Lessons from the Road: Six Things I learned about Training

In November and December of 2012, I spent six weeks traveling to seven different countries on three different continents.  During this time, I facilitated at six different training/workshop events.  Since 1998, trainings have been a core part of what I do, but I am far from the perfect trainer (If I ever feel like I’ve perfected my training technique, that will be a good indication that I’ve become a crap trainer).  This was a great opportunity for me to have some time to focus on how to maximise the workshop environment as a place where participants learn.

Here’s six things I learned along the way:

1. Break down the participant/facilitator barrier as much as you can.  A favorite exercise of mine is the spectogram – where you have a line down the middle of the room with one end being agree and the other end being disagree.  As you make controversial statements about the training topic, people move along the line as to whether they agree or disagree.  This is a great way for both the facilitator to learn about participants but also for participants to learn about each other.  Whenever I’ve done this exercise, I’ve spent a good portion of prep time trying to come up with appropriate statements.  In Glen Cove, New York at the Transparency and Accountability Initiative’s Bridge Session, I watched Gunner of Aspiration put a really fantastic spin on this, breaking people up into small groups and having them come up with controversial statements themselves.  They then get to select which statements they think are the most controversial to use for the exercise.

In that respect, getting everyone engaged in creating content for the training is both achievable and very beneficial. At workshops in San Francisco, New York and Barcelona, (again, all facilitated by Gunner of Aspiration) afternoon sessions were set aside for participants to pitch sessions that they wanted to give and for people to self-select sessions offered.  Simplicity is the key word here, the self-selection process consists of those facilitating the session standing up and giving a 30 second pitch of their session, and participants then vote with their feet.  The beauty of this is you can get a lot of concurrent sessions happening at once and really nice small sessions where exchange on a topic is quite focused.  Occasionally you have facilitators with no participants, but it always seems there is another session that the facilitator is happy to go instead.  To pull this off well you need good options for breakout spaces for a variety of sized groups.  After the self-selection process has occurred it’s just a matter of sending groups off to space that will accommodate them.  This is something the lead-facilitator does, not the groups themselves.

2. For the above to work, it’s always important to keep instruction simple and have logistics well organised.  You can have people self-select into groups quite easily with clear instructions like, ‘find three other people you know the least.’  But after groups are formed, tell them where to go and make sure they have all the materials they need. Also keep them on time check, letting them know periodically how much time they have and when they should break.  Make sure that people can spend their energies focused on their learning and not waste their energy by having to focus on logistics.

3. Utilise the power of threes.  Center each session on three things people will learn.  Give them three things to do when you break them into groups. Break more complex concepts into three simple steps.  In doing workshops on how to create visualisation from complex data, I found Tactical Tech’s concept of the three ‘gets’ really effective:  ‘Get the idea’, ‘Get the story’ and ‘Get the detail’ (For more see: http://drawingbynumbers.org/data-design-basics/note-4-visualisation-basics-three-gets).  People will remember 3 things quite easily and you can always break things down into a beginning, middle and end.

4.  Translation can work to your advantage.  I did trainings in Amsterdam and Armenia where translation was a necessity as I only speak English and many of the participant’s didn’t.  I do tend to think on my feet during a training and I found the breaks for translation very helpful in staying on top of where the training was going and also being able to observe participants’ behaviour to see if I was wearing them out or boring them.  The two key things you need to keep an eye on however, is how good the translator is (which can be tough if you don’t know the language) and the energy level of the room.  I was very fortunate in Armenia to have a translator that fed off my own energy and kept her delivery as lively as mine.

5. Utilise a diverse range of activities that can maximise learning potentials.  I tend to veer towards small group activities, thinking its best for people to interact and learn from peers.  However, in preparation for an Internet security training that was delivered in Amsterdam, I got pulled into creating a role play game for a group of 40 participants.  I was working with Peter Bagnall of Surface Effect and Maryam Pasha, both of whom were much more keen on the idea than I was. The game had participants passing messages to each other to simulate how email.  I initially thought it was too complicated and would have little pay off, but as we worked through simplifying it and staying focused on what the participant’s would learn – the end result worked really well and the participants had a lot of fun and got the key points.  It was particularly good to have something fun, lively and having the whole group participate in during a multi-day workshop.

Also in Armenia, I did a training of trainers workshop on visualising complex data.  I’m not very fond of doing trainings on hands on tools and it was something the participants had requested. So as part of the workshop, I got the participants to develop their own hands on trainings on tools and then deliver them.  I felt a bit like I was cheating (though I was very transparent with the participants about my motives for doing this), but it meant there was a wide range of activities, they got exposure to using the tools and I could concentrate on the more conceptual pieces I know I’m better at delivering.

6. Talking about failure provides a great platform for learning.  In California, I attended Aspiration’s Non Profit Dev Summit and attended a great session by Camille Ramani about a mobile app implementation she’d managed that had failed horribly.  This was a story about how the best intentions combined with assumptions about refugees’ desires to reconnect with family can go horribly wrong. The admission of failure and the reflections about the reasons for failure were priceless.  The following week I met up with Beth Kanter, who confided that she was becoming obsessed with stories of failure as learning opportunities.  The conversation got me to reflect on how debriefing after failure goes much better when blame is put to one side and honest reflection about the cause of the failure is discussed openly.  Discussion of failure always should include a reflection on what could have been done differently to achieve success.

And one extra worth mentioning – Always remember you’re role as a trainer. In one training, a campaigner was focused on LGBTQI rights and while discussing her campaign, several other participants made some startling remarks that bordered on homophobia.  As a gay man, I really wanted to challenge their views, but I held my calm and just reminded them to be respectful.  At the break, I took the LGBTQI activist aside and told her I was out and had no issue with her using me to make a point.  She responded that she thought it would be best if I ‘stayed the trainer’ during the workshop, so I respected that.  By the end of the workshop, the participants were being more objective about her campaign and everyone had really progressed their thinking about their overall campaign strategies.  If I’d switched into activist mode, I probably would have alienated several participants, not have had a very productive workshop AND not done anything to help her campaign.