Secrets of a Superstar Corporate Trainer…What Makes a Great Training Session?

Tips for a GREAT training session….

Years ago, I taught project management, leadership, team building and other courses around the country (and beyond) for a well known international training company.  While chatting with one of the other instructors in the break room before class started one morning, I noticed that he looked pretty tired.  I asked him if he was dragging, and he admitted to me that he’d been up late the previous night preparing for that day’s class (a course that I’d written for the company actually).  Next, he said something that really stuck with me…”Dana, there are two types of instructors that get rave reviews consistently – “work horses” and “thoroughbreds”.  I’m a work horse.  I’m not the most talented naturally, but I work twice as hard as anyone else.  But YOU, you’re a thoroughbred.  You’re just naturally magnetic, almost pyrotechnic in the training room – you’re a natural superstar.”  While I appreciated the compliment, I don’t know that I completely agree with his assessment (although my ego would like to) .  I’ve always been very comfortable speaking to groups and definitely think that I’m in my element when I’m training, but I think that many of the skills that I’ve mastered can be taught.  I’d like to share a few of those secrets with you!

When I was a student at Georgia Tech (MANY moons ago), I distinctly remember when a student took a seat in the back of the lecture hall and opened up a newspaper while the professor was lecturing.  I let out an audible gasp.  I just couldn’t believe that someone would be THAT rude.  Having been a trainer for many years now, I look back and that behavior seems mild at best when compared with “attendee protocol” that I’ve observed in my training room and others in recent years.  The simple fact these days is that EVERYBODY has a PDA of some sort or a laptop.  It’s not at all uncommon for an attendee to open their laptop and begin typing as soon as the workshop begins so the trainer is often climbing an uphill battle from the start (no matter how pyrotechnic they may be!).  In addition, online training has become so prevalent that professionals require even more of an incentive to take time off work and actually sit through a live training class.  If they do take time to come to training, they expect something spectacular!  While content contributes significantly to the participant’s experience and ultimate satisfaction level, arguably the instructor and their delivery style often matters even more.  Without a doubt, the facilitation and delivery skills of the past will not necessarily impress in today’s training environment, so even the best/most seasoned trainers must step up their game!

Here are a few of my personal secrets if you want to make your training sessions stand out…

Get to Know Attendees

This is such a simple point, but it’s so important.  Seasoned trainers know that during a training class, you build a “circle of trust” so to speak within the room.  A key to participants’ overall experience is how they feel about you and how they think you feel about them.  It’s simply a different training experience when they feel that you know their name, have taken an interest in them, and can easily relate the topic to their situation.  Oftentimes, the 15-30 minutes before class actually starts can be some of the most important time because you’re operating not in instructor mode but more as a peer who is honestly interested in getting to know them.  I usually walk around and ask people what part of town they live in and how long their commute was.   Sometimes I tell the group that we’ll give a prize to the person with the longest commute.  People generally like talking about themselves and everyone loves complaining about traffic so it’s worked well for me.  It’s just a way to break the ice and start getting to know each person, but starting that process early is critical.  Someone once told me after observing me, “You’re very likable, and that’s critical” I didn’t necessarily get it at the time, but after years of training, I do and now refer to this as “LQ” – likability quotient.  Trainers walk a difficult tightrope of being respected as more knowledgeable and credible than most but at the same time likable and approachable.  Both attributes are important.  Start working on your LQ as soon as you enter the room.  It will reap significant dividends.

Get Attendees Moving (and you move too!)

Every trainer knows that one of the hardest tasks any trainer has is keeping each person fully engaged.  At any given time they may be tempted to check email, make a grocery list, chat with their neighbor, take a mental vacation, or of course, take a nap!  As a participant myself, I know how hard it can be to remain fully engaged even if you really are trying so this is one of the reasons why I always resolve to keep my sessions interactive and engaging.  One of the best ways to engage participants is to get them out of their seats and physically moving around.   There are lots of ways to do this:

  • Have attendees swap tables once (or even a few times for multi-day courses) to mix up the groups. Although people sometimes moan a little at first, I regularly get feedback that they loved getting to know different people.  To do this you may either ask for a couple volunteers to move to the next table or write categories on tent cards and place them on each table (e.g. Jan-April birthdays, Last names beginning with A-K, etc.) after lunch or at the beginning of the next day.
  • Stop with the stale, overused typical activity readouts (where each group shares their output from a flip chart. It’s fine to do that occasionally, but after a couple times, it’s just dry and repetitive.  Instead, try a museum walk where each group walks to the next group’s flip chart to read it and add comments in another color.  Or have them go to different corners of the room for their discussion and have them share their top 3 ideas to share with the larger team after their discussion.
  • Utilize activities that require physical movement. Team building activities are great for this, but you can always come up with a creative spin on a typical activity as well.  When I work with intact teams doing strategy work (e.g. defining vision, mission, goals, etc.) I often give each group several rolls of pennies and have them take 15 minutes to design a team logo (representing the essence of the team’s real work) and then the entire group walks around to view each logo and hear a 5-minute presentation from the group who designed it.  Then, we segue into a more traditional brainstorming session/discussion about the team mission, goals, etc.

In addition to ensuring that they’re moving around, you move too!  When I train, I’m constantly walking around the training room.  (In fact, I used to wear a calorie counter on my arm and I was astonished at how many more calories I burned on training days vs. non-training days.)  This “roving” training approach also proves quite helpful when I have distracted attendees (pesky Blackberries!).  Instead of embarrassing them, I usually simply walk next to them and keep talking about the topic at hand without even looking in their direction.  Sometimes I will even sit on the table and talk from there for a few minutes.  Since I’m constantly roaming the room, it doesn’t seem odd, but the offenders definitely feel my presence and put away the PDA (at least temporarily)

Share Personal Stories (including mistakes)

I consistently get feedback that attendees love my stories.  I truly think that the stories make the material come to life, and we oftentimes don’t realize what great stories we have.  As I’m preparing to teach a class, I walk through the slides and try to come up with an anecdote that relates directly to the material for each major topic.  Stories don’t have to be funny (they can) – what’s more important is that they are rich and illustrate the concept well.  When I’m talking about conflict management, I talk about my aunt with 5 small kids (and her unique techniques).  When I’m talking about managing distractions on conference calls, I talk about a client’s conference call where they heard water in the background and asked about the noise only to be told that someone on the call had to take a quick bath.  When I’m talking about leadership, I talk about the director who bought the group a Cappuccino machine which they misinterpreted as an edict to stop going across the street to Starbucks for coffee breaks.  When I talk about motivation, I discuss the project manager who held his meetings on the benches at Brusters (over banana splits) or the company who distributed vending machine coupons as spot rewards daily.  Also, go out of your way to share your mistakes too.  Everyone likes an instructor to be relatable and mistakes make you more relatable.  Also, attendees can often relate to the mistakes so offer them up freely, but of course, be prepared to share how you learned from them.  I happily discuss mistakes that our team (or others) made particularly during my years as a management consultant.  When I’m discussing the importance of developing a project charter at the beginning of any project, I share colorful stories about projects that failed because they didn’t clarify scope, success criteria, deliverables, etc.  One example that I share is a client that we ultimately lost because we failed to clarify what “business plan” really meant and what the deliverable would actually include.  I then follow up by sharing the best practices that my team put in place after that experience to ensure that something like that wouldn’t happen again.

Use Facilitation Skills to Address Difficult Attendees Early

Unfortunately, most trainers have had the grueling experience of dealing with difficult attendees that seem to thwart the best laid plans.  Indeed, it is amazing how one truly problematic attendee can dampen and even destroy the learning experience for the entire group.  Don’t make the mistake that too many trainers make of basically ignoring them and hoping they will “go away”.  If their behavior is annoying at all to you, it’s probably a real bother to the people sitting next to them and they’re just scratching their heads saying, “Why doesn’t she do something about him/her?”

Personally, I’ve experienced a few different flavors of the “difficult attendee” – the “know it all”, “the multitasker” “the wet blanket”, and “the vacuum” (who sucks up all your time with questions) just to name a few.  Let’s review a few quick suggestions for effectively managing the “know it all” who insists on demonstrating that expertise throughout the course of the training event.  They may go out of their way to challenge the trainer, dominate the class discussion, pose questions specifically designed to stump the trainer, pose much more advanced questions clearly beyond the scope of the course, or contradict the trainer during sidebar conversations with their tablemates or others attending the training event.  Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Acknowledge their expertise (if you feel they do have valid points) and call on them to comment occasionally. Don’t be at all intimidated if an attendee clearly has expertise in the topic area. This person could be a great “go to” person to help provide examples, offer opinions/input from their work environment, share war stories, etc.  Remember that you attract more bees with honey than vinegar so avoid any temptation to be confrontational.  The “Know it All” can become a great asset to you if you manage them correctly J
  • If they’re offering valid comments but maybe dominating the conversation a bit, reiterate/validate their comment by writing it visible for all to see, and then ask for other ideas to complete the list. (e.g.  “Steven, it sounds like you’re suggesting that we use approach x in this scenario…is that correct?  That’s a great suggestion.  Let’s compile a list of several suggestions, then discuss them all.  We’ll list your suggestion as “A” on the list.  I’d like to get at least three other suggestions from the group.  What do others think?”)
  • If they’re offering comments that you don’t necessarily agree with, avoid the temptation to argue with the attendee. I’ve found that there are very few black and white answers in the workplace; instead, there are more shades of grey.  If they are offering “expertise” that you feel is incorrect, thank them for their feedback and ask for other’s input (e.g. “Steven, that’s an interesting idea/approach/suggestion.  What do others think about that idea?  What have you found that works well in your environment?”)  Note:  If they suggest something that is clearly incorrect or ill-advised, let the group know that you disagree (and offer alternate suggestions) to ensure the group doesn’t absorb erroneous information.
  • If they explicitly challenge you on a point, acknowledge the validity of your point but ask them to elaborate on their experience as well and summarize both experiences with the group. (g. Steven, although we’re recommending that the project team develop their project charter within the first two weeks, it sounds like that might be challenging in your environment. Tell me more about what has worked better in your environment….So, to summarize the key takeaways from this conversation for the larger group, I would certainly recommend that you strive to document the project charter within the first two weeks or so; however, recognize that there could be situations like Steven’s (where he was leading an international project disrupted by a major reorganization days after the project start) where that may not be practical.  That’s certainly reality so it’s great to not only discuss the best practice but also take a look at how we might react during extreme conditions as well.)
  • Use the round robin technique (go around the table asking each person to share a comment) and start at the opposite end of the table from the know it all (e.g. “This is such an important issue that I want to be sure I’m getting everyone’s ideas. Let’s do a quick round robin starting with Jill…”)
  • Take a break and solicit the know it all’s support offline (“Steven, you’ve brought up several key points. Thanks for that input!  I’m hoping to get some of the other team members involved in the discussion to hear their ideas as well.  Some members of the group are not as assertive, but I want to be sure we hear from them.”)

Provide “Edu-tainment”

I like to say that my workshops are really “edutainment”.  Fortunately, my natural style lends itself to an entertaining type delivery.  I’m not saying that you have to wear a propeller hat (I know a trainer who does and he’s great actually) or do card tricks during breaks, but the simple truth is that attendees want the steak AND the sizzle.  Having just one is no longer adequate – particularly with so many distractions in the training room.  The”edu” should not just focus on concepts and theory but give attendees practical tips, tricks, and techniques that they can begin using immediately.  I conclude most of my workshops with an individual action plan where I ask them to write down 3 specific actions that they will take within 30 days to incorporate some tip or best practice from the course into their day to day work life.  As you’re providing these tips and best practices, offer real-life tangible sample examples (e.g. a sample project plan, responsibility assignment matrix, Gantt chart, business case, communications plan, requirements document, etc.).  For many of my classes, I have a folder of documents that I pass around so that participants can see real examples.  Don’t just talk to bullet points on a slide – SHOW THEM!  They LOVE that!  Also, provide soft copies on a thumb drive so they can take it with them. For the “tainment” develop your own, unique entertaining style.  Don’t try to be something you’re not, but you MUST be energetic and somewhat entertaining.  I’ll never forget a course evaluation that I read many years ago from an employee with a large governmental agency.  He wrote something like this:  “Dana is much too smart to use the Chris Rock delivery style.”  Although I think there’s a compliment in there somewhere, I definitely believe it was intended as a constructive comment.  I also think that the participant thought I was trying to use a comedic style, but the reality is that I wasn’t trying at all.  For a few months after that (and oftentimes when I watch myself on video), that comment bothered me, and I tried to be less folksy, funny, and down to earth, but after a while I just decided to embrace it and be myself.  When I’m training, I get caught up in my stories (and I obviously think they’re pretty funny) and my presentation style reflects that but it’s who I am and I own it.  Find your entertaining style and make that room your stage from the first moment!

Dana Brownlee is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique Atlanta based professional development corporate training firm.  Her firm operates

Dana also provides advice on the key to facilitating an amazing team retreat: