by Steve Adubato, PhD

Two engineers in a major architectural firm were getting ready to conduct an in-house training session to introduce a new company initiative. The engineers had worked long hours gathering material and putting together excellent content for the workshop handouts. They were covering a lot of valuable material, but the handouts were getting voluminous.

When asked by an outside consultant why they had so much material, the team leader responded, “We have so much material to cover in the seminar…there is so much the participants have to understand.” Then the question was asked, “How are you going to engage or involve the participants in the seminar?” A blank stare followed, then finally, “We haven’t really thought much about that. We were too busy getting the materials together. How would we get them involved anyway?”

Q—Why is it that so many internal training sessions take this “data dump” approach?

A—It’s standard practice in a lot of organizations. Too many people confuse training with simply distributing material. They confuse covering the information with the need for participants to truly understand and assimilate that same information and ultimately use it in a productive fashion. The other reason is that most internal trainers really haven’t been trained on what it takes to make a great seminar or workshop.

Q—So what is the best approach to engaging seminar participants?

A—The first thing that needs to be done is acknowledge the importance of engaging people. You learn more when you are engaged. You are more connected and enthused when you are participating. Imagine thinking you could learn how to play golf simply by watching a golf video or reading a book on the perfect swing. You have to DO IT and get feedback and then try it again. You have to participate. The same thing is true in a seminar. The best seminars allot blocks of time where participants are working in smaller groups on specific tasks. They are given a set of open-ended questions to consider. For example; “What are the greatest strengths, opportunities and challenges we face over the next six months?” Each mini-team can think about and discuss these important questions and then report back to the larger group. In turn, the seminar leader facilitates and assimilates this information and displays it for all to see.

Q—But don’t you need to have prepared content for a training session?

A—Yes, but not as much as you think. My recommendation is to cut out at least half of your prepared text and replace it with interactive exercises that encourage participants to explore important topics in greater depth. Again, thick fancy training manuals may make upper management feel better, but most of them wind up on a shelf collecting dust. If all you are asking training participants to do is follow along as the trainer reads from the manual, many will ask, “Why did I have to come here in the first place? I could have read this stuff on my own.”

Q—So it comes down to a balance between prepared content and speaking off the cuff?

A—Not really. It is not off the cuff. It is preparing a set of questions, challenges or tasks for training participants that require their direct participation. Finally, it is about ensuring that at the end of any training session there are clear actions that have been agreed to that can be measured and evaluated over time. Without this, internal training runs the risk of wasting time and draining valuable resources. No organization can afford that.