by Steve Adubato, PhD

Many professionals are expected to lead internal workshops or training seminars. Accountants lead seminars about new tax laws; lawyers for new courtroom procedures; or doctors regarding the latest clinical findings and its implications for patient care. Only one catch—knowing a subject extremely well is only part of the communication equation when it comes to leading a workshop. Knowing something doesn’t mean you can communicate it.

There is a lot of talk these days about “training the trainers” or teaching professionals how to lead or facilitate a workshop. This column has explored this topic in the past, however, more and more it is clear that the only real way to train people to train is by getting them to actually do it—to get up and lead a seminar, make mistakes, get feedback and try it again.

Q—How do you get people to actually lead a seminar or workshop if they’ve never done it before?

A—You take it a piece at a time. For example, if you are trying to teach about the importance of asking seminar participants open-ended questions (“Bob, why is that?”) as opposed to closed-ended questions (“Do you agree?”), have the seminar participant get up and talk about a topic and engage the group by using open-ended questions. Have the participant practice asking the question (using a participant’s name) then truly listening and following up either by paraphrasing, asking another question or moving to another seminar participant, again by name, to get his or her feedback. The key is to break down a seminar into manageable pieces.

Q—How much talking should a train the trainers seminar leader do?

A—Not as much as you think. The key is to actually demonstrate what I call a “best practice.” Show seminar participants how to actually do something, whether you move from behind the podium and get closer to the audience, use the name of a seminar participant, or deal directly with a seminar participant who is interrupting consistently. You want to show potential trainers how to do it, but then give them the opportunity to try it. Make sure you provide a safety net for people to make mistakes and then give them positive yet candid feedback and let them try it again.

Q—So the key to leading a seminar or training session really comes down to engaging participants?

A—Absolutely. That’s why a train the trainers session must be engaging. If your seminar philosophy is to actively involve participants but while you are teaching you lecture and dominate the conversation, what message does that send? “Do as I say, not as I do.” You have to practice what you preach, which sometimes means letting go and giving up control but making sure that you set the parameters for a meaningful discussion to take place.

Q—Doesn’t this communication approach run contrary to the way most other training and seminar activities are run in corporate America?

A—Unfortunately, yes. Too many of these training sessions are one-way monologues, with seminar leaders delivering dry, canned and terribly uninspiring presentations. The objective is to simply “cover the material” as opposed to connecting and inspiring participants while at the same time providing valuable skills, tools and knowledge. If all you are trying to do is cover the material, why not simply send an e-mail with your “canned” presentation and let participants read it at their leisure. The seminar leader must communicate at a higher level and must be more personal, passionate and inspiring, but most of all engaging. If not, that’s when seminar participants start pulling out their Blackberries, and nothing good will come of that.