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The secret skills of engagement


Can trainers ever meet everyone's needs in a group, or is this attempting the impossible? How do you include them all? Stephanie Sparrow asks trainers and training managers what tricks they keep up their sleeves to ensure effective learning.


Success on the West End stage is not an essential pre-requisite for training professionals, but appearing in shows such as Evita gave singer-turned-business coach and customer care specialist Anna De Vere plenty of tips about capturing delegates' attention:

"It taught me how to read an audience", says De Vere, managing director of ADV Results. "And it taught me that you have to be adaptable in your approach to them, otherwise you're just reading from a script."

Reading the audience

During a recession it becomes even more imperative to 'read' an audience of training delegates. This can be difficult, given the constraints on time and budgets and a general air of anxiety. Meanwhile, the in-house trend for gathering together cross-functional and cross-divisional groups means that the delegate mix is now more likely to include a blend of learning styles and preconceptions — which could trip up the unwary training professional and hinder the effectiveness of the course.

Photo of Clive Lewis"We occasionally find that a delegate is determined to prove that they don't want to be there, but we stress that the skills they are learning can be personalised so that they can take something away."
Clive Lewis, Illumine

"Planning is vital," says Anne-Marie Butterfield, head of learning and development at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). Butterfield, who facilitates commissions and designs training programmes at the NDA, recommends informal ice-breakers to encourage delegates to think about their preferred learning styles and to be receptive to the training.

She couches reference to learning styles in accessible language and imagery: "We keep it topical. For example, during the Olympics last year, we asked them to describe and introduce themselves in sporting terms."

Getting the most from everyone

Once delegates have recognised their style Butterfield invites further buy-in by asking delegates to consider how they will take information back to their teams and how these groups can best learn from them. This encourages delegates to think how they will get the most out of the course.

Of course, some delegates start the day in a difficult frame of mind, either because they begrudge time away from the office or conversely because they are too keen to take a break from their desks.

"Delegates from any industry or learning situation walk into any workshop with one of three intentions: as a prisoner who's been made to attend, a holiday maker who wants a break from work, or a learner with the intention of participating," says Gillian Ince, head of training and resources at Claire's Europe. With her team, Ince designs and delivers training for management and staff at the retailer's fashion accessories stores across the continent.

Appealling to all styles

She pre-empts barriers by ensuring that all of Honey and Mumford's four learning styles (activist, reflector, pragmatist and theorist) are accommodated in Claire's training programmes, and by checking understanding throughout the course.

For example, trainers encourage small groups to follow a teach-to-learn exercise, with members taking turns to speak about specifics to the rest of the group. "Practising in a safe environment is invaluable for managers," says Ince. "Once they are back in the office they are on a live stage."

Ince is always alert to learners' blocks or successes, even at the end of the process, and designs evaluation forms that ask delegates to specify the 'light bulb' moments. If she feels that a delegate has left the programme with unsolved queries then she ensures follow-up from an appropriate line manager.

Setting objectives

Asking delegates to set out their objectives at the beginning can help bridge the gaps in different learning styles and approaches, says Clive Lewis, director of training at Illumine, a company which trains in thinking skills, including Mind Mapping.

Lewis asks delegates to think about their goals, experience, and subject knowledge to set a context for their objectives. This information is captured on a Mind Map.

Photo of Gillian Ince"Delegates from any industry or learning situation walk into any workshop with one of three intentions: as a prisoner who's been made to attend, a holiday maker who wants a break from work, or a learner with intention of participating."
Gillian Ince, Claire's Europe

"Throughout the day we use that information to look at why a delegate might need support," he says.

Lewis advises that trainers look for those who seem to be on the periphery, whom he refers to as 'out-riders': "Engage in off-line discussions to check that they are getting something out of the course," he says.

He adds that his courses accommodate all learning styles because they are oral, visual, contain practical exercises and have enough theoretical base for theorists and pragmatists. But he keeps a few techniques for reluctant learners.

"We occasionally find that a delegate is determined to prove that they don't want to be there, but we stress that the skills they are learning can be personalised so that they can take something away."

Follow-up is vital

Effective follow-up is key to ensuring that learning sticks (and to check that everyone has been listening). Lewis asks delegates to say out loud what they will try to do after the course to cement their learning.

At Claire's, Gillian Ince invites management trainees to compile a storyboard of their learning in an A3 presenter which is displayed during their 'graduation' ceremony.
And at ADV, Anna De Vere asks delegates to buddy up a week after a course to remind each other of their learning.

But at the end of the day the trainer has to be wary of unintentional empathy to certain learning styles, says Liz Wills, joint chief executive of personal and work development specialists The Springboard Consultancy. Willis has noticed this trend when training trainers:

"I've found that people tend to appeal to their own learning styles first. They may be pragmatists who are inevitably drawn to offering case studies, but this is something which awareness and experience can help you to overcome," she says.

Tips on dealing with difficult delegates

Sometimes delegates just don't want to know, at other times you might find that you just aren't in tune with their learning style. Business psychologist Michaela Loughney, who also works as a trainer with In Equilibrium, has helped Stephanie Sparrow to compile this guide to winning hearts and minds and influencing behaviour.

  • Show reciprocal empathy: Ask a difficult delegate to explain their anxieties. Are worries about what's happening back at the office preventing them from concentrating on the course?
  • Don't shame and blame: For example if they arrive slightly late just leave it and move on
  • Look at delegates' body language: Hunched shoulders are prevalent at the moment among stressed and anxious people.
    Trainers should show courage, compassion and connection as an antidote
  • Win with humour: But use it sparingly, for example at the opening or at break time
  • Develop presence: Harness your energy so that you feel centred and effective. Loughney practices Tai Chi for this purpose and also recommends reading 'Presence' by Patsy Rodenburg (published by Michael Joseph. ISBN 0718149998) which is about communicating, using positive energy and living in the moment

Stephanie Sparrow has 20 years' experience in writing about HR and training issues and is passionately interested in people development. She contributes to various publications and covers education topics for The Guardian newspaper.
She was highly commended in the Watson Wyatt Excellence in HR journalism awards.


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