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I’m a trainer, get me out of here!


Surprised manIt's always a bit of a gamble turning up to a training venue – what if the equipment fails or the participants would blatantly rather be somewhere else? Louise Druce finds out.

Not every training event is going to be pitch perfect but what do you do when you turn up to find the plush seminar room you envisaged is actually a military bunker or the delegates have just been told their jobs are on the line and they now have to sit disgruntled through what could be a pointless session? Or, more commonly, your laptop has decided to crash, ruining your carefully crafted PowerPoint presentation?

You'd think the sensible answer would be to run for the hills but it's nightmare scenarios such as these that really test your mettle as a trainer – and could even end up having positive repercussions, both on the group stuck in the same session and on the way you deliver future programmes.

Professional learning and development specialist Rus Slater is no stranger to delivering a course in less than ideal surroundings. So far his list includes delivering a programme at night in a Portakabin 20ft above the platform at a tube station, while drunks urinated through the smashed windows of a car park below, and working in a building that had all the furniture and equipment stripped from it the night before.

"When you're standing six feet under with no natural light and you have to take your tie off because you're shifting furniture around to get everyone in, suddenly we're all in this together."

Rus Slater

By far the most unusual has to be a bunker in an airbase, organised by the Ministry of Defence. "Because the organisers worked in the ivory towers in central London, they made the assumption that everywhere the course would be delivered there would be a training room," he explains. "When I arrived it was a bomb dump in Berkshire. The nearest they had to a training room was what used to be called the operations room, which links to the site of the amoury. The only training they do is first aid."

But not even the severed plastic limbs decorating the room, the constant squawk of a radio in the background and close proximity to M16s and grenade launchers could halt the course. "It helps you come up with new ways to train and, to a certain extent, it helps you to break down the barrier between trainer and trainee because sometimes you find delegates see you as 'the suit from London telling us how to do our jobs'," Slater says.

"When you're standing six feet under with no natural light and you have to take your tie off because you're shifting furniture around to get everyone in, suddenly we're all in this together."

We shall overcome

Getting as much information about the venue as you can beforehand goes someway to lessening the chances of turning up to chaotic surroundings – a simple questionnaire or checklist signed by trainer and client can help ensure you at least have the right equipment.

However, even if you have the perfect venue, nearly every trainer remembers a stomach churning time when technology has let them down. The simple answer is not to base your entire presentation around it. Should the worst happen, adaptability, confidence and a plan B can help save the day. Look at what other options are available, such as flipcharts or workbooks, or at least back your slides up with hardcopy handouts.

In the jungle

Where TZ members have taught:

*Underground military bunker
*Portakabin above a tube station
*8x8ft MDF room filled with garden furniture and Xmas trees
*NHS treatment centre ward
*A train from Norwich to Liverpool Street
*Fly-infested facility next to a field

Marie Dolan, a consultant at The Training Foundation, also points out it's not just the nuts and bolts you have to brace yourself for. Hostile delegates are another peril of the job. "The fear of the unknown or training for new skills brings out different behaviours," she explains. "You have the shy person reluctant to contribute at one end of the spectrum and a dominant, openly challenging person at the other. You have to recognise they may feel out of their depth and vulnerable."

The most common types of personality she identifies are activist, theorist, pragmatist and reflector. "If you're aware of it, you can tweak your session or activity to suit, or ask questions in a different way so you don't feel overwhelmed or threatened by it," she says. "For example, the person who looks like they're in their own little world might be a reflector and need more time to digest the information."

If, on the other hand, they are being argumentative, you might want to use the four Ds: Deal (answer the question), Defer (ask other delegates their opinion), Delay (return to the question when you've researched it) and Deflect (ask the person why they asked the question).

One member faced with an aggressive group resorted to ditching the majority of her legal training lecture notes and, instead, created diagrams to illustrate concepts. "This different approach had the effect of pre-empting hostile questioning because participants were too busy processing an alternative way of conceptualising issues," she says.

"Be ready to turn adversity to your advantage by using conditions to exemplify what you are covering."

Nick Hindley

To try to decipher which category the delegates might fall into, Dolan recommends using positive language, both in body and speech, to set the tone when initially meeting the delegates, even if it's just over a cup of coffee. For instance, using phrases such as: 'This is going to be a very positive course for you, you're really going to enjoy it', rather than: 'Hopefully this is going to be of some help to you and it's nothing to worry about', builds the right rapport.

Take a breather

Unfortunately, there will be some circumstances out of the trainer's control. It's how you adapt to the new surroundings that matters. Nick Hindley, training and development manager at global contract research organisation PPD, recalls the time a fire alarm went off in a middle of a customer service workshop being held in a hotel. Rather than cancel the training exercise, he had the delegates spend 30 minutes designing a customer services checklist and then spend an hour talking to willing participants in the car park on their way out.

"If you show you can cope, it's amazing how this can infect the group," he says. "Be ready to turn adversity to your advantage by using conditions to exemplify what you are covering."

In situations where it is impossible to go on, don't be afraid to take a break to get your head together either. Hindley advocates developing a couple of 20-30 minute exercises in advance that can be adapted to any situation to give you time to think about your next move.

"Bluffing is digging a bigger hole for yourself," Slater adds. "Nine out of 10 times the delegates will recognise you're only human and we all have these moments. If they see you bluffing like crazy, they will think you don't know what you're talking about and you'll have a mutiny on your hands."

Much as you would like to plan for every eventuality, the truth is sometimes you've just got to take a deep breath and believe in yourself. "One thing you always have to accept is that you're dealing with human beings," he adds. "You can never be 100% sure what's going to happen."

From cell to sell

Trainer Eve Smith has been giving women prisoners in Bristol the chance to become entrepreneurs through a specially adapted SEED course from education and training specialist Tribal.

The six-week programme gives inmates the opportunity to supplement learning opportunities such as beauty services so they can gain practical skills while carrying out their sentences. But it has also been designed to take into account their unique backgrounds, work histories and additional help that they may need with basic skills such as literacy and numeracy.

"Trainers in the custodial environment need to have a lot of patience with the learners," Smith explains. "Many have low educational achievements prior to prison and it can take them a while to gain a sense of optimism about their own futures."

The women are first given advice and guidance to see if they are suitable for the course. When accepted, they are then asked to think about their own strengths and weaknesses and to clear 'clutter' in their lives before moving into the classically business-orientated part of the programme.

"Prisoners carry much emotional baggage with them into the course – they may have had bad news from solicitors or be concerned about their families outside," says Smith. "Trainers in this environment must not take this personally and learn to encourage them to focus on the learning and to block out their worries while training."


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