Successful trainers take a page from a powerful insight that philosophers, psychologists, and humorous commercial creators have known for quite some time: people decide whether they like something much -- much -- earlier than they think they do.
In fact, most people decide whether they like something within seconds of being exposed to it. And if they like something, then they'll very often interpret things in a positive way; they'll simply "see" more that they like in the situation. On the other hand, if they dislike something, they'll generally filter their experience through that lens; and will recall an experience in negative terms.
So how does this relate to training? Though volumes of pages are devoted to the inner workings of this psychological realty, we don't need to conjure up thousands of experts or theories. We can just bottom-line it in a very simple and powerful way: if trainees initially decide that they like the training, they tend to experience a positive training experience. If trainees initially decide that they don't like the training, they tend to experience a negative training experience.
The Operative Word: Initial
This may sound painfully obvious, except for that key word which many people overlook: initial.
"Initial" in this context often means the first five or ten minutes of any training session; though it could be sooner, depending on the expectations of the audience. For a trainer -- and a training experience as a whole -- these first few minutes often mean whether one is training an open-minded and engaged trainee, or one is trying in vain to poke holes through a closed-minded trainee; a trainee whose mind is being reinforced with new layers of mental concrete as the minutes flick by.
It doesn't seem all that fair; and in a sense, it's not. After all, it's not fair that the perception of a three hour training session be reduced to the first few minutes. Yet fair or not, this is precisely the reality that almost all trainers have to deal with. They have to ensure that trainees keep an open mind from the very beginning.
Ensuring that trainees keep an open mind -- the kind that is nice and open to training -- is the difference between successful and unsuccessful training; and by extension, the factor that determines whether a trainer is exceptional, or merely a tedious interruption in a trainees' day.
Therefore, the key for trainers is simple; albeit starkly unfair, at times: get trainee buy-in. Or else.
Keeping the Doors of Perception Open
Achieving trainee buy-in can be quite difficult; but successful trainers know how to do it. It's a careful and intuitive mixture of planning, competence, and flexibility.
In terms of planning, successful training is above all: relevant. It achieves something that needs to be achieved, and the trainees are aware of this link between the training, and the achievement of a relevant workplace goal.
This may seem like old news, but it's alarming to note how much workplace training these days is not recognized -- by the trainees themselves! -- as not being relevant.
Quite basically, if trainees don't know why they're being trained, and cannot see the value in learning something new, then it won't matter how wonderful the training is; it will be perceived negatively.
For many trainers, the key to relevance is not in their hands; it's in the hands of the organization that is sponsoring the training. As such, planning in this context goes beyond whether a trainer is prepared. It includes the work that an organization has done to ensure that trainees understand the relevance of the training.
This is a no-brainer (but let's pop it in here anyway). Training can indeed be seen as relevant and necessary; but if a trainer doesn't know what he's talking about, then trainees will swiftly turn open minds into closed ones.
It would be nice to safely ignore even mentioning competence; but it's something that, regrettably, needs to be noted. Some trainers are simply out of their depth when it comes to dealing with the subject matter; and more importantly, how that subject matter relates to the unique organization where the training is taking place.
If there's one skill that separates great trainers from incredible trainers, and memorable training from unforgettable training, it's this one: flexibility.
Many people find this criteria surprising; after all, planning and competence seem quite self-evident. But flexibility? Doesn't that contradict planning; and perhaps even fog up competence? Nope, not at all. In fact, without flexibility, planning and competence can become quite meaningless, and the training can be awful.
Flexibility in this context refers to a trainer's ability to engage his audience; to detect what's working, and adjust to what isn't. Unless you have a computer training other computers (and who knows, perhaps one day…), training is not a static process; it's, at heart, an organic and dynamic experience that undergoes thousands of adjustments per minute. It's humans interacting with other humans, who are individually and collectively interacting with their environment. It's a symphony of mental, emotional, and psychological adjustments, and flexibility is the key to keeping this orchestra together. Great training (and great trainers) understand this fact and accept it wholly; in fact, they embrace it.
The Perfect Training Experience
Interestingly, the search for the perfect training experience -- either as the trainer, or the trainee -- is one of those elusive, impossible quests. This is because different people will like good training for different reasons. Some will like the way the trainer engaged the audience and promoted relevant discussion. Others will appreciate how the trainer adjusted to the fact that some trainees were flippant or uninterested. Still others will appreciate the learning material and the one-on-one attention they received after the formal training session. From up close, each of these "likes" appears different; and, of course, they are. Yet if we pan back and look at this through our psychological lens, we can see that there's a unifying theme: each trainee kept an open mind.
And how? Because of the three pillars of training success: planning, competence, and flexibility.