How to design an effective training session

I’ve been delivering training courses for most of my career. My first job was at a management consultancy that used its own staff to run its graduate programme. I'd only been there a couple of years when I was teaching systems design to more junior consultants.

This wasn’t too terrifying: the course was more or less the same one I’d taken in my second year at the firm. We freshened up the material with our own first-hand experiences with clients, but the structure, the slides and the exercises had all been created for us. We just had to deliver the class.

It was much later on that I got into designing training sessions from scratch. And I didn’t exactly volunteer to do it.

Client: “We need someone to run a class on project management”.

My boss: “Oh, Emily knows how to do project management… She can do it.”

And yes, I did know how to manage projects, but I didn’t know much about designing training courses. So my first attempts were full of excellent information on how to run projects, but also incredibly dull. To the clients that sat through them: I’m sorry!

A good training session works for lots of different learning styles

My early efforts tended to have lots of slides, a bit of discussion, and not much in the way of exercises. Excellent for folks who like theory and detail, but pretty tedious for everyone else.

You see, we don’t all learn the same way.

Some of us have to know why we need to learn something before we'll listen to the details. We need to hear stories of how this new thing can make a difference, or maybe the problems we can avoid if we pay attention.

Some of us need the theory and the detail. Some of us like verbal descriptions and some of us are more into diagrams. Either way, we like to see it all mapped out and know exactly how something works.

Some of us want to jump into trying new ideas out. If you show us a checklist or a template, we want to start using it straight away. (We’re the people who start putting Ikea stuff together without reading the leaflet.)

Some of us have already assimilated the idea and are off thinking about what else we can do with it. Can we apply agile techniques to planning our holiday? Can we use a blog content calendar for other aspects of our marketing? We look for patterns in things. We like discussion and debate.

And all of us will have questions.

So if you just stand there focusing on the ‘what’, without dealing with the ‘why', the 'how', and the ‘what else’, most of the people you’re talking to will have a pretty dull time.

Make sure you offer different ways to learn

There are loads of different ways to teach something, depending on the time you have available and the space you’re working in. They tend to fall into these categories:

Stories and case studies help people to understand why they should learn. You can use your own experiences, or look for examples in the media. Fictionalise them if necessary to spare people’s blushes. Especially if they’re illustrating the consequences of ignorance! You can also use discussions to dig into the ‘why’ - ask people to share their own experiences.

Slides come into their own when it comes to the ‘what’. Flow charts, process maps, and tables all help to explain the idea that you’re trying to teach. Don’t feel you have to use slides, though. Draw on whiteboards or flip charts if that suits your style better. (When I do this, I usually have the diagram sketched out on a cue card so I can remember what to draw.)

Checklists, templates and worksheets help people put the ideas into practice. These can be materials you use in class or things people can use afterwards.

Games and exercises give people hands-on experience. Once you’ve whetted people’s appetite with a theory, a checklist or a template, then let them try it out.

For instance, during a writing class, we showed people how to structure their LinkedIn bio. Then we made them write a new bio in the class. In another class, we were teaching people how to sell a new piece of technology. We created a fictional client with a specific set of problems. Then we asked the students to prepare a pitch to that client, introducing the new technology. I’ve even had a whole class of consultants learn how databases work by indexing themselves - lots of running around the room on that one!

Debriefing and discussion is a good way to tackle the ‘what else’. People will have questions about the exercise they just did, the material, and what they can do with it in the future. You don't have to have all the answers yourself. Create opportunities for people to pool their knowledge and learn from each other.

A well-designed class isn’t all lectures and exercises

Before you get carried away on planning your slides and thinking up fun case studies, you need to save time for some other things. You can’t spend all the time on the learning part.

It’s good to start with an introduction session. You need to explain who you are, and you might need to explain your qualifications for teaching the class.

You may also want to get to know your students a bit too. Even if you know them already as your colleagues, you might not know much about their reasons for being in the class, or their previous experience with the topic. I like to spend a bit of time asking people to say what they hope to learn in the session. I write this all down (or get them to do it on sticky notes) and use it as a checklist during the session. This helps me make sure everyone goes away happy.

You also need to allow for breaks. For a two hour class I wouldn’t bother, but for anything longer I plan a break every 90 minutes or so. If you try to go longer you’ll see a lot of fidgeting and checking of phones. Besides, you need a break. Teaching is great fun but it’s exhausting.

Breaks also give you a bit of contingency. If one session overruns, you can use up a bit of the break to make sure the class finishes on time. For this reason, I never put break timings on slides. That means I can change them as I need to, and no one knows!

Block out the timetable first

I start with a table in Word or Evernote. I put in start and end times, and then timings for breaks.

The next thing I block out is the introduction. For a two hour course, I’d allow 20-30 minutes. The duration lengthens as the class grows - because of the time it takes for everyone to say who they are and what they want to learn.

Once you get over 25-30 people it’s too long-winded to do individual introductions for the whole class so I’d use a group exercise instead. I’d ask each group to take five minutes to come up with a list of goals, and get them to report back to the rest of the room.

I also allow longer introductions for longer courses. For a week-long course of around 15-20 people, we used to take a full hour and ask people to set goals for the whole week. We got people to create goal boards (okay goal, flip charts!), and stick them up in the training room. Then we’d review them on the last day, and deal with any unanswered questions.

Once you’ve blocked out the breaks and the introduction, you’re left with one or more 60- to 90-minute ‘modules’.

Use this template to fill in each module

Plan to cover one topic per module. For that topic:

  • Introduce the topic with a story and/or a discussion.
  • Explain the theory with charts, diagrams, tables or other illustrations.
  • Make it usable with checklists, templates, tips and techniques.
  • Practice with an exercise - usually in groups, but can be individual work.
  • Debrief with presentations and discussion, and answer any questions.

Then take a break.

Don’t try to cram too much in!

If you’re teaching a subject you know well, there’s always going to be more you could say. And if it’s a topic you’re passionate about, you’ll really want to say it!

Remember you’re the expert. These are beginners. They don’t need to know everything you know. You need to edit down your knowledge and give them just enough of the right stuff to get started. They can always come back for more.

Even with that in mind I always plan too much material. Then I time each slide, discussion and exercise (pretty much as I do to keep to time in presentations) and realise I need to cut half of it.

Don’t throw the cuts away. You can put them into a handout so that people can keep on learning after the class. Or use it to create a follow-up training session for people who want to learn more.

What do you like to see in a training session? I'm always looking for new ideas!