Training Tips for Engagement
Think of the most annoying car alarm system. On an otherwise peaceful morning, a car alarm goes off somewhere close by. The sound is penetrating and obviously by design, disturbing. However, after a few minutes, you start to get used to the tone and rhythm of the alarm and it starts to become part of the background noise until it shifts into another alarm call which shocks you back to full attention. And then every time you start to feel comfortable with the current noise it changes its tone again.
Comparing the effect of a car alarm to maintaining engagement in a training session may not sound very positive, but the point of similarity is that whether it is a person’s voice, a piece of music, or a car alarm, as soon as we become too comfortable with what we are hearing and when there is no variation in the sound we can very quickly start to tune out.
Therefore a key strategy to keep the students engaged is to regularly vary the style and tone of delivery.
For many of us, PowerPoint has become a byword for monotony, mainly because it is often presented as a long series of very similar slides, accompanied by a flat voice reading directly off the slides or else pointing out to us things that we can already see written up in front of us.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with PowerPoint; it is a wonderful tool, but it is just too often badly used.
Consciously varying the tone of the presenter’s voice is one way to improve the situation; fewer slides will also help; and more pictures and fewer words on those remaining slides will certainly help:
anything that will break the monotonous rhythm of delivery.
Joseph Haydn wrote a symphony entitled ‘Surprise Symphony’. For our modern ears, which have become used to fairly shocking contrasts in music, there does not seem to be much of a surprise, but the intention was to shock his audience back into consciousness. Haydn had grown tired of his aristocratic audience dozing off during his symphonies after they had eaten a big meal, so he allowed his slow movement to move along a characteristically soothing path, letting his audience drift off into their usual slumber and once they were half gone he shocked them back awake with a loud chord! (It was probably more shocking at the time!)
If a slow tempo and pleasant sounds in music are going to soothe and calm, just think how much a flat, droning, repetitive voice will achieve the same.
A training session should stimulate and keep the students awake, not lull them to sleep.
This is why in presenting, the aim is not necessarily to have a ‘nice’ voice, but to have an active, contrasting voice, making sure that there is firstly energy in the voice, but then within that energy, there should also be contrast, because even listening to someone who is permanently excited can also become tiring.
There is, of course, always plenty of energy in the sound of a car alarm, but its repetitive nature enables us to zone out and stop listening. Therefore when we are planning and delivering our training session we should always remain conscious of creating variety and contrast in our delivery.
According to molecular biologist, John Medina, people start to get bored after approximately ten minutes.
And my experience of training suggests that even that can seem a bit optimistic at times.
Thus when presenting information we need to be constantly creating changes in tempo, changes in rhythm, breaking our routine, and varying our interaction.
To achieve this, there are two areas we need to focus on, structural and personal:
- structural means change in delivery method, contrasting activities, varying interaction, asking questions, scheduling breaks – and this can be planned into the running order of the day and
- personal means varying tone and speed of delivery, contrast, and emphasis, embracing silence – and this is more about the actual delivery of the words and material.
10 tips for maintaining engagement
Real World Relevance
This is probably Number 1 on the list in every sense.
If the students can understand that the training programme will specifically help them in their work or in their lives, they have an immediate incentive to fully concentrate.
If they see how the training will help the company that is fine.
If they see how it will help them generally that is better.
If they can see clearly, graphically exactly how it will improve their own lives, save them time, speed up their work, or take the pressure off, then they will be fully engaged. No longer are they attending some general training programme, they are engaged in something that will specifically benefit them.
Even before we start to consider specific techniques and activities to promote contrast in delivery, our students are already much more likely to be engaged if they can see a genuine benefit for themselves in paying attention.
Therefore as the presenter, we should be constantly showing how the content of the training relates to and solves the problems they have outside.
Know your audience
This clearly follows from the tip above. I will be in a better position to tie my training to their jobs if I know exactly what they do.
I remember attending a training session on team building where in small groups we were given a Case Study to analyse. The scenario given to us had something to do with running an event at a nightclub. Unfortunately, I am slightly vague about what the exact scenario was because although some of the planning skills and team-building principles were probably universal, I could not help sitting in our group reflecting that our jobs had absolutely nothing to do with running an event at a nightclub. It did not seem very relevant to us.
If the trainer had taken the trouble to gain a greater understanding of what we did, he could easily have come up with a more realistic scenario for us and:
firstly we would have felt more engaged in an exercise that closely matched what we actually did and therefore
secondly, I would now be able to tell you more precisely what that Case Study entailed because the reality of it would have helped embed the learning messages more effectively.
Clarity of Structure
Students who are confused get lost and students who get lost give up.
Therefore, as well as tying the content of the training as closely as possible to the students’ world, it will maintain their engagement if the overall structure of the training programme is clear and easy to follow. At the risk of bad-mouthing many PowerPoint presentations once again, the real problem is not just that there are too many slides, but there is usually no sense of structure. The students get lost in a jungle of information in which they may be able to see the next tree, but are still lost in a forest and not clear where they are heading.
Regularly sign-posting, summing up what has been covered or indicating what is about to come helps the student understand where they are in the structure and if they have drifted off for a few moments (which will happen even in the best planned and best-delivered training) they are brought to a quick ‘rendezvous’ point where they can catch up, re-engage and find their way back into the training, before moving on.
Depending on the intensity of the training material and depending on the level of ventilation in the room, you may find yourself needing to schedule more breaks than you had originally envisaged.
I remember leading a course in a room where the air-conditioning had failed in mid-summer. Normally I would schedule a break mid-morning and one during the afternoon, but because the conditions were so challenging I broke the training up into smaller sections with more frequent breaks for the students to leave the room and recover!
Students are typically at their most focused just before and just after a break, so combined with good sign-posting these are good moments to make sure your key messages are being put across
Vary delivery methods
While you are planning the training programme, as soon as you become aware that a particular method of delivery could be in danger of becoming monotonous, consider ways you could break the flow.
- introduce a new or contrasting activity
- put the students into groups to discuss a learning point
- ask them to reflect on what has just been covered
- show a video
- demonstrate an action rather than just talk?
Be willing to hand over responsibility to the students in the room.
I may often say to students, particularly once the flow of the training day has been established:
‘This is where we have got to. Next, we could either do this or do that.
Which do you think would be more valuable to you?’
And I allow them to choose.
Am I really ceding control? Probably not, because both ‘this’ and ‘that’ are still two ways I have identified that could still get us to the same desired outcome.
This is clearly a seminar in itself. However, at this stage I just want to emphasise the importance of adding variety to your vocal delivery. We need a voice that sounds alive and enthusiastic; a voice that can create contrasts in pace, power, and pitch; a voice that stresses the key words and messages.
Continually ‘broadcasting’ information to your students will make your voice sound flat, so one simple way to add variety in pace and tone is to….
Asking questions encourages you to change the tone of voice, if only to go up in pitch at the end of the question, but by inviting an answer it brings another person’s voice into the conversation; it stimulates thought in the students and breaks the one-way spell of trainer speaking, student listening.
Telling stories remains the most natural way to share knowledge, dramatise a point of view, and teach content. If you are aware of the Neuro-linguistic learning styles of Visual, Auditory, and Kinaesthetic, you will find that if you choose the right story and tell it well, you will be addressing all three at once: the Visual learner will be able to ‘get the picture’ that you are describing; the Auditory learner will be able to ‘hear what you are saying’ and the Kinaesthetic learner will be able to ‘feel and empathise’ with the situation you are describing.
Maintaining engagement is all about taking every opportunity to create contrast in your content and in your style of delivery.