28 Tips for Designing Training Courses: Case Study
Full-day training courses offer many challenges for speakers, including:
- massive preparation requirements;
- physical and mental fatigue (for both the speaker and audience); and
- maintaining interest requires dynamic delivery and varied presentation techniques.
If you can overcome these challenges, you can provide significant value for your audience.
This past week, I was fortunate to attend a series of full-day training courses (Usability Week 2012 in San Francisco, offered by the Nielsen Norman Group). While my focus was building my usability knowledge, it was also a great opportunity to learn from people who speak regularly around the world. One of these speakers was Marieke McCloskey, who taught my first session of the week.
This article offers 28 tips for designing and presenting training courses inspired by Marieke’s strengths and areas for improvement.
Critical Elements for a Great Training Course
Overall, Marieke was an amazing presenter. Several people I spoke with later in the week cited her as the best presenter they had heard all week. Why? She nailed all of the critical elements which are summarized here and elaborated on later in the article:
- Know your material intimately.
Marieke’s broad and deep knowledge was evident throughout the day.
- Present dynamically.
Marieke was expressive, energetic, and vocally dynamic. She smiled frequently, and laughed often.
- Vary your presentation techniques.
Marieke used a variety of techniques, including lecture, personal stories, visuals, video case studies, group discussion, and several exercises. Marieke fostered class participation the entire day.
- Use visuals appropriately.
Marieke’s visuals weren’t all perfect, but they were above average and enhanced her message greatly.
Before Your Session
- Arrive early, and use this time to help your audience.
Half an hour before the course began, Marieke put a slide up including necessary details (e.g. how to connect to the facility Wi-Fi connection). As students walked in, many of them had this exact question, and the answer was ready waiting for them. This small, simple act shows that you care for your audience by anticipating their needs.
Marieke also greeted students as they arrived — another small act which goes a long way toward establishing a positive environment.
- Introduce yourself with a smile.
Marieke was warm and inviting from her first words, which included the pronunciation of her name (ma-REE-ka). Does this matter? Yes! Names are personal. Names matter. Knowing how to say the speaker’s name makes people more comfortable asking questions — a necessity for an interactive full-day course.
- Promoting your company may be required, but don’t start this way.
After her personal introduction, Marieke gave a short, but boring promotional blurb about the services her employer offers (the conference host). I understand why this is done, but this would have been better to bring up later in the day after she had developed more trust with the audience.
- Tell a “why I’m passionate about this” story.
With the preliminary tasks done, Marieke displayed a full-screen photograph of the Denver Airport terminal, and proceeded to share a personal story about the moment that it was taken. This was a great opening (much better than the company promo) for several reasons:
- It was a personal story and told us something about Marieke.
- It was cleverly connected with the training course material.
- The story involved a common experience (air travel) which was easy to relate to.
- Marieke followed her own story by asking us to share our own stories. By leading the way with her story, Marieke created a sharing environment, and made it much more likely for others to follow. This is critical for lengthy, interactive courses.
- Share the course agenda.
A high-level agenda helps your audience understand the mental framework for your presentation. This is especially important for lengthy training courses. Marieke shared the agenda at just the right time (after introductions, logistics, and a connecting story).
- Break free from the lectern, and use the room.
It’s okay to speak from the lectern occasionally, but don’t chain yourself there. It’s boring and its more difficult to connect from there! Marieke moved around naturally throughout the day, left or right of the screen. She offered balanced sight lines, and gave every audience member eye contact. (One of my old crutches when delivering training courses used to be sticking primarily to one side of the room. It is much better to switch your perspective throughout the day.)
- Immerse yourself in your slides.
Marieke interacted with slides often, moving right into the projector light in a good way. I try to do this often, and it reminded me of the presentation style of Hans Rosling.
- Ignore distractions.
When you are in a meeting room all day, distractions come in many forms, such as when one student’s cell phone went off quite loudly a couple times. Marieke did not flinch, and instead just kept on rolling. That’s the sign of a true speaking professional.
- Gesture naturally.
Marieke was a very natural speaker, using her whole body to emphasize her words. She had one crutch: occasionally fidgeting with her hands in her pocket, as if she were rubbing a penny. This isn’t a big deal, but it would be better for her to keep her hands out, and ready to gesture at all times.
- Keep your energy up, even late in the day.
Its hard to keep your energy high for an entire 8-hour training course, but it’s definitely worth it if you can. Your audience will get tired too, and they need your energy even more late in the day. Marieke was better than average in this regard, but was showing signs of fatigue. In the last two hours, she spent more time at the lectern. Also, she only used a laser pointer (which was ineffective given the lighting in the room) in these last two hours instead of interacting directly with her slides. (Perhaps this was fatigue resulting from a long day or travel the day before?)
How can you keep your energy up all day?
- Start the day well-rested.
- Wear comfortable shoes.
- Stay hydrated throughout the day.
- Avoid heavy foods at breakfast and lunch (anything that makes you feel sluggish).
- Rest when you can, during training breaks or even while students are doing a solo exercise. Definitely stay off your feet during the lunch break.
- Encourage questions, and give honest answers.
As you can imagine in a full day training course, Marieke fielded many questions. Most of the time, she gave a succinct answer. On a couple occasions, she admitted that she didn’t know the answer (this is good!) and promised to follow-up with a colleague. The implication here is that Marieke would get the answer, and then relay it to the person who asked the question. I don’t think this happened during the day’s session, but I hope it happened later. (I assume Marieke noted the student’s name and question so she could follow up on email.)
- Try not to point at your audience members.
Marieke often pointed directly at individual audience members when referring back to earlier dialogue. She certainly didn’t intend this to be an aggressive or offensive gesture, but it can be interpreted negatively. Perhaps gesturing with her whole hand (palm up) would be better.
- Help your audience “fit” your content into the overall event.
Occasionally, your course is the event. Sometimes, however, your course is part of a larger event, and this was the case for Marieke. She frequently referenced courses later in the week. This is a great thing to do, as it emphasizes the cohesiveness of the whole event. Unfortunately, Marieke was not always clear about which day these later courses were offered. There are several solutions:
- She could memorize it all… but that’s not really necessary.
- She could have a printed agenda close by at the lectern to reference.
- The conference organizer could print the agenda on large posters, and have these placed on flip charts (or on the wall) within the room. This would allow Marieke to simply refer to it. Despite the small cost, this is my preferred solution.
- Encourage discussion, but know when to curtail it.
Throughout the day, there were many planned and unplanned class discussions. This is very good, and Marieke is skilled at facilitating discussion. Unfortunately, several of these discussions were dominated by two students who asked a sequence of questions. It’s difficult to handle this perfectly, and Marieke chose to err on the side of catering to those asking the questions and was very patient with them. As a result, the rest of her audience turned more to their electronic devices, and some material was rushed at the end of the day. It’s better to truncate the conversation when you feel it going on too long, and instead offer to answer further questions at the break or at the end of the day.
- Use title-assertion slides when possible.
Instead of titles which are topics (e.g. “Durability of usability guidelines”), use assertions (e.g. “Usability guidelines are durable.”). This helps your audience grasp the meaning immediately (both during the session and when they review slides later). Approximately 25-30% of Marieke’s slides had slide assertions. This is better than average, but I would encourage her to add assertions to as many as possible.
- De-emphasize your company logo.
Logo and page numbers were very small (barely noticeable in the lower-right), the same font size as image references or research sources (bottom-left). This is wonderful to see because huge company logos on every slide send negative messages.
- Make sure the visuals have large enough text.
Many of Marieke’s slides consisted of large computer screenshots. (This was quite appropriate for her topic.) One of the problems with full screenshots is that individual text within the image can be hard to read. Marieke handled this well by providing a zoomed-in cropped image at a larger size to highlight a certain part of the screenshot. This shows concern for the audience and understanding that we can’t always see tiny fonts.
- Use visuals to show context within the presentation.
For full-day presentations, it’s easy for your audience to lose context. Give them clues whenever you can. For example, a large section of Marieke’s talk centered on a four-phase process (Concept, Design, Implementation, Launch). This process was introduced as a single diagram, and then the diagram was repeated on later slides as we moved through each of the phases in detail.
- Avoid bullet-point overload.
Marieke had 145 slides and did have some which were filled with drab bullets and text. However, the large majority of slides contained a helpful visual, and this was outstanding. She is far better than the average trainer in this respect.
- Do not print out slides.
Slides were distributed electronically on memory sticks at the registration desk. This is much preferable to wasteful printing with 2, 3, or 6 slides to a page. Since nearly every student had a laptop with them, this also guaranteed that everyone could follow along if they chose to do so.
Crafting Your Message
- Focus on the audience, not on yourself or your company.
Sadly, many presentations (even paid courses) are littered with advertising. Happily, Marieke’s course was not like that. As an example, she mentioned several books written by her co-workers, but she did not advertise them. This is perfectly acceptable as long as the books are relevant to the presentation material (they were). Furthermore, several books by other authors were also mentioned. This demonstrates objectivity and commitment to providing value for the audience.
- Anticipate audience questions, and answer them in your presentation.
Before you can discuss deep concepts, you need to ensure that your audience shares your vocabulary. Good speakers understand this and take the time to define terms. Marieke did this several times, particularly where two or more terms had potentially confusing definitions. It would also be good to provide these definitions as an “appendix” in the class materials.
- Use analogies intelligently.
Using analogies helps your audience understand your topic in terms of concepts they already understand. As an example, Marieke offered a great analogy which compared building software to building a house. Not only was this a clever analogy that sparked a lively discussion, but Marieke also pointed out where the analogy breaks down. Honesty is always the best approach to earn your audience’s trust, even it means admitting the limitations of your logical arguments.
- Challenge your audience and craft strong takeaways.
Marieke delivered a number of significant gems, but I’ll relay just one because it is meaningful for speakers too. When discussing the importance of user-centric software, she stated: “You are not your user” (reminding us to design software not for ourselves, but for the people using our software). This is a tremendous reminder to speakers as well, with a twist: “You are not your audience.” Don’t speak as if you are speaking to yourself; speak in a way that is most helpful to your audience.
What do you think?
What are your best tips for full-day training seminars? Please share in the comments.