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Stephen Walker

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How to train for new behaviours


Stephen Walker looks at how new ideas are created in the trainee's mind and the steps needed to achieve the optimum success for your training.

What does training do?

Training is used to produce one or more of three changes in the recipients. These changes are: to acquire or develop new physical skills, new thought processes or new behaviour patterns.

It is difficult to separate one from the other. Learning to ride a bike may start thoughts of what the next town is like leading to thoughts of long bike rides to explore it. 

"Remember you are in the edutainment business. Your delivery has to encompass education and entertainment." 

Who is listening?

In any training audience there will be a mixture of motivations for being there. If you are lucky you have a majority of the willing, people who want to learn and make the training session a success.
Inevitably, you will have some of the unwilling too. People who had to come because they were told to attend, or because at least a day’s training is a day away from work.

Then you have the distracted. These people wanted to come probably but something in their life is stopping them paying attention. The curse of this year is the mobile phone. Who hasn’t been in a meeting where one or more attendees is playing with their phone, doing emails, ordering pizza – anything except paying attention to what is going on.

Why should they listen to you?

You might lose even more of your audience if you can’t answer this question.

First, you have to be the expert. If you don’t know more than the audience then why should they listen to you?

How do you show this expertise? You should look the part, whatever the expertise is, do you look like you might have it? You might expect a trainer looking like Patrick Moore to be an expert on astronomy but what if he looked like Lord Sugar? It is not enough to look the part of course, you have to talk the talk as well as look the part.

Second, it is better if the audience has a reason to like you. If you remind me of someone I dislike you will have an uphill struggle to maintain my interest. It is always a good idea to meet the audience informally before the session starts, over the refreshments at arrival for example.

This gives you an opportunity to show your human side and start to build rapport with the audience. At least you want one friendly face in the audience when you start to deliver.

Third, remember you are in the edutainment business. Your delivery has to encompass education and entertainment. Perhaps this is a bigger problem in these multi-channelled, sensory over-loaded times. The younger your audience are, the more they are likely to be used to texting, chatting on FaceBook and surfing the net simultaneously. You might wonder how many of your audience are tweeting while you deliver and what they are saying.

Which learning style?

Different subjects lean towards different learning styles naturally. It is probably a good idea to use multi-style delivery techniques to ensure the widest coverage though.

People learn through visual, auditory or kinaesthetic stimuli. Experienced trainers will know that putting up a PowerPoint slide, talking about it and then getting people to use that learning to do something real, makes for good understanding and knowledge retention.

Why should they believe you?

Unfortunately having got them to listen to you is not the end of the battle for their attention. Are you demonstrating your expertise in your content delivery? You have to keep people believing you are the expert.

Are you able to show relevant experience to the subject? Do you have a font of side stories to illuminate the subject and provide some colour?

The worst of all reasons for people to continue to believe you is that you have an appropriate hierarchical authority. Being the boss’s boss’s boss is no longer enough.

What stops people learning?

St Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuits, said: "Give me the boy until he is seven, and I will show you the man."

Human beings are different from machines. Machines have no real memory. We remember everything that has ever happened to us.

We are all carrying around that burden of our history.

As the trainer you have to climb over this barrier to be heard.

Woe betide you if you look like the Ms Smith from school who was inaudible. Perhaps you fit an inappropriate stereotype or for some historic reason you put the trainee into an unreceptive mood.

The best advice is to try to be neutral.

Why do new ideas hurt?

We learn by receiving new information and slowly digesting it. Meanwhile our unconscious mind is comparing what we have seen, heard or experienced with the model of the world we hold in our heads. Significant learning happens when the difference between old and new knowledge is big.

For a time we hold inconsistent ideas in our heads. The new thoughts are incompatible with the old. This feeling is uncomfortable and can drive extreme behaviour.

Eventually we make the ideas consistent by disbelieving one of them. If we have done our training properly it is the old idea that is discarded.

You can see the emotional commitment to the new idea by talking to a reformed tobacco smoker. What was once desirable is now spurned and denigrated.

Why do people revert?

Once the ideas have flipped and we accept the new and drive out the old, we are still vulnerable. We will explore the issues around our new idea. We will seek further proof that the new idea is correct. We will look to our peers for emotional support and credibility.

What next?

Finally the new idea is bedded down, fully assimilated and becomes the new "old idea", the new norm.

We become aware of the new idea, the new skill, the new understanding and now trust the new awareness that it brings.

We can congratulate ourselves. The trainee has a new vision as a result of the training.


It is generally the case that the bigger step in vision the training is delivering the longer the trainee will spend in the hurting and reverting phases. The further removed the vision from our current understanding the more cautious we are about accepting the new vision.

How do you decide between the conflicting priorities of delivering training that has a value immediately versus that having a much larger value some time later?


Stephen Walker has over 30 years of hands-on business and academic experience. He is the founder of Motivation Matters, a management consultancy focused on changing behaviour at work to inspire achievement. You can follow Stephen on Twitter and Facebook


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