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Trainer’s Diary: The Opening Gambit


Byron KaliesDaunting and uncomfortable, the first stage of a training event is often the worst. But as it also sets the scene for the rest of the course, Byron Kalies argues that this is no time for trainers to retreat into their comfort zone.

Beginnings, I hate them. I hate that horrid, "clunky" feel of the first session. That first 20 minutes where course attendees aren't really sure why you're there, why they're there, who anybody else is and you feel exactly the same.

So what can you do? I guess once you've been training for a while you'll develop your own style and range of techniques to break the ice. However I'm now sure I'm in total agreement with the common consensus, which encourages us to "get delegates talking as quickly as possible".

The traditional approach has tended to be along the lines of: brief introduction, domestics from us then throw it out to the participants to introduce themselves in pairs. This is OK. People get the chance to talk with one other person and maybe share some concerns about their nervousness, etc. Yet I'm not totally convinced this is the most effective way to start courses in all cases.

Let's think about what we want. Of course, this will vary depending on the training event, makeup of group, etc. but I'd like trainers to think a bit more carefully about this aspect. The tendency has been to fall into this comfort zone of doing what we've always done and not worrying too much about it. So what exactly do we want? I guess we want people to feel comfortable, receptive, able to voice any concerns, and we want to get part of the material covered. The temptation, I feel, in concentrating solely on making people comfortable is that you can often spend the whole of the first morning ensuring this happens and you've wasted a large chunk of training time. Also, if the course participants are fairly experienced training attendees this could just annoy them, and if they're virgin attendees it will scare the living daylights out of them.

Suggestions would be along the lines of event related introductions such as "What specifically do you want to take away from this event?" and a discussion around that. Or, if the aims and objectives are clearly defined a brief introduction from participants after the opening session. The benefits of this would be that people have time to relax into the training. They have the opportunity to see how the trainer works and how other course members are - they get a 'feel' for the environment.

I'm not suggesting, at all, that 'traditional' introductions are not valuable. Of course they are, especially if they are well thought out, relevant and carried out with the right balance of humour and focus. They will set the tone for the next few days.

Some of the more challenging opening activities work well also. On a course dealing with counselling skills the first exercise was a potentially difficult one that required participants to work in pairs and each had to guess certain characteristics of the others based solely on first impressions (favourite holiday, newspaper they read, age, etc.). This worked extremely well and was a source of material for the remainder of the course.

All I'm suggesting is that we consider how we start each course carefully and not just fall into the habit of going around the room asking for names, where they work, how long and what they would do if they won the lottery.

6 Responses

  1. The Opening Gambit
    I very much agree with the thrust of Byron’s article

    The opening I use on any course is dependent on a number of criteria.

    -The course Content
    -The level/experience of the delegates
    -Wheter they are a team or strangers
    -The required level of interaction during the course

    All of these have a strong impact on the opening sessions and totally negate the idea that you can use a standard format every time.

    With a group of arrticulate and extroverted people I may launch into an exercise in the first few minutes. Only recently with a group of young quiet shy members of an accounts department I left the first interactive seesion until after the coffee break as they were more relaxed after chatting in the break.

  2. Remembering names
    Whilst agreeing with both of the above colleagues it made me reflect ovber the old arguement about introductions and wheteher you should use name plates on courses.

    One technique that worked very well recently on a course I attended was to ask the attendees to introduce themselves and compare their first name with somebody famous and what they might have in common.

    The trainer used this as an effective ice breaker with many amusing comparisons and it helped her to remember the people’s names without using name plates.

  3. Creeping Death!
    Oh how very true Byron, there is no doubt in my mind the ‘traditional’ creeping death technique is one that should be banned!

    The openings are as Byron rightly points out, critical to the success of an event (though I would suggest that talking about the first 20 minutes is not perhaps as useful…in my experience, the first two are probably the most critical!!). So assuming you’ve won them over in the first minute or two, what next? The points about a tailored approach to the ubiquitous ‘ice breaker’ are well made, but is it truly essential to know about their hobbies, or ‘one thing we wouldn’t know just by looking at you’?

    After many years of using such clumsy techniques I have come to the conclusion that they really do not add significant value to the learning process, which is not to say I don’t use them still 

    The one technique I tend to favour is to get the learners into groups (work out your own selection criteria – but if they are seated in ‘café’ style then go with that!) and send them off to do one or more of the following (depending on the event!)

    Introduce themselves to each other
    Who they are
    Why they’re here
    They’re experiences of the subject

    Then I ask that they come up with a group name that reflects they experiences of the subject and list of words they associate with the principle course subject (e.g. on a negotiation skills course – what word would they associate with ‘negotiation’) and their best definition of the subject word (in our example, ‘negotiation is…’).

    These I ask them to write on a flip chart & bring back to group.

    Depending on the time available they can introduce themselves back to the group in any way they would like. I then discuss generally the words and definitions each group has come up with, contrasting against each, exploring why and generally pushing the boundaries of humour to see how far I can lead them into a relaxed state.

    By the end of this they are usually ready for a coffee and a chat with each other. The atmosphere when they return is always much more relaxed and open and they often fail to realise just how much I now know about them, nor how much they will have already learned!

    There are of course many other approaches and this one is NOT a best fit for all, but for many events it has stood me in good stead and is readily tailorable to most situations. Anyway, the learners always seem to enjoy it!

    Thoughts/comments/suggestion to improve gratefully received!



  4. Surviving introductions!……….
    I agree
    Death by slow and painful introduction..
    I try to minimise this by going withn the ‘pairing model’ but also asking people to tell us something quirky or unusual about themselves NON WORK related. I’ve had everything from closet filmakers, rock singers,marathon runners and mountaineers. You might also want to throw in ‘pet hates’. This again depends on your seminar but agin I’ve had everything from why I don’t like custard to teenagers and mobile phones. Any thoughts..

  5. Starting the session off
    The introduce yourself to the rest of the class is I find quite a turn off, as for motivating I find it not a very useful tool at all.
    My favourite approach is to start the day off with linking the topic with something that has been happening in the news, this I find soon gets everyone chatting as they all have an opinion, whether is political/sport or whatever. Recently I used the Tsunami of Boxing Day to instroduce a Organisation & Structure lesson, not only did it start the talking it proved to be very relevant to the subject. I’ll let you guys figure out the link. Without doubt, the start I find the most difficult, but if done right will have a major impact on the attitude of the studnet throughout the rest of the training session.

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