared.
I have seen instructors more preoccupied with sticking to the plan than getting the message across. Don't move on if there is a void in understanding. Training, like most things, is cumulative by nature. If there is a big gap in understanding, everything afterwards gets weaker. You will sabotage your training if you are not willing to move with the pace of your class. You will sabotage your training if you insist on inflicting teaching instead of guiding learning. Be flexible. Your class will appreciate it. This by far is one of the hardest things for a trainer to accept. Some instructors take it as a personal failure if the class is not learning at the pace they want.
The reality is you can teach the exact same class 30 times and each time what you are able to cover will vary based on your class. Prepare variability. If you insist on prioritizing your teaching goals before the start of class, your training will suffer.
2. Ask for feedback—then act on it
One of the biggest mistakes a trainer can make is not asking for feedback. More common place is asking for feedback just to check a box, and then doing nothing with the results. What a waste of energy and opportunity!
I can't emphasize enough how important this activity is. You could be the strongest presenter and trainer, but if you are not getting confirmation of it, it is all hearsay. Moreover, as the majority of us are not perfect, getting that type of feedback is invaluable to improving our skills and excelling in our fields.
If nothing else, at minimum, it is an excellent way to check in on training and confirm to yourself that it is as spectacular as you think it is. More likely, you will get priceless feedback on how the training can be even better.
The most important thing to remember, of course, is to act on your feedback. Don't dismiss it! I've given trainers an evaluation, or reviewed survey results with them, and the discussion is more about explaining why they believe the feedback isn't valid than about how they will go about fixing it. I have seen tons of training feedback data that is just collected, never read, the same mistakes repeated over and over again…all preventable.
Don't be insecure about your training skills; be open to learning new methods. Just because you teach, that doesn’t mean you stop learning.
1. If you don't care about what you are teaching, leave it to those who do.
This last training faux pas really should be a guiding principle. It's obvious when you don't care about what you are teaching. Sometimes, it is physically obvious with a monotonous tone, recycled curricula, disengagement between exercises (i.e. reading or leaving the room when your students are asked to do an exercise), and taking shortcuts.
Most damaging is being more concerned with being liked than teaching. This refers to the trainer who makes comments such as "I have to teach this stuff, it doesn't really apply in the real world;" "Let's move on. This section is terrible;" or "I need to make sure I do this so I don't get fired." I have seen trainers who are almost embarrassed by what they are training because they don't believe it themselves. If you don't believe it, don't train others on it. Don't pass your negative attitude about the subject matter onto a room full of students.
We all get tired, or frustrated occasionally with our jobs, but if the idea of training doesn't give you a warm fuzzy feeling, you should consider pursuing something else.
There are plenty of trainers passionate about teaching, helping others learn particular subjects, and who get a genuine feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction from teaching. If you are not one of those people, consider a shift in focus.
I am sure any trainer has been guilty of one or more of these simple faux pas. The good news is all but a genuine lack of passion for the discipline is fully correctable. The best way to see if you are guilty of these things is to have yourself recorded or audited. Ask your observer to look for the mistakes mentioned in this article, or look for them yourself. Before you sit down, make sure your mind is open to the feedback, and you understand that you can't become great by sticking your fingers in your ears, just assuming you must be fantastic.
Stay positive, observe, learn, and then act! Your students will appreciate you for it and the quality you deliver in the classroom will reflect your sincere efforts. Then you can confidently walk into a classroom and inspire and be inspired.
Maneeza Aminy, MA, is Client Support Manager—Training for Advent Software.