When a training program is as stuffed as a guest at grandma’s house on Thanksgiving

Many of us in the United States celebrated Thanksgiving last Thursday. A time for family to gather, give thanks, and eat. A lot.

The American Council on Fitness estimates that the average American takes in 3,000 calories on Thanksgiving… and 229 grams of fat!

Is it possible that there’s a training program or two that we’ve developed that can be equally bloated and gluttonous? Sitting on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner last Thursday, I started wondering this very thought (because I’m apparently always thinking of training).

As I thought about this situation, I was reminded of an article that I wrote at the beginning of 2017, when a client asked me to trim down the length of a training program beyond what I felt was possible. Following is my post from January 2017:

Over the past few weeks I’ve been asked to design several training programs in which the clients want big things achieved… and they’ve also given very limited time in which to achieve these things. My biggest challenge was to figure out how to deliver what the clients wanted while at the same time ensuring the training programs were what I’d consider fundamentally sound.  

One specific example was that I was asked to deliver a presentation skills training for an audience of people that I’d consider part-time trainers (people who present from time to time, but have no background in instructional design nor do they have a ton of time to spend on putting together high-quality training sessions or presentations because they already have a full-time job doing technical stuff).

Any time I’m asked to design a train the trainer program or a presentation skills workshop, my knee-jerk reaction is to make sure that at the very least the audience gets to spend a few minutes with basic principles of adult learning. For me, these principles are the key to helping people unlock the secrets for how to engage adults in any sort of presentation or training program.

On this most recent project, I of course injected some adult learning theory. Then my client came back and asked me to cut more time out of an already lean presentation skills program.

With a heavy heart, I opened the lesson plan, highlighted a 45-minute section on adult learning theory… and hit delete.

I re-read the lesson plan. To my surprise, it still seemed like it would be quite effective because of the other activities and content. As I reflected on this, it was liberating to move away from the need to always carve out a block of time to cover adult learning theory basics.

Do I now think we should do away with introducing people to principles of adult learning in any circumstance? No. At the same time I do think there’s a hierarchy of how content and theory should be prioritized:

Priority #1: People need time to practice. If you’re pinched for time, jettison the content and theory and just let people practice, and then insert feedback (that may include theory) into a debrief.

Priority #2: Content without the jargon. Jargon (such as specific adult learning theory terms) isn’t very memorable unless you’re going to use it every day. My part-time trainer audience, for example, will be able to easily remember a set of questions they should be asking:

  • What is it that your audience doesn’t currently know?
  • Why will your audience be glad they know it?
  • Where can your audience learn more about this topic after your presentation?

(Full disclosure: these questions were inspired by this 20-minute video of Phil Waknell sharing his thoughts on how to deliver an effective presentation.)

Priority #3: Theory, if you have time (and if your learners will ever use it). People do like to know why things are generally done in a certain way. It can be helpful to have a basic understanding of theory or research or data that underlies why things like “relevant content” or “immediacy” are essential.

As learning and development professionals who are truly invested and passionate about sound, engaging learning experiences, sometimes we fall under “the curse of knowledge” and we insist that everyone else knows (and loves) all of the finer details and theory, when in actuality all they need is a boost in their skill set. Ruthless prioritization is essential if we want happy clients and the most effective professional development experiences possible.

What do you think? Should theory be a higher priority than “time for practice” and “content without jargon”?

2 thoughts on “When a training program is as stuffed as a guest at grandma’s house on Thanksgiving

  1. From Sharon Bowman, I learned that doing trumps showing or telling, so I think the most important component we can give a learner is the opportunity to do/practice. I love theory and the reason why (my inner geek girl comes out here) and I have to remember not all learners are interested in that aspect.

    • Yes! It’s so important to check ourselves on what’s essential, and what’s fun/geeky. Hold out on the geeky stuff until lunch and then dazzle participants with just how nerdy you can be about theory!

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