Features - Training Presentations: Turning Negatives into Positives

Cindy Curling is the Electronic Resources Librarian for Fried, Frank,
Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C. and has been teaching
research strategies to legal staff since 1995. This year she helped found
the Legal Research Training Focus Group for the Law Librarians' Society of
the District of Columbia to encourage the exchange of training resources and
ideas in the greater Washington area. 

As online services have proliferated over the last decade, many law librarians who never planned to be trainers have found themselves teaching on a regular basis. Without formal education backgrounds, many of us need not only guidance on how to deliver training presentations but also a yardstick for evaluation and feedback for trainers who need improvement. Beyond that, it would be useful to establish a baseline for consistent delivery of training in environments with more than one instructor. If we had a training-oriented checklist of “best practices” for presentations, we could each build on it to help make training better in our own environments.

Researching these issues, I came across a reference to poorly run meetings that really struck a chord. At the beginning of Meeting Skills: Antidote for Bad Meetings, published in LLRX.com on March 1, 1999, Marie Wallace provides a list of common meeting problems which closely parallel negative experiences I have had in the training context, either as a presenter or as a trainee.

Following her example, I drew up a list of typical training presentation problems. From there it became easy to address each pitfall and to develop a guide to the opposite -- making training presentations smooth, interesting, and well received. While there are many elements in training development and evaluation that can derail a class, I was most concerned with the actual delivery of training, so the items on this checklist are principally confined to problems that show up during the training session itself. Many of them seem obvious though, unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from being common. As you look through this list, think back on training you have attended, or classes you have taught, and see how many items you recognize as teeth-grinding, yawn-invoking sources of frustration.

Starting Late

Traffic and equipment problems are the two biggest culprits in delaying a presenter, and sometimes there is no way to avoid a late start. Generally, though, it is possible to anticipate and avoid some problems by taking steps to provide yourself with a reasonable buffer of time to set up and to deal with last minute glitches. Unfortunately, even when you are ready to begin, not all participants may be present and accounted for. In our firm, even those who express a strong desire to attend training may show up late or not at all. Client calls crop up and urgent assignments intervene, so someone is inevitably late. One partner in particular will live in infamy for showing up 30 minutes late to an hour long class, surprised that we did not wait for him. A sensible rule of thumb is to remind attendees a short time before class, then to give everyone a five-to-ten minute grace period before you begin, helping late arrivals catch up as best you can while minimizing the disruption to the rest of the class. How much time to allow in your circumstance depends on the length of the class, the number of attendees, and their relative punctuality.

Lack of Preparation

When a trainer does not know the materials, she wastes her time and that of her trainees. If you do not appear to be an expert, your students will lose interest and you will lose credibility. How can you be sure that you are adequately prepared? A content review before class is essential prior to the initial delivery of any program, but it is tempting, especially when you are overconfident or shy of criticism, to delay until the last moment so that no review occurs. Resist the impulse and have someone - colleague, supervisor or friend - review your class content well before class day.

Training requires forethought and planning, especially if more than one person is delivering the same material within an institution and you are striving for consistency. There should be a class outline or speaker’s notes, at the very least, including a list of points to cover and goals to meet. The program may also require slides, handouts, questions for participants, resources for further information or more. If you don’t have anything for a colleague to review other than the sound of your voice, you probably don’t have enough to present.

As you think though your materials in advance, imagine questions your students might ask. Be prepared to elaborate on your explanations, give examples, and refer to sources of further information. Even when well prepared, you may be stumped with a question you hadn’t anticipated. When it happens, do not bluff your way through a half-answer; bad information will only undermine your credibility. Instead, share what you can, promise to look into it, and let everyone know the result after class. Always follow through on in-class promises. If you do not, you lose the trust you’ve already established with your class and risk losing future class participants.

Reading Without Eye Contact

Unless you are an actor or frequent story teller, chances are that your reading voice is monotonous and slow, and, let’s face it, training materials are often not that entertaining to begin with. Reading from a prepared narrative is the last defense of the nervous and ill prepared, and there is little that will bore your students more. Typically, this is a problem when an instructor is giving a class for the first time or simply hasn’t become completely comfortable with presenting it.

The best prevention is to deliver your training presentation to some kind of audience before training day as often as necessary for your delivery to be confident and relaxed. A dress rehearsal can relieve much of the nervousness or stage fright for shy presenters. Every time you successfully deliver your program, you will develop more confidence in your material, and it will become easier repeat the process.

Also, in an environment with multiple instructors, a run-through is the best time to have your peers provide constructive criticism. It is never fun to hear what you are doing wrong, but it is better to hear it before you deliver your program than have your supervisor hear it from your class. Enlist the help of a coworker, your spouse, your pet or your mirror, but practice in full. It is the only way to tell how long your delivery will take and to become comfortable enough to appear at ease for the real thing.

Lack of Focus

There is a classic training mantra that goes something like, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” Your presentation content is worthless if people can’t remember it. How you present it is as important as what you say. If you can establish appropriate expectations for your students at the beginning of class, they will be more receptive to what you say as you continue. Your success depends on how well you identify class goals, and that you follow through. An outline or agenda is handy not only in working out content as mentioned above, but also in creating the logical plan of attack which will provide structure for your students and help you stick to your class goals through potential distractions.

Start strong by making a personal connection with the participants that makes essential points about your class goals. For instance, you might ask them about topic-related frustrations they have, and point out how the training will help alleviate those frustrations upfront and as you go along. Once through the body of your program, review what you’ve taught to reemphasize the main class concepts in closing. After an hour of training, what is remembered best is what was heard last. End by emphasizing important points rather than by simply stopping short on the last one. Your students will leave with a clearer picture of the overall content of the class.

Covering Too Much

Of all the possible training pitfalls, the temptation to cover too much may be the most difficult. Especially when teaching Internet classes, there seems to be an ever-growing gap between what students know and what they need to know. Most librarians are only able to train in short sessions, given the busy schedules of class participants, but we want them to learn as much as possible. When the time comes to decide exactly what a class will cover, experience tells us to choose carefully, and to resist making class too full or too long. Students learn more when you cover smaller amounts of material thoroughly. If you find you are having trouble covering all of your material, break it down into smaller components and offer separate sessions. Don’t flood your students with information; let them savor it.

If you have the luxury of training in long sessions, build in frequent breaks, at least every hour to hour-and-a-half, or you will find that you are talking mainly to yourself. Have you endured day-long software training sessions where no matter how hard you try to concentrate, your eyelids droop and your body tries to shut itself down? This is your brain telling you, “Enough already!” People can only pay close attention for so long, then need a break.

Distraction

Body language and other visual elements of presentations can enhance your delivery, but use them selectively or they may distract your audience from the thrust of your program. In library school, my reference class was taught by an adjunct professor who worked full time in a nearby university library. As a regular part of the review process at her university, each of the library’s teaching staff was filmed during a class. Afterwards, the whole staff was given an opportunity to review each tape and to provide constructive criticism. Though I remember her as a clear, well-organized and entertaining speaker, the first time she saw herself on tape she was appalled. Why? Her arms windmilled out of control whenever she spoke to the class. As she watched her tape, she didn’t hear any of the content of her lecture - she was too distracted by her own gestures. By the time she had started teaching us, she kept her hands clasped behind her back unless she needed to use them to help make a particular point.

She made us aware that gestures and other visual aids in a class setting should be used to accentuate or build on a presenter’s speech. Any gesture that does not materially contribute to your point should be left out. The same goes for graphical elements of presentations. For instance, a bar graph can quickly communicate what a spoken list of figures can not, and short, important concepts on a PowerPoint slide can serve to emphasize a speaker’s main points, yet you would not want to reproduce your whole presentation on-screen. If you give your audience too much to read, they stop listening to you. Flip charts are great for tracking ideas in a brainstorming session, but a presenter should not be so tied to writing things down that he misses what’s being said or slows the momentum of the class. Use visual aids to capture your concept graphically, not to repeat yourself.

Boredom

The raw materials of training content are often, to put it bluntly, dull, so invest some effort in making your class content interesting. Humor is a good way to enliven a training session, and it doesn’t have to be difficult to introduce even if you feel you are humor-impaired. Presenters often feel compelled to start with a joke the sake of humor alone. However, without context, jokes can be perceived as insensitive or alienating and may distract your audience. Instead, make your humor connect to class content. Sharing your own funny or embarrassing experiences on your topic is a great way to incorporate humor into your program. An amusing story can make you seem more sympathetic, can help your students identify class goals, and can show that you have overcome some hurdles and can help them to do so as well.      Props are another element to consider in training presentations. They can be funny or representative of some concept, or, when edible, make excellent rewards for class participation.

You can also give your presentation immediacy and make it personal for your students by relating it directly to their day-to-day experiences. Tell them how this training will make their lives easier and work time more efficient, then let them see the benefits by using examples that are applicable to their work experience. If you are working with tax attorneys, use different examples than you would use with litigation paralegals. If you are teaching a class on searching directories, let people look for their own listings. The more personal a training experience is, the more memorable it will be.

Another way to keep your students’ attention is to vary class pace. Some mix of lecture, question and answer periods, practice exercises and group activity, both guided and independent, not only breaks up class time, but also accommodates different learning styles. In a forty-five minute class, it isn’t practical to mix more than two or three kinds of activities, but you can still combine lecture with hands-on practice and a question and answer period fairly easily.

Also be aware that the time of day can affect your presentation. People who are tired are more likely to drift off during class. If you are facing a very early or late training time, encourage students to stretch before class and at breaks, and consider incorporating activity which requires movement. Group exercises may mean changing seats, and practice can require a trip to the front of the class to use a chalk board.

Failure to Control Participants

One of the most positive aspects of training in a law firm is the opportunity it gives me to promote my library by becoming known as an information expert. While my skills as a reference librarian and researcher are respected, the attorneys I work for are rarely interested in how I found their information, only that I got it in a timely manner. It helps that, as a trainer, I automatically come to class with an aura of authority. However, class cut-ups abound even outside high school, and if you can not control class participants, your aura of authority will evaporate along with your credibility.

Most often class distractions are completely innocent and crop up as a result of planned participation. In-class exercises, for instance, sometimes result in confusion. Clearing up one student’s problem can waste the time of the rest of the class. Ask up front that your students follow along with you rather than jumping ahead. If you plan for them to do an independent exercise, build in time to answer their questions. If your class is larger than a few people and you have the option, you may want to consider teaching with a second person as a roaming observer who will be available to help with individual problems as they arise.

A question and answer period is a great way to hear stories that will help emphasize your class goals, but what if a student starts talking and will not stop? Some people are naturally ebullient; some just have to have the last word. When this happens, it’s best to cut in delicately with, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m afraid we’re short on time and have lots left to cover.” If that fails, you may have no other choice but to soldier on as best you can. In my law firm, I would not have the option of asking a partner to leave, no matter how diplomatically I tried to present it. In a law school class for students, it might be necessary.

Audience-Inappropriate Material

Class content should be tailored to the skill level, advantage and interest of class participants. Nothing slows a class like having one participant who lacks the required base level of skills. Occasionally the opposite occurs and an overachiever attends. Both situations are a recipe for boredom and frustration, either for the class overall or for the attendee who thought he would be learning more than was offered. Minimize these problems as you promote your classes by clearly stating the skill level of the intended audience. Identify not only broad class goals, but also specific tasks which attendees will learn during training. Also, emphasize the class goals and skill level required as you begin your presentation to allow those who may have misunderstood or not read the class descriptions to opt out early.

Even when students have a clear idea of class goals and skills required, there will probably still be variation in the skill and interest of each individual. Ask about experience up front to assess what areas you may want to focus on during your session. Once you’ve begun, take care to present your materials in the light most appropriate to your audience. Two groups using the same resource may want different benefits from training. If you are teaching a class of secretaries how to use Martindale-Hubbell on the Web, emphasize its search flexibility, update schedule and timesaving qualities. With attorneys who might otherwise rarely use the resource, emphasize online versus print advantages and have them look for themselves so that they better understand exactly what is included in an entry and what is not.

Materials are also more valuable when tailored as specifically as possible to the day-to-day needs of the audience. Searching in Google will be more obviously useful for a group of labor attorneys if you search using a labor-related topic than if you use a generic example. This not only makes your class more personal and entertaining, but using reality-based examples allows you to demonstrate an immediate benefit to your students.

Running Over

It seems simple, but unless you end on time, you risk leaving your class with a feeling of frustration rather than the memory of lessons learned. In a law firm environment where every moment not being billed to a client is often viewed as a waste of time, this is especially important. Plan your class time carefully and keep an eye on the clock as you go. If some class segment is taking longer than expected because one or two people seem to have many questions, offer to spend more time on it after class with the interested individuals. They will appreciate that you are trying to keep their schedules on track, and those who are not interested will not feel their time is being wasted.

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Ring any bells? Now that you are familiar with many common pitfalls of training presentations, you probably realize that most can be avoided by planning ahead. Some, especially class control, can only be mastered with practice. Review your presentations looking for the negatives, and the trainers in your library will be left only with training positives:

  1. Be well prepared.
  2. Start on time.
  3. Know your material well enough to feel comfortable using minimal notes.
  4. Be focused, have clear goals, and stick to your training plan.
  5. Cover smaller amounts of material thoroughly.
  6. Use body language and visual aids which enhance your points.
  7. Encourage interest with humor, vary class pace and provide a range of activities.
  8. Allow for participant interaction, but keep the class on track.
  9. Make sure you material is appropriate to your audience.
  10. End on time.

If you’d like further information on presentations and training, the Guide on the Side Columns by Marie Wallace are an excellent starting point. While they address presentations of all types and are not training specific, they touch on many training-related issues.

My own group, the Legal Research Training Focus Group of the Law Librarians Society of Washington, D.C., regularly adds to its collection training links at http://www.llsdc.org/lrfocus/index.htm as we get together to discuss new topics.

Also, if you are interested in hearing about and learning from other trainers’ class experiences, you may want to check out Loretta's Training Resource Center. Loretta Weiss-Morris sends the Quick Training Tips newsletter every two weeks and displays the information from it on her site. Resources include tips, requests for help, recommended resources, and a job bank, and while directed mainly at software trainers, much of the information is also useful to content trainers like law librarians. To sign up for her newsletter, send the message "subscribe QTT"to Loretta@panix.com.