If Anyone Could Do It…

There is an old saying: Those who can, do… those who can’t, teach.  We will get back to that in a bit.

I work in an industry where ongoing training is a part of life.  If I had rested on my laurels when I got my first few senior certifications, I would be searching the Help Wanted ads looking for a job as a Windows 2000 Server administrator.  And so, over the years I have attended countless training sessions, as well as self-study, in myriad technologies and versions of said technologies.  It is because of this ongoing learning that a prestigious company in the U.S. decided that I was worth speaking with, and why they brought me to California from the Great White North.

public-speaking2In over twenty years in the IT field, I have had some wonderful trainers… and I have had some duds as well.  When I decided to become a trainer myself, I spent countless hours practicing and preparing to deliver the content that others would hopefully use to advance their own careers.  While I doubt I was ever the smartest person in any room when I was teaching, I did my level best to make sure I knew as much about the material I was delivering as was possible.

I came of age in the industry just about the time that Microsoft got serious about eliminating the ‘Paper Certifications,’ which essentially meant that it would no longer be easy to just read a book in order to pass an exam… you would not only need to study, you would need to have hands-on experience.  I heard the stories of course, and I wanted to make sure that my students never looked at me and said: “It looks like he’s never touched the product, he just read the book.”  That was one of my worst fears.  Second to that was the clause in many training contracts that stated that if I did not get a minimum score on my instructor evaluations, the company would not have to pay me.  When you are living hand to mouth, that is a scary thought.

I came into training almost by accident, and I have a man named Rory to thank for it.  He came to Montreal to speak at an event that I was hosting for the Montreal IT Professionals Community.  After the event we went for drinks at Hurley’s Irish Pub where he made the suggestion.  In August of 2006 I was approved, and embarked upon a journey that would take me to five continents and scores of countries to share my knowledge.  That I became a trainer may have been an accident; that I was good at it was not.

After my bar mitzvah and some extremely uncomfortable Public Speaking assignments in high school, the first time I delivered any sort of training to a group of people was in the military… as squad leader and then platoon leader, I delivered numerous types of training and intelligence reports to groups of people from five to fifty in size.  I never thought of that as public speaking, but I suppose it was.  That is why, when the security company I was working for after the army needed to get people certified as trainers by the provincial government, I was able to honestly list among my accomplishments these various training sessions.  The first time I was asked by the company to deliver a three-day training session to new agents I was scared… but because I was a last-minute replacement to stand in for a sick instructor, I did not have a lot of time to worry about it.  At the end of the session I breathed a huge sigh of relief… and probably walked into the office the next morning with a big s^#t-eating grin on my face.  There is a true sense of pride when one has delivered a class, and received top evaluations.

How is it that I was able to do so well my first time out?  Simple… it was not my first time out.  Yes, I had the army… that was good training after a fashion, but I had something else: After the army, I spent two years trying to be a stand-up comic and an actor.  If you think delivering technical training might be tough, whether it be in the field of security or of computers, then let me tell you… it is child’s play compared to standing in front of a group of (usually drunk) strangers who have paid for you to make them laugh.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is called trial by fire.

I have a confession to make.  I was never a very good actor, and I was never a very good stand-up comic.  People who have never tried it say all the time “I’d make a great stand-up comic… I am so much funnier than those guys!” do not realize that there is a difference between in a group of friends funny – in a conversation, for example – and standing up in front of an audience with five to ten minutes of prepared material that you wrote funny.  Oh by the way, before you decide that you are going to try to cheat and do it with someone else’s material, remember that in the day and age of the Internet, there is a very strong chance that someone in your audience has already heard it.

You have read through your material, you think it is hilarious.  Now stand up there in front of the crowd when they disagree, and are staring at you like you just served them with a summons for jury duty.  I might have come across more uncomfortable situations in my career… but not many of them.

public-speaking1It may sound weird that it is (or can be) easier to deliver a five-day technical training class to a group of IT professionals than it is to stand in front of an audience who are all out to have a good time for ten minutes.  What you have to remember is that the five day class is based heavily on slides, scripts, and technical demonstrations (that were usually provided by someone else), interspersed with hands-on labs that the attendees are doing in between.  The truth is that the IT professionals want to learn, and you have the resources to deliver that learning.  They chose you, or at least they chose the training centre that hired you.  They need what you have to offer.  They are going to listen to you because they likely need what you are teaching them to perform their jobs or to advance their careers.  The audience at a bar chose the bar, but you are competing with television, movies, the Internet, Netflix, concerts or the radio, theatre, and myriad other forms of entertainment that they could have chosen, and if you are wasting their relaxation time then you are going to hear about it.

You may be asking yourself by now: “Why do I bring this up? What possible connection does stand-up comedy have to technical training?  The answer is simple… and not.  Technical training and stand-up comedy are two forms of public speaking… and if you cannot do the latter, you won’t be much good at the former.  Yes, the professionals attending a technical class may need to be there, but as a technical trainer, I have a number of extremely important jobs:

  1. Impart my knowledge on the attendees; and
  2. Keep my attendees’ attention for the duration of the class, whether that is one hour or one week.

It is likely that every IT professional has sat through a boring presentation in their career.  That could range from a simple fifteen minute session, a boring lunch-and-learn, to the five day class with the worst of tortures… a boring presenter.  Too many people believe that to be a good teacher, the most important thing is to be a subject matter expert… and admittedly that is truly important.  However, an expert without the requisite communication skills, whose voice drones on in a boring monotone, who reads the slides to the audience and who might occasionally take a short break for questions, may not be a punishment worse than death… but it could easily be considered cruel and unusual punishment under the Geneva Convention.  The responsibility of a trainer is not only to impart knowledge, it is ensure their audience is interested, engaged, and hanging on their every word.  It may not be the only reason so many people seem to prefer self-learning to classroom learning… but it is certainly a big one.

In the classic British Broadcasting Corporation radio serial Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the world was introduced to a form of torture called Vogon Poetry.  Vogon Poetry is said to be the third worst poetry in the galaxy, behind only the Azgoths of Kria, and Paul Neil Milne Jennings of Essex, UK.  In the radio serial, as well as in later books, movies, and television series, the Vogon captain (Prosthetnic Vogon Jeltz) has the heroes bound from head to foot while he recites his poem “Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly.”  They were then given the choice between being hurled into outer space to die a painful death… or telling the reader how good the poem is.  While they eventually do compliment the poetry, you can tell that it was a very difficult decision indeed.**

Sitting through a class with a boring presenter can be as mind-numbingly painful as Vogon Poetry.

I do not know if anyone has ever actually died from it, but there is a popular term in the industry: Death by PowerPoint.  How many people have sat through a training class of such a boring trainer that they have considered faking illness or gnawing off their own leg to escape?  We have all been there, and it is the duty of the presenter to keep us engaged, interested, and yes… entertained.

I began this article with the adage that “Those who can, do… those who can’t, teach.”  It is of the utmost importance that technical trainers be true subject matter experts, thus disproving this adage.  However they must also have in their toolbox a series of other skills and tools that will help them in their jobs:

  • A good speaker’s voice.  It is vital that one knows how to use their voice, and is aware of it at all times.  They cannot drone on in a monotone and expect their students to stay awake.
  • A good attitude.  Even the least aware attendee will see the difference between a trainer who wants to be there, and one who does not.  If the presenter does not want to be there, the students will not either.
  • A willingness and ability to answer questions.  A good class is more of a conversation than a soliloquy.  The trainer must not only take questions as they come, they must also invite and encourage them.
  • The ability to be wrong… or unsure.  The most important lesson I ever learned as a trainer was how to say “I don’t know.”  The second (though equally important) most important lesson was to follow that statement with “…but I will find out for you.”  This lets students know that you are human; it also lets them know that you are not just spewing information at them, but that you really understand it, and are willing to grow.  It is also important for students to trust that you are not making the answers up… I have seen that, and it is never pretty.
  • Clean and neat appearance.  If I am proof of anything, it is that you do not have to be slim and good-looking to be a successful trainer.  However, and without exception, I have always made sure to be shaved, showered, and dressed appropriately for my classes… including one week-long session in Malaysia where I had to bring two shirts to class every day because it was scorching hot and deathly humid, and neither the air conditioning nor the ventilation was doing their job.
  • Preparedness.  We have all seen images of the absent-minded professor.  What did he have that we do not?  Tenure.  A good trainer must be ready for class at the beginning of class.  Check that… thirty minutes before the beginning of class.
  • Stories.  When a trainer reads the slides and goes through the demos, it can be clear that he knows what he or she is doing… but if there is one lesson we all need to remember it is that there is a big difference between book knowledge and real-world knowledge.  When a trainer says “When we did this at my client, these were some of the issues we encountered, and these gotchas are things you might come across” it shows that they did not just read the book… they’ve lived it.
  • A willingness to make mistakes, and to make light of it.  The Demo G-ds are always watching, and it has happened to every one of us that we are demonstrating something we have done a thousand times, and it just all goes wrong in front of the class.  Keep your cool, and try to work out what is going on… make a joke of it. “Wow, that’s what happens when I put on the wrong socks in the morning”” or “I really wish I had listened to that fortune cookie!”  You will figure it out… as long as you stay composed.

There are probably thirty more tools and skills I should mention… but you get the picture.  Getting up in front of a technical audience is not easy, and it is something you should prepare for.  It is something that takes great pains to try to do… and years to get right.

So why is it then that so many companies feel that the right place to cut corners is on trainers?  Why is it that organizations, rather than looking outside and bringing in professional trainers who not only know the material but also know how to present it, would rather entrust the job for internal training to one of their internal IT professionals?  I have seen both of the following examples:

  • A company has decided to adopt a new technology; rather than hiring an outside trainer (or sending their people out for training), they approach one of their people who have worked with similar technologies – often just a generation or two removed from the new, but not always – and ask them to learn it before the rest of the group.  Once the professional has done so, they are delegated the task of training the rest of the team, often through a series of articles or lunch-and-learn sessions, but occasionally by way of full day (or week) training.
  • A company has an employee with a particular expertise that they feel would benefit others in the company.  They have that employee, who often does not have any background in training or public speaking, deliver training on a particular subject, but do not offer them any soft-skills training.

I did not do extensive research for this article, but as I prepared to write it, I typed the words “Worst Fears List” into Google.  Two of the top four sources that were returned above the fold listed ‘fear of public speaking’ as #2 (link) and ‘social phobia (fear of public speaking) and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces)’ as #3 (link).  A third site listed ‘fear of public speaking’ as #13 (link)… listing fear of spiders, snakes, heights, open spaces, dogs, and thunderstorms higher.  Sorry public speaking, you’ll have to do better next time.

So: if public speaking is one of the top fears that most people have, why would companies not only expect most people to do it without any prior training, but to do it so well that the attendees (their other employees) would see it as a real benefit to their job?  Isn’t that like telling someone who joins the army on Tuesday to jump out of an airplane while facing enemy fire by Saturday?  “Hey Fred, I know you don’t like snakes, but here’s a python… get chummy with it!”  Fears should be understood, and throwing kids into the deep end of the pool is no longer an acceptable way of teaching them how to swim.  (If you are my age or older, that is likely how you  learned it… but we were also spanked and sent to our rooms without supper).

There is, however, a happy medium… something between hiring outsiders, and having unprepared insiders deliver the training.  Public speaking can be taught.  The ability to deliver engaging and effective training can be learned.  It is not only a question of helping the individual overcome their fears, it is about doing that… and giving them the skills training to know how to do it… and then helping them with practice exercises so that when the time finally comes for them to deliver the class, they will know what they are doing.  Even with all of this preparation, most new trainers will stumble… but that is why Major League Baseball has the minor leagues, and why medical schools have pre-med.

How would we do this?  Simple… hire an expert to teach it.  It is great that companies offer technical training to their employees… but if they really want to help them succeed in the world, and especially if they want those employees to be able to effectively deliver technical training, then offering public speaking classes – soft skills training – would be a good place to start.  If your company does not have the budget to do that, you could look into public classes like Toastmasters… but they seldom offer technical trainer training.

Teaching, like any other skill or vocation, needs to be learned.  However, being thrown into the deep end can thwart a career.  There are two similar adages that could apply, depending on one’s personality type:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.”

Some people will give it a shot, fail, and they will try again.  They will get back onto the horse, lessons learned, and do it better the next time… and the time after that, and so on…

“If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.”

Other people will try it and fail… and never again get up in front of an audience to speak… not a technical training session, not to deliver a toast at their best friend’s wedding.  They will realize how justified their fears were, and they are never going near it again.  That might be too bad, because you never know how good someone could be until you give them the encouragement and the tools to keep getting better.  If you don’t believe me, ask my first wife, who divorced me because she decided I would never make a living as a computer consultant.

“If you think experts are expensive… try hiring amateurs.”

This is another quote that I love… outside trainers cost more money, but they are usually worth every penny.  Your staff learn what they need to learn, and nobody walks away discouraged because of a bad trainer… including the bad trainer.

Not everyone has it in them to be a good technical trainer.  It is hard, it is demanding, and it can be scary.  Those, by the way, are three reasons I am not a cardiothoracic surgeon (although there are myriad other reasons as well).  Like that sort of surgery, many will try, and even with the proper training and preparation, many will fail.  Public speaking is a top fear for a reason.  However, if you do think you might want to give it a shot, I have plenty of advice to give… but start by writing five minutes worth of jokes, and then signing up for Open Mic Night at your local comedy club.

** If you have not read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, shame on you! Correct that immediately.  Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

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