Which Eyeball Part Are You? (and other ways to introduce content without resorting to lecture)

I’ve never looked around a conference room to see hundreds of people engaged and excited to be sitting, listening and looking at PowerPoint slides.  Ever.

Here are three strategies to introduce new content that I’ve found engage everyone in the audience.

1. Cosmo-style Quiz

No, I’m not telling you to rip a page out of Cosmopolitan magazine and quiz your learners about whether they’re good in bed.  But a Cosmo-style quiz can be a fun way to mix things up.  Last year, I ditched a medical school-style lecture to teach basic eye anatomy and replaced it with an activity called “Which Eye Ball Part Are You?” (click here to see the activity).  It’s been one of the most popular, lively and memorable activities in the week-long training curriculum.

2. Gallery Walk

Wouldn’t it be ironic to deliver a lecture on the concepts of adult learning principles?  When I introduce adult learning principles to new trainers, I print the name and definition of each principle on a separate piece of paper and post them around the room.  I’ll ask learners to take a stroll around the room, read each concept, then stand next to the one concept they feel is most important.  This is followed by a large group discussion.

3. Forced Ranking

When content is supported by empirical research, there’s an opportunity to keep learners on the edge of their seats… as long as you don’t blow it by putting everyone to sleep with a conventional PowerPoint presentation.  I can think of few things that grip an audience more than a good mystery.  I like having groups of managers force rank the most important people who influence whether or not training will be used on the job (the learner, the trainer, the trainer’s manager).  It leads to some great discussion and debate over how to make training stick before I give learners the answer to the mystery of who is most important (the learner’s manager).  I’ve seen others use this effectively in orienting new employees to the steps in a process that must be mastered.

This list simply scratches the surface when it comes to ways to introduce content without lecture.  People can certainly learn from lecture, but how can a presenter tell whether or not the learners are “getting it” when the presenter is the only one who talks during a session?  The three ideas above work best with audiences of 50 or fewer, but here are some ideas on how to engage larger groups.  If you haven’t been given much time, here are some ideas on engaging learners in 15 minutes.  Doing a webinar?  Click here for some ideas.

If you have other ideas, I’d love to read them in the comments section!

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5 Ways to Start a Presentation

Who is the first person you look for when you look at a group photo?  Yourself, of course.  You want to see if your hair looks right.  You want to be sure you’re not blinking, there’s nothing in your teeth and that you’re not a victim of red-eye.  If it’s an old photo, you want to be sure you have an excuse for the clothes you were wearing.

Even though my Indian colleagues' clothing is so much more colorful, my eyes still search for myself first in this photo before I look at anything else. It's similar for learners in a training session - they will ask: where am I and how does this training session apply to me?

Even though my Indian colleagues’ clothing is so much more colorful, my eyes still search for myself first in this photo before I look at anything else. It’s similar for learners in a training session, they will ask: where am I in this content and how does this training session apply to me?

Similarly, as soon as you start a presentation, learners try to find themselves in the presentation.  How does this information relate to them?  How will they be able to use this information tomorrow?  While the answers to these questions may seem self-evident to a presenter, the answers are not always that self-evident to the learners.

This is why the start of a presentation should be an attempt to anchor your content to the learners’ own experiences.

You may also find it helpful to do a messy start icebreaker.

How to Start a Presentation

Before you design your next presentation or webinar, here are five ideas to anchor your brilliant ideas, thoughts, and knowledge to your learners’ experiences:

1. Start a Presentation with a Question

Before launching into Malcolm Knowles’ theories on adult learning, it could be helpful to ask your learners to share some of their own best and worst learning experiences.  When a participant volunteers that he appreciated high school science class because he could do lab experiments and it made the learning “real”, it becomes a lot easier for everyone to relate to Knowles’ insistence on ensuring the content is relevant.

2. Lead Your Audience in Guided Imagery or Tell a Brief Story

Several months ago a colleague was asked to deliver a 20-minute presentation to 200 medical professionals in a large conference room on “applying lean management principles to the labeling of vials”.  Instead of immediately starting with the concepts of kaizen and muda, she began by telling about one instance in which vials were mislabeled and the inefficiency and waste that resulted.  Everyone in the room could relate to this brief story, and then my colleague proceeded to explain how lean principles saved time and money in a real-world context.

3. Surprise Participants with a Pop Quiz!

Here is a question I posed to my audience as I began a recent webinar:

Pop Quiz to start a presentation

This quick initial activity helped:

  • break the ice
  • get learners familiar with using some of the web conference tools we’d be using
  • tune each learner into why the presentation that followed would be applicable to each of them, despite the fact that each learner had different development goals

4. Start a Presentation with a Movie Clip

Several years ago I had the opportunity to present at the ASTD TechKnowledge conference with two colleagues.  In order to introduce our topic (“blended learning”), we had prepared a short video.  Throughout the rest of the presentation, we were able to refer back to the video in order to illustrate our points.  Short video or music clips can be an entertaining way to help your learners relate to new, complex or dry material.  Two warnings here: be sure the material is culturally appropriate and be careful about using copyrighted material.

5. Share a Brief Case Study

Jason and Noreece answered the door.  It was their social worker, Kim.  She wasn’t smiling.  “I need to begin by saying you haven’t done anything wrong.  It’s not your fault.  It’s actually my fault, an oversight on my part.  But the fact is that you won’t be able to adopt Charlene after all.  I know you’ve been caring for her for a year and a half and are really the only family she’s ever known.  But there’s something called the Indian Child Welfare Act, and there are some requirements in there that, in this particular case, my department didn’t follow.”  Do you want to know more about this Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) now?  This format is a little more intriguing than starting immediately with the facts about ICWA when it became law and what the various provisions mean in the abstract.  This type of beginning makes the law real.

What techniques are you using to start you presentations? Have any of these techniques to start a presentation worked for you?

15-minute Training Session Ideas

New hire orientation often consists of a rapid-fire series of lectures by various departments.  But how much do you remember from any of your own new hire orientation experiences?  There are ways to make even short presentations memorable, meaningful, and engaging.

I’ve led several presentation skills workshops recently with people who have been invited to speak in hospitals for 15-20 minutes as part of a new nurse orientation program. 

The Challenges of Short Training Sessions

The challenges raised by my workshop participants included:

  • “We only have 15-20 minutes – maximum – to speak.”
  • “Often we get the slot right before lunch, right after lunch or at the end of the day when they new nurses are mentally done with the day.”
  •  “Though this is ‘new nurse orientation’, there are times when experienced nurses are in attendance because they have transferred to this hospital from a different hospital. And they’re already familiar with the basic content we have to present in these 15 minutes.”

After spending half a day walking through some various concepts from adult learning theory and dialogue education, my workshop participants felt that all of this information made sense… in theory. 

How could it be put to use in a short presentation like a new nurse orientation? 

The best way I knew how to answer this question was by allowing them to experiment with these ideas of adult learning theory.  Workshop participants were given a little over an hour to work in small groups and design a 15-minute presentation that wasn’t lecture-based. 

When they delivered their practice 15-minute presentation, they were evaluated by their peers as well as the lead facilitators using this training observation form.

15-minute Training Session Ideas for Novice Trainers

Here are some of the ways that novice trainers who were newly exposed to adult learning theory designed short, interactive, and meaningful new hire orientation sessions after only an hour of preparation time:

  • One group distributed a set of post-it notes and asked participants to put various steps to a specific process in order. 
  • One group listed a set of seemingly random numbers on a flip chart and asked their participants to see if they could decipher the meaning of those numbers over the course of the presentation. 
  • One group asked newer nurses to simulate a conversation with a patient’s family while they asked more experienced nurses to play the role of patients’ family members (since they’ve had experience in these types of situations before, they could offer realistic patient family responses) – engaging both new and experienced nurses in a meaningful way over the course of 15 minutes. 

Every group came up with creative 15-minute training session ideas and allowed a dialogue to happen.  Not a single group felt the strategy of just telling the audience what they need to know and then to be done with it was a constructive use of their time or their audience’s time.  And the #1 ah-ha moment for attendees that was captured in the post-training feedback form: even short presentations can be engaging, meaningful and memorable.

To see a ton of great ideas ranging from 15-minute training sessions to full days, try a demo or a trial of Soapbox.

“Why do you hate PowerPoint?”

Actually, PowerPoint can be a very helpful tool.  What I hate is when people consider PowerPoint to be their presentation.  This was the point I was trying to make in a recent all-day facilitator skills training session that I intentionally designed without using a single PowerPoint slide.  At the end of the day, a participant raised her hand and said:

“PowerPoint brings a degree of technology to the training room and it also offers a more professional look than flipcharts.  I don’t have the time or the artistic ability to draw attractive visual aids that adorn the classroom.  And PowerPoint is the only way to go when it comes to webinars.  So, Brian, why do you hate PowerPoint so much?”

As proof that I don’t hate PowerPoint, at the end of this article I will offer three reasons why PowerPoint should be used by trainers and facilitators.  First, let me offer the top three ways I’ve observed PowerPoint being mis-used, even abused, by many presenters.

Top 3 PowerPoint Abuses:

  1. PowerPoint becomes the presentation.  This is perhaps the most common abuse.  I also find this to be the most disrespectful gesture a presenter can make toward audience members and learners.  In this abuse, everything a presenter has to say (statistics, key points, data) is squeezed into a series of slides.  The presenter reads the slides to the audience.  Sometimes, in an effort to lay a claim to “interactivity”, the presenter then asks if there are any questions before concluding the presentation.  While a presenter may spend considerable time preparing a slide deck, this method is really all about the presenter and what he knows.  There is no way to tell whether or not the audience will actually take anything away from this type of presentation.
  2. Clicking past important information.  This is an extension of Abuse #1 and occurs when a presenter assumes that because something (statistics, data, key points) was displayed on a slide people will remember it.  The fact is that once a new slide is displayed on the projection screen, the old information from the previous slide is gone and generally forgotten.  Handouts can help mitigate this.  Flipcharts or posters around the room can help ensure important information will be displayed throughout the duration of the presentation.
  3. Standard templates and clipart. When PowerPoint first came out, it was novel and interesting.  Now too many presentations look the same.  And not in a good way.  Some effort and creativity in designing the slides can really help to hold the audience’s attention.  Click here for an example of a stellar PowerPoint presentation.  Click here to see how one of the most powerful speeches in American history (The Gettysburg Address) could have been rendered completely forgettable if Abraham Lincoln had relied on PowerPoint (and its standard templates and features).

All this having been said, here are the top 3 reasons PowerPoint should continue to be used in presentations:

  1. As a co-facilitator.  Maverick had Goose.  Abbott had Costello.  And if you’re presenting on your own, your wingman can be PowerPoint.  If you don’t have time for audience questions (or if you have a quiet audience who won’t ask questions), you can insert a well-timed slide posing a question for you to answer and turn the presentation into an interaction between you and the projection screen.  I’ve also seen what could have been very dry presentations (and presenters) engage their audience through unexpected (and often humorous) images or text at well-placed points in a presentation.
  2. Respecting the visual learners.  If you’re a presenter, you are probably aware of the various ways learners process information (auditory, visual, kinesthetic).  PowerPoint can help your audience process information through images and screen shots.  The visual cues you embed into the PowerPoint presentation is also a facilitator tool to keep everyone on the same page of the topic at hand.
  3. Use of advanced features. Some facilitators use games to review information and check if their learners have “gotten it”.  There are a number of game templates available through PowerPoint.  Recently, I combined screen shots with hyperlinks and action buttons to demonstrate a new elearning program I was rolling out to an audience when I didn’t have a reliable internet connection in the meeting room.  Hyperlinks and action buttons are also ways to encourage audience interaction and to make a PowerPoint presentation more dynamic compared to more traditional, linear PowerPoint presentations.

I don’t hate PowerPoint.  But I do think some additional planning, preparation and creativity can transform a sleep-inducing presentation into an amazing learning experience for both the audience and the presenter.

Lecture Isn’t a Teaching Strategy (Part 2): A Parable

Last week’s post focused on three major problems with lecture and offered suggestions on what to do about them. As a reminder, the three problems were:

  1. In lecture, the presenter has no idea whether or not the learners get it.
  2. Belief in the myth that lecture is simply faster and easier for both learner and presenter to just tell people what they need to know.
  3. Lecture doesnt always provide a direct connection between the content at hand and how it can be applied to meet the needs of the learner in real life.

This week, I’ll illustrate those points with a short parable of how one attorney decided to eschew the organization’s typical lecture on sexual harassment during their new hire orientation in order to engage his learners and ensure they each understood the concepts.

Josh had been delegated the sexual harassment talk for the upcoming new hire orientation. His boss provided Josh a Word document with 19 bulleted points on the topic and a video to show next week’s group of 4 new hires. When asked for any words of wisdom in presenting it, Josh’s boss explained: “It’s pretty straight forward, just show the video and answer any questions. Check it off the box and let the new folks go to lunch. Anyone who’s ever heard of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill knows that sexual harassment is a bad thing. We just need to be sure we cover it.”

At 11:30 on Tuesday morning, Josh arrived at the training room, ready to ensure that the four new hires he was about to meet would always remember the organization’s policy on sexual harassment.  Josh found the new hires unattended at the moment by any staff members.  They said the previous session had ended a few minutes early and they were given a break until this session.  They were all hungry and looking forward to lunch after this 45 minute session.

Josh surveyed the faces of each new hire – they all looked relatively young.  Definitely in their early 20s.  After greeting them, he asked if any of them knew who Clarence Thomas was.  The new hires looked at one another, and at in unison two of them said: “a Supreme Court justice.”  One new hire continued on: “Jinx!  Buy me a coke!!”

Ignoring the last comment, Josh asked if any of them knew who Anita Hill was.  The new hires again looked at one another.  Nobody responded.  The room was awkwardly silent.  So much for “anyone who’s ever heard of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill knows that sexual harassment is a bad thing.”

“You know what, never mind about those obscure references.  As you can all see from the agenda, we’re here to discuss sexual harassment.  What is sexual harassment?”

Silence again.  The new hires looked around the room.  Stared at the ceiling.  And the floor.  There was no eye contact with Josh.

“Actually, it’s not a rhetorical question.  I really want to know what you all know about the topic.  Why don’t we do this: each of you pair off and take 45 seconds to share with a partner everything you know about sexual harassment.”

After a moment or two, the new hires turned to a neighbor and began sharing thoughts.  Forty-five seconds later Josh brought their attention back to him.  “Well, it sounds like some people in here know something about sexual harassment.  What did you talk about?”

One pair shared that they thought sexual harassment had to do with hitting on co-workers, even after being told to stop.  The other pair mentioned that they had heard the term “hostile work environment” but they weren’t quite sure what that meant.  A five minute conversation around the overall topic of sexual harassment ensued.

Once the conversation and questions began to wane, Josh announced that they were going to watch a video.  The video had four different scenarios.  Josh gave each new hire a piece of paper to take notes.  In one column, new hires were asked to jot down one ah-ha moment, question or take-away from each scenario.  In a second column, new hires were asked to jot down any themes that arose from the initial group discussion on sexual harassment that they observed in any of the scenarios (i.e. do any of these scenarios illustrate the idea of creating a “hostile working environment” that we discussed in our initial conversation?).

Following the video Josh led a conversation about each scenario using the notes that the new hires jotted down.  In order to wrap up the 45-minute session, Josh quizzed each new hire on a hypothetical situation and what each new hire would do if confronted with such a situation.

As Josh released the new hires for their lunch break, one commented that this was the “fastest 45 minutes of the day so far.  I mean, time really flew by in this session.  And I have to say, I was expecting someone to just talk at us about the topic for 30 or 40 minutes and then pass us off to the next presenter.  That’s how the rest of the morning has gone so far.  And it hasn’t been easy staying awake or paying attention to those sessions.”

A second new hire added, “Yeah, I always expect new hire orientation sessions to be quick ‘check off the box that I learned this or that topic.’ It seems like it would just be easier to tell us the information and move on.  But I really appreciated this session.  I can definitely say I will remember it.  While the topic itself is dry and quite frankly kind of icky, this session was very interesting.  Thanks for getting us talking.  And thinking.”

As a presenter, is it more fun to talk at the learners or engage in dialogue with the learners?  As a learner, is it more valuable to have a chance to discuss ideas and thoughts with other learners and the presenter, or do you want to just get the information and move on?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The Parable of the Part-time Trainer (Part 2)

About a year and a half ago, Lin met several other local human resources professionals at a conference. They all hit it off and decided to meet monthly at a coffee shop in order to engage in peer coaching.  Lin had been puzzling over the lackluster results of her annual performance review initiative for days and was looking forward to this month’s get together.

 When it was Lin’s turn to be on the receiving end of the peer coaching, she recounted her experience, from planning the training, the way in which the training was delivered, the feedback and positive evaluations she received and ultimately the lack of implementation.  Then she waited for the questions and insights from her colleagues.

Peer Coach 1:

What was the purpose of the Human Knot activity? It sounds like you had limited time to present, and you invested a disproportionate amount of time on that activity.  Was there any connection between the activity and the annual review system you were introducing?


The session was right after lunch, so I needed to make sure we were active.  It was an icebreaker.  And honestly, the participants really seemed to enjoy it.  What do you mean about a connection between the activity and the content of my session? 

Peer Coach 1:

I think an opening activity can be both an icebreaker and a way to get people thinking about your content.  Could you have taken some time to ask a few de-brief questions about the activity?  Questions that could perhaps compare the annual review process to sometimes feeling like the current system was a tangle of forms and processes and systems. 

Peer Coach 2:

That’s a great point about connecting the opening activity to the content.  Otherwise it’s fun, but it’s a big time sucker.  And some participants may feel there’s no need to come on time if they feel there’s a fun but pointless activity at the start of your sessions.


Definitely food for thought the next time I plan a session.  And as I think about it, that opening activity ran long, which set everything behind.  In hindsight, I should have cut the activity even though not everyone had untangled themselves yet.

Peer Coach 3:

It sounds like your actual presentation was pretty conventional.  PowerPoint.  Lecture.  Showing off the system and the forms people would need to use.  As a presenter, how could you be sure your managers were “getting it”?


The room was quiet, it seemed that they were paying attention.  And the evaluation forms at the end had a number of comments about how useful this system seemed to be.

Peer Coach 3:

Was there any evidence or behavior you could point to that would give you definitive proof that your managers knew how to use this system before they left the room?


You mean did anyone fill out the forms?  No.  I didn’t have time to explain the forms and have people practice them. 

Peer Coach 3:

When you lecture, you have no idea if people are paying attention to you or if they’re making a grocery list in their minds.  Your time may have been better used by providing a brief orientation to the system, then allowing your managers time to practice using the forms and asking them what questions they have or what challenges they envisioned implementing the system.  This also would have solved your after-lunch-low-energy concern – it’s tough to fall asleep when you’re being asked to engage in the learning.  Keep in mind that while poor training evaluation scores may mean that people didn’t learn anything, when you get high scores like 4s and 5s on an evaluation, there is no guarantee that learning actually took place.

Peer Coach 2:

You know, this is all good advice about the training itself.  But actual changes in behavior need follow-up as well.  It sounds like you had a couple of high achievers who took it upon themselves to implement the system as you had hoped.  But most people need some follow-up support from their managers.  And if this is a mandatory change for everyone to conform to, your managers need to be held accountable by their own managers for implementation.

Peer Coach 1:

I think an important thing to keep in mind is that good training design – including less lecture and more involvement – is important.  And equally important is follow-up to ensure that the learning isn’t an isolated event but rather one part of a larger, ongoing process.


Wow, this was kind of a brutal assessment of my performance.  In the end, I guess it’s a fair assessment seeing as how few managers adopted the system.  Thanks for your thoughts.

What do you think of the peer coaches’ counsel?  Were they right on?  Did they miss something?  Is there anything you would have shared differently had you been at the coffee & coaching session?  Let me know your thoughts in the comment section!

The Parable of the Part-time Trainer (Part 1)

The Parable of the Part-time Trainer  – Part 1

From time to time, all of us have probably been asked to be a “part-time trainer”, we’ve been asked to present something to a group – in front of classmates, in front of co-workers, in front of new trainees, in front of a jury.  The following parable illustrates how presentations can go – both how presentations can go in the moment and the impact of these types of presentations later down the road.  Next week, I’ll spend some time analyzing the good, the bad and the ugly about the events in this all-too-common story of a part-time trainer.

Note: This parable provides hyperlinks to sample materials that you may find of interest in order to get a more complete understanding of the story

Lin is the Director of Human Resources for a non-profit organization whose mission is “to ensure every child has access to education in order to make their lives, their communities and the world a better place.” The organization employs 298 staff working in 24 centers of learning, located in four different states and the District of Columbia.

During this year’s annual management retreat, Lin was asked to facilitate a 2-hour presentation to unveil and train any staff with direct reports (28 managers) on using a new, standard annual performance review system for employees. As Lin put together her lesson plan for this presentation, she struggled to fit everything she needed to present into the 2 hours she was allocated.  At the same time Lin was attempting to make the session engaging for the managers (the session was immediately after lunch).

Lin began the session by dividing the managers into groups of 7 and explaining the instructions of her ice breaking activity: The Human Knot. This activity took a little longer than Lin had planned for, but the managers seemed to find it fun right after lunch. As soon as the small groups got themselves untangled from their human knots, Lin began the actual content of the lesson. She had prepared a PowerPoint slide deck to illustrate the points she wanted to make and provided handouts of each document that was to be used in the employee review system. Lin took about 60 minutes to talk about each section of each form. She allowed for 20 minutes of questions and answers at the end of her session.

The group seemed quiet, but they did ask some questions at the end. Lin wasn’t sure how she did, but she was pleased to see scores of 4s and 5s (on a 5-point scale) on the training evaluation forms. She was also heartened by the comments such as “great job” and “this looks like a very useful performance management tool”. The only negative comments (“room was too cold”) were out of her control anyways.

Marques was a site manager, supervising 12 employees, at one of the four Washington, DC-based education sites of Lin’s organization. He found this new format to be a lot of work, but after six months he concluded that it was well-worth the time and effort. The performance development tools had helped give structure and guidance to the way in which he offered feedback and created annual performance reviews. When Marques met up with the other Washington DC-based site managers for a happy hour, he was surprised, and a bit frustrated, to learn none of them were using the new system. One colleague said he had tried to use it when he had first returned from the management retreat, but it was a lot of work and he had too many fires to put out.

Three weeks after the happy hour, Lin was touring the various DC-based educational sites. During her meeting with Marques, he commented on how he was enjoying using the new annual review tools and system, but he knew that there were other managers who chose not to use it.

Following this conversation, Lin began to check on how many managers had actually begun to use the system. She found that seven months after the management retreat, only four of the 28 managers were using it.

The training got such good reviews and early on it seemed like there had been a lot of buzz and excitement about the tools provided. Lin was completely deflated. What happened?!

To be continued…

Have some thoughts on what went wrong?  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the Comment area below.  Part 2, next week, will analyze this situation in more detail.