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Trainers Aren’t Keynote Speakers

Wednesday, May 1, 2019
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We’ve all know people who are smart, slick, and successful. I call them "shiny happy trainers."

They comfortably hold court at the front of the classroom. Their presentations are delivered flawlessly. Their slide decks have a sophisticated aura with elegant fonts, stylish colors, and minimalist images.

They craft perfect responses to every participant question. From word choice, to posture, to slightly furrowed brow, they make each participant feel they posed an incredibly profound question--even if that question came up twice last week in two different cities.

They’re impressive; they’re professional. They have the poise and polish of the keynote speaker and draw energy to the front your classroom. Perhaps you even thought, “When I grow up, I want to be a trainer like them.”

The Rules

Shiny happy trainers faithfully follow what I call the "Universal Collective Rules of Training" a list of dos and don’ts every trainer is told to follow when they start out in this profession. You probably know most of them. The rules include things like:

  • Never walk in front of the projector beam.
  • Never have your back to the class.
  • Always start with a relatable story.
  • Always repeat a participant’s answer or question.

These guidelines (and many more) are the foundation of success, and many trainers wistfully aspire to being one. Of course, the motivation isn’t always driven by the trainer. During a pre-class call for one of my train the trainer programs, a training manager told me the biggest need for her team was improved platform and PowerPoint skills. “We need to be amazing presenters to have credibility in our organization,” she told me. Err, I don’t think so.

Shiny Happy Trainers Follow the Keynote Mindset

Shiny happy trainers follow the keynote mindset. Like keynote speakers, they aim to look and sound good in front of a class, project authority, and bring a commanding presence. They call their learners the "audience." Some even talk about holding their audiences in the palm of their hand. Think about those words. Don’t audiences belong in the theater? The circus? At home on the couch in front of the TV?

It’s easy to fall into the keynote mindset, but I think it holds trainers to unreasonable standards. It has them focusing energy on the wrong things and not representing the best return on investment for an organization or client.

That’s because our job, in a nutshell, is to help people learn new skills and knowledge and deepen existing skills and knowledge. Keynote speakers open conferences and motivate large crowds. All very valid in their context, but it’s a different set of objectives. Trainers help learners build skills because organizations and clients need them to meet business objectives. For a commercial company it might be to increase revenue, a government agency might need to increase efficiency, or a nonprofit’s goal could be to provide services to more people.

The engine that drives these possibilities is learning. So how do we learn? Let’s take a quick refresher. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t involve learning styles, and it doesn’t happen out front in a slide deck.

Learning Doesn’t Take Place at the Front of the Classroom

At a very simple level, humans use mental models stored in the long-term memory to process and make sense of new information. Whether it’s a story, abstract idea, or procedure, mental models help us process new stuff and adapt it to our specific needs. The more we process and draw on these mental models through discussion, reflection, exercise and other actions of retrieval, the more we refine them and the easier they become to access or remember.

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Learning happens in the head. It takes place on board the learner—not in a slide deck or at the front of the classroom. We could be the best trainer in the world, but if the learner doesn’t fire up her neurons and engage in certain cognitive processes, she’s not going to do the work of building learning.

What does this process look like in real life? If I were learning to drive a school bus, I might sit in the driver’s chair and make sense of the new controls by drawing on an existing mental model I have of how to drive my personal car. It has a steering wheel and gas pedal, so I’d start by looking for those in the bus.

This would form the foundation for me to learn the dynamics of steering a long bus, adding to my mental model the skill of safely backing it into a parking space. I might learn this skill from practice; hopefully, with an instructor giving me feedback. Or, I may learn it by accidentally backing into a fence post. (With any luck, that’s not the case.) By deliberately practicing these new skills, I’ll improve my ability to maneuver this chunk of steel, even doing it automatically without having to think too much.

It’s Not About What I Say

I learn when I reflect, practice, reflect, and refine. I learn less when a trainer talks at me, even when she might be the most engaging presenter. I learn more when a trainer rolls up her sleeves and supports me doing the messy work of learning. In academic terms, that “sleeve role” is scaffolding the learning.

None of this is new, by the way. Malcolm Knowles said we learn best from experiences and interaction. In the 19th Century, educationalist John Dewey said, “All learning comes through experience.” And in the 20th Century, psychotherapist Carl Rogers of “learner-centered learning” fame said, “A person cannot teach another person directly; a person can only facilitate another’s learning.”

The more we understand learning, the clearer it becomes that smart and slick isn’t as helpful as many people think it is.

Trainers Are More Like Physical Therapists Than Keynote Speakers

This begs the question: If we’re not like keynote speakers, who are we like? I see more parallels between our work and that of physical therapists. If you damage a rotator cuff and get shunted off for some PT, your physical therapist knows that to heal, you need to perform certain exercises to stretch the muscles and strengthen functionality. An office visit will most likely involve you doing the hard work of stretching those painful muscles. If your physical therapist sat down and talked to you about the healing muscles then let you go home without stretching those muscles, healing probably wouldn’t happen.

It’s the same for training. If we talk to people about something but don’t get them to process it through discussion, activities, or some other form of practice, it’s unlikely that they’ll understand, let alone remember it.

Just as the physical therapist must get the patient stretching muscles and doing the uncomfortable and hard work of healing, we need to stop talking and worrying about the energy we bring to the room and instead concentrate on how we help learners tap into their own energy and what we can do to nurture their work of learning.

Bottom line: effective trainers have more in common with physical therapists than with keynote speakers.

Forget Being Smart, Slick and Successful

What do we need to do to be truly effective trainers? Stop trying to be that shiny happy trainer. Spend less time preparing slide decks and more time thinking about how learners can practice and perfect their new skills. Most of all, forget the notion that good trainers are like keynote speakers. Here are three questions I ask myself:

  • Do I need to be a shiny happy trainer? I prefer authenticity and being a real support than being a showman.
  • Should we follow those universal rules of training? Is it a big deal if you walk in front of the projector beam? Or you stutter when answering a question? I don’t think so. Instead ask, “Does this really get in the way of learning?”
  • How can I step out of the limelight? Try the 20/80 rule: spend 20 percent of your time talking, and focus 80 percent of your time having learners do stuff that helps them build their learning.

It’s easy to forget the awesome impact trainers can have on people and organizations. To have that impact, our focus needs to be on the learners being great. Not us.

About the Author

Jonathan Halls is an author, trainer, and coach. He wrote Confessions of a Corporate Trainer (ATD Press, 2019), Rapid Video Development for Trainers (ATD Press, 2012) and was a contributing author to Speak More (River Grove Books, 2012) and the ATD Handbook: The Definitive Reference for Training & Development 2nd Edition (ATD Press, 2014). He is author of the ATD Infoline, “Memory & Cognition in Learning” (ATD Press, 2014) and has written numerous articles for T&D magazine. Jonathan is an ATD BEST Awards reviewer and has sat on the advisory committees for the ASTD International Conference & Exposition and TechKnowledge.

The former BBC learning executive now runs workshops in media, communication, leadership, and creativity. He is on faculty at George Washington University and facilitates ATD’s Master Trainer Program ™, Training Certificate and Rapid Video for Learning Professionals Certificate program. Jonathan has been training, speaking, and coaching for 25 years in more than 20 countries. He describes his work as “at the intersection of media, communication, learning, leadership, and innovation.”

34 Comments
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Great article. I've frequently been challenged with delivering this very message to senior leaders, interested candidates and employees. I have forwarded this on to several former colleagues who will appreciate it.
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Thanks for sharing.
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Effective trainers and keynoters share common ‘’rules’:
*Understand your audience./learner needs
*Craft stories and exercises to meet objectives
*Bring energy to the room when needed
As a 40-year trainer I fined labels are less important than finding what works. When a ‘keynoting’ skill or technique works well, I am happy to use it.
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