Training Tip: The Messy Start

Imagine a world in which the training session begins as soon as each individual learner enters the room.  The learners don’t have to wait for the official start time.  There’s no awkward sitting and waiting and passively watching other learners enter the room, wondering who (if anyone) will sit next to them.

Imagine a world in which a facilitator can break the ice without eating up a single minute of precious classroom time.

This is the world of the “messy start”

The messy start is a strategy I first experienced in grad school.  My professor (Jean Singer) posted a flipchart with the following instructions at the entrance of the room:

“Welcome.  As you enter, please grab a marker and write your response on each of the flipcharts posted around the room.  Then walk around the room and read what your colleagues have written.”

Normally there’d be a series of 4 or 5 questions related to the day’s topic posted on flipchart around the room.

I’ve adapted this strategy to my training sessions – I’ve found it a useful way to get my learners thinking about the topic at hand as soon as they walk into the room.  Participants who show up 10 minutes early now have something to do.  Even before the session begins, I get an idea of how much my participants know about the topic at hand, what their expectations for the session are and I have a host of participant thoughts to reference throughout my session (“When it comes to getting organizational change to stick, several of you wrote that there need to be adequate incentives.  This is true, but even before we think about incentives, there are several other things to keep in mind…”).

How does the messy start work?

flipchart with people
  1. Come up with 3 or 4 or 5 questions related to the topic you’d like to have your audience think about.
  2. Write each question on a separate piece of flipchart paper.
  3. Hang these flipcharts around the room prior to participants entering.
  4. Distribute markers around the room for each participant.
  5. Post instructions for the messy start activity outside the entrance on a flipchart and/or on the projection screen.
  6. Greet participants as they enter the room and encourage them to pick up a marker and begin writing.
  7. Be sure to refer to the comments that participants have written – during your introduction and during the session as each topic arises.

Looking for other great training activities?  The all-in-one presentation creator, Soapbox, is the tool you need to help you lesson plan with ease. Not only is Soapbox jam-packed with awesome activities just like this, but it will also help you write your objectives, create ready-to-print handouts, a facilitator guide, and slide deck. The best part? All this can be done in as little as 5 minutes! Ready to make your life easier? Fill out the form below.

Training Tips: Avoiding the “Plop”

It’s early on in the training session and it’s time to get some thoughts from the audience.  You pose a question and you wait for the answers to come streaming out.  But nobody raises their hand.  There’s silence.  Like an auctioneer, you scan the audience for any possible movement.  And you continue to find nothing but lonely, uncomfortable silence.  Your question simply plopped.

Should you call on someone?  Should you just give the answer?

I don’t like either of those options.  I like to ask people to turn to the person next to them and discuss their thoughts on the question.  Once they do this and the ice is broken and there is some energy in the room and people have obviously come up with some thoughts and answers to my question, then I’ll bring it back to the large group and ask for someone to respond.

The “plop” is never fun, but it happens.  In a large room, it’s easy to not volunteer an answer, it’s easy to hide among the rest of the participants.  When participants are asked to pair off, it’s much more difficult to remain silent.  And once the silence is broken, it’s much easier to find answers when you come back to the large group.

The Train Like A Champion blog is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  These brief “Training Tip” posts are a series of quick reference tips that are published while your beloved Train Like A Champion blogger is currently enjoying a little vacation.  The more in-depth posts will resume again in August.

Do you train like an ESPN announcer? Or an announcer from Univision?

I’m amazed at how similar some presentations (and audiences) are to soccer games (and audiences).

Some people I know are truly soccer fans.  They’ll stream Euro League games through their computer in the afternoons as they work.  And there’s no way they’d miss a World Cup Qualifier on ESPN in the evening.  The game may end in a 0-0 draw, but these fans will stay on the edge of their seat for a full 90 minutes (plus stoppage time).

Then there are the casual fans who might really appreciate the game if there was something to get excited about. Watching a game on tv, they may sit for a few minutes, but inevitably there will be better things to do around the house.  The announcers on ESPN know what they’re talking about, but they don’t make much effort to draw casual fans into the game.

Of course, if you’re watching the game on Univision, it’s a completely different story.  You don’t have to speak Spanish to get caught up in the announcers’ excitement.  Certainly the Univision announcers are well known for shouting GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLLL! after each score.  But these announcers also get excited about every pass.  They get excited about every player and make a big deal about every player’s nickname.  Watching soccer on Univision is fun and engaging, even for the casual fan.  And often even for the fan that may not even speak Spanish.

This pattern is similar to many presentations and their attendees.  A presenter may drone on and on and click through slide after slide, but if it’s a specific topic that speaks to a specific portion of the audience, then there will inevitably be some participants who take feverish notes and hang on every last bullet-pointed slide in order to take something away.

Most presentation attendees are much more likely to be similar to casual soccer fans.

As a presenter, do you more closely resemble an ESPN soccer analyst – professional and assuming your audience has an inherent passion for your topic? Or do you more closely resemble a soccer announcer from Univision – professional and passionate, finding fun things to talk about and that everyone in the audience can connect with in addition to sharing your deep knowledge?

The Train Like A Champion blog is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  These brief “Training Tip” posts are a series of quick reference tips that are published while your beloved Train Like A Champion blogger is currently enjoying a little vacation.  The more in-depth posts will resume again in August.

Training Tip: When You Can’t Tape Things To The Wall

Some hotels and other meeting space venues don’t allow you to use tape on the walls, which generally rules out the ability to post flipcharts around the room.  Several years ago I stumbled upon a solution to this.

Plastic Sheets

Flipchart-sized plastic sheets that can serve as a cross between a white board and a flipchart have been a savior for me on several occasions.  They stick to the wall using the power of static cling – no tape, no irritated conference facility staff.

As much as I love Mr. Sketch markers, they actually are one of the worst things you can use when you write on these plastic sheets.  You’ll need to use either dry erase markers or something extremely permanent (like chisel-tipped Sharpies).

Bringing a package of these along takes a little extra space in the suitcase, but they’ve helped me look prepared on several occasions.  I’ve used these sheets in training sessions and with team members and executives during last-minute strategy meetings while on the road.

The Train Like A Champion blog is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  These brief “Training Tip” posts are a series of quick reference tips that are published while your beloved Train Like A Champion blogger is currently enjoying a little vacation.  The more in-depth posts will resume again in August.

Training Tip: PowerPoint as a Photo Editor

When Tom Kuhlman recently posted his 7 reasons why PowerPoint doesn’t suck, I was skeptical.  But as usual, he’s right.  Using tips from his blog post, I was able to quickly turn this image…

I Am Not A Role Model

…to this image in order to remove the background and create the look and feel I wanted…

I Am Not A Role Model (no background)

…with two clicks of the mouse.

I Am Not A Role Model - PPT

PowerPoint is actually an amazing tool… I’d love to see more presenters take advantage of its features to create amazing presentations.

Related Posts:

The Train Like A Champion blog is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  These brief “Training Tip” posts are a series of quick reference tips that are published while your beloved Train Like A Champion blogger is currently enjoying a little vacation.  The more in-depth posts will resume again in August.

Training Tip: The Handout that Keeps on Giving

2 part NCR

What kind of training worth its salt doesn’t have some type of action plan activity toward the end?

How many training professionals know whether or not their learners even think about those action plans once they’ve returned to their office?

Several years ago when I began facilitating a diversity training designed by Casey Family Programs called Knowing Who You Are, I was introduced to 2-ply, carbonless paper (if you go to a print shop, the official name for this paper is “2 part NCR paper”) as a way to help the facilitator follow-up with learners about their action plans.  The learner would write her action plan on this paper, tear off the top copy and take it with her, then put the second copy in a self-addressed envelope.  The facilitator would send that envelope to each learner 45 days after the training session as a reminder on what the learner had committed to doing.

You can get the same result if you collect everyone’s action plans and make photocopies, but I find the 2-ply carbonless paper to be much easier, much quicker and it involves many fewer logistics.  You can have something printed on this paper by sending an electronic file to your favorite print shop or by going to a place like Office Max.

I’ve used this tool in a variety of ways to help follow-up on training with my learners.  I’ve also found 3 part NCR paper helpful by offering the third copy to immediate supervisors so they can help follow up on the training and review action plans when their employees return to their offices.

The Train Like A Champion blog is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  These brief “Training Tip” posts are a series of quick reference tips that are published while your beloved Train Like A Champion blogger is currently enjoying a little vacation.  The more in-depth posts will resume again in August.

Training Tip: Keeping Handouts Organized

Multi Colored Handouts

Handouts are a great way to help learners follow along with the content you’re presenting and they can serve as a physical reminder for the learner to use your content when they return to their offices.

If you’re distributing multiple handouts, it can be helpful to copy each handout onto a different colored piece of paper.  This allows you to call your learners’ attention to the “pink sheet” or the “green sheet”. When all of your handouts are printed on white paper, you’re left having to describe the handout that you want people to pay attention to (“please turn to the fourth page in your packet” or “please turn to the page that looks like this”).  Even with page numbers, it can take valuable session time for learners to find the correct page.

Different colored handouts allow your learners to identify the correct page with one quick glance.

The Train Like A Champion blog is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  These brief “Training Tip” posts are a series of quick reference tips that are published while your beloved Train Like A Champion blogger is currently enjoying a little vacation.  The more in-depth posts will resume again in August.

Speed Dating Training Activity

I was working with my team on finishing the agenda for an intense, 2-day meeting.  There was only one 90-minute block of time left to fill.  And nobody wanted to take it on. It was the 90 minutes immediately after lunch on the second day. Perfect timing for food coma and exhaustion to be setting in.  Terrible timing for a facilitator.

The Need

We wanted to use this 90 minutes of time to introduce a series of new initiatives we were unveiling.  But giving each project manager 15 minutes of airtime to offer a traditional PowerPoint-based set of talking points just wouldn’t work.  That was a format that would lull even the most enthusiastic participant to sleep after three or four presentations.  So we decided to try something we’d never tried before in a professional meeting: speed dating.

Speed Dating Training Activity in Action

We set up six “speed dating” stations around the room, one for each initiative.  The stations featured visual aids and handouts about individual initiatives and the project manager anchored each station, waiting for new “dates” to come by.  We divided our meeting attendees into six groups and assigned each group to a project where they would begin their “dating process”.  Each “date” lasted for 8 minutes (loosely structured, project managers were supposed to provide 5 minutes of information and allow for 3 minutes of questions from their audience).  After 8 minutes, groups were asked to rotate to the next new initiative.  This process repeated itself six times and concluded with a large group debrief.


I have never seen a room full of people more abuzz and alive immediately after lunch.  The speed dating training activity forced the project managers to identify and share the absolute most important aspects of their projects.  The short Q&A period forced participants to come right out and ask their questions if there was something they really wanted to learn more about.  Attendees were not only engaged and physically active throughout the session, the small group nature of the activity allowed those who left wanting to know more the personal connections to the project managers that could help them get answers.


In the interest of full disclosure, this was not an activity I came up with on my own.  It was something I had seen several months earlier during a meeting with an amazing organization called LINGOs.  I make this point for two reasons:

  1. To give credit where credit is due, and
  2. To remind you that when it comes to instructional design, there are very few truly original ideas out there, so don’t be afraid to borrow and adapt others’ ideas to your own context.


“I always run out of time”

You put together an amazing design and your audience is completely engaged.  They’ve been participating throughout the session.  They’re loving it.  You’re loving it.  There’s only one problem.

You still have about 30 minutes of material left to present.  And you only have 5 more minutes remaining in your session.

Getting through your complete lesson requires time management on two fronts:

  1. Time management for the facilitator(s)
  2. Time management for the participants

Facilitator Time Management. As the facilitator, there are two points in time that are essential to your time management: 1. the planning stage and 2. the delivery.

During the planning, it’s a good idea to use a lesson plan in which you can estimate the amount of time you should spend on any given activity.  While some activities may take a little more (or a little less) time than you’ve estimated, you’ll know that if you want to get through your entire lesson, there shouldn’t be much variance from your initial plan.  Sometimes it’s difficult to estimate the time it will take to complete an activity, which is why it’s also a good idea to do a rehearsal in order to refine your time estimates.

During the delivery, it’s helpful to have a clock someplace in the room.  If there’s not a clock, then your watch or your mobile phone will do.  You’ll want to take your watch off or take your mobile phone out of your pocket and put it someplace where you’ll be able to check it discreetly.  If you get caught looking at your watch or pulling your mobile phone out of your pocket to check the time too often, your audience may feel you’re not very interested in them.

Participant Time Management. Breaking participants up for small group discussions, role plays, skills practice or other small group work is the best way to engage your audience and ensure they’re “getting it.”  However, this requires giving up some control.  It also requires active monitoring on the part of a facilitator to ensure the group is on task.  Giving clear instructions and a clear time limit are key pieces to successful small group work.  If the participants are not clear on how much time they’ve been given to complete the task or if they’re unclear on how much time remains to complete the task, small group activities can last much longer than you’ve budgeted in your lesson design.

The Mega Timer

The Mega Timer

Free Online Countdown Timer

Free Online Countdown Timer

When I break the audience up into small groups, I always show the audience exactly how much time they have for their work by using a Mega Timer placed conspicuously at the front of the classroom or by using an online countdown timer that can be displayed on the projection screen.

Do you have tips to stay on topic and on time?  Please add your thoughts to the comments section.

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Six Resources for Trainers and Presenters to Check Out Today.

There are tons of training materials out there.  So, why is there still so much bad training?  Perhaps people just latch on to what’s worked in the past.  Perhaps presenters aren’t sure where to look for new ideas.  Here are six training resources to help spark some new ideas.

1. Visual Nirvana

Readers of this blog know that I’m not a fan of PowerPoint.  I just think too many presenters spend way too much time putting together a series of text- and data-filled slides on standard PowerPoint templates and they call it a training program.  I’m not totally anti-PowerPoint, I just wish it would be used better.  Take a look at an example of what a PowerPoint presentation can be.

2. Large Group Interaction

For those fortunate enough to be asked to present to a big group – say 40 or 100 or maybe even 1,000 or more –check out a free (or low cost… rates vary depending on group size) service that enables the audience to use their mobile phones to interact with you.  Yes, some conferences use Twitter to do this, but a) watching a steady stream of tweets while someone is trying to speak is distracting and b) with this service you can ask for short answer responses and poll-based feedback.

3. Action Plans

End-of-training action plans are quite common.  Following up on progress is much less common.  Using 3-part NCR carbonless paper for action plans may offer some help when it comes to post-training accountability.  Using this specialty paper allows for an action plan to be produced in triplicate – one copy for the trainee, one copy for the trainee’s manager and one copy for you (if you’ll never see the trainee again, perhaps you can mail that final copy to the trainee as a reminder  45 days after the training is completed).  Why copies for the trainee, the trainer and the manager?  See resource #4.

4. The 100th Monkey Story

The trainer and the trainee’s manager are essential for on-the-job transfer of skills.  In July 2011, Bob Pike wrote a column about change, offering a story that detailed a specific tipping point when an idea is no longer avant-garde or radical and becomes accepted as a good, sound practice.  More importantly, this article sums up years of research pointing to the impact of a trainee’s manager and the trainer in determining whether or not training concepts will ever be used on the job.  Some serious food for thought when you’re planning a training program.  And speaking of planning a training program…

5. What’s In It For Me?

In order for training to be useful, it needs to be planned to meet the needs of the audience.  A connection between the trainees’ job competencies and the learning intervention helps to offer an answer to the question “what’s in it for me?”  Lominger core competency resources are the industry standard when it comes to off-the-shelf resources for competency modeling.

6. Training Double-Check Checklist

Wondering if your training session has what it takes to engage your learners?  Download a training preparation checklist that I have developed to compare your lesson plan with 11 core elements for effective presentations.