Maybe because of movies about “inspiring” educators, or perhaps because of fond personal memories of a “funny” teacher in school, most people wrongly assume that you need to be an entertainer to be an effective training facilitator.

Combined with a general aversion to public speaking, this belief leaves many perfectly qualified people reluctant to assume the role of training facilitator, even within their area of expertise.

The excuses are all too familiar:

  • “I’m no good at entertaining people…”
  • “No one wants to listen to me talk for three hours…”
  • “You can’t even tell if people are paying attention.  I’ll stop and ask ‘any questions?’ and it’s just crickets…”

Like all popular misconceptions, these statements contain kernels of truth.   Most of us are incapable of keeping a room full of strangers entertained for more than a few seconds, and few people in the 21st century have time to listen to anyone speak nonstop for three hours, not even the most eloquent speechmaker or funniest comedian in the world.

However, like all popular misconceptions, these statements also contain one hugely flawed assumption: that learning is one-way communication, where an expert lectures nonstop and novices are expected to drink from the fire-hose blast of information.   While this may be consistent with the presentation style of many university professors and technical trainers, it is not supported by evidence.  In fact, studies have shown that people generally learn better through interactive experiences where they can discover basic principles for themselves through hands-on experimentation or participatory discussion.

The myth of the inspirational teacher magically improving the capacities of learners through charismatic lectures is supported more by Hollywood movies (if – you – need – examples – just – click) than research.  Yet, while it’s true that the best facilitators combine solid instructional techniques with a winning personal style, studies have shown that a facilitator’s charisma can mask their shortcomings as an educator, leaving participants entertained, but not necessarily edified.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a facilitator with an outsize “stage presence” might unwittingly pose an obstacle to learning.  No matter how captivating, extended lectures place learners in a mode of passive reception, which is generally less conducive to learning than active involvement.   This applies doubly to online instructor-led training (ILT), where participants can easily tune out a lecturer while they surf Facebook or Youtube in another window.

So what conclusion can we draw?  That no amount of charisma can make a learning experience effective and we should all give up?

No, quite the contrary: the good news is that we can improve the effectiveness of training by keeping lectures to a minimum and actively engaging participants through techniques that anyone can learn and apply, even those of us who speak in monotone.  Specifically:

  • Try not to lecture / demo for more than 15-20 minutes without a discussion question or activity.  If lectures run long, punctuate them with informal review questions to check participants’ understanding (or at least confirm their consciousness).  Response clickers in the classroom or polling modules on web conferencing can be great tools for this purpose.

  • Realistic, well-structured, hands-on activities tend to achieve more improvement in skills per minute of class time than any amount of lecturing.  And even when course content is more conceptual in nature, give participants the chance to arrive at key insights on their own through gently guided discussion, only intervening if key realizations do not arise organically in a timely manner.

  • Emphasize the post-activity debrief over the pre-activity lecture: participants will be inherently more interested if what you have to say if it relates directly to something they just did (or attempted to do), themselves

  • Be mindful of your fellow wallflowers: don’t let the most extroverted participants dominate discussion.  To avoid this dynamic and keep everyone engaged, particularly during online sessions, address review questions to specific participants to make sure everyone gets a chance to participate (and that no one assumes they can avoid participating by staying quiet)

By shifting the focus away from the facilitator and actively involving participants, you will likely feel less pressure to put on a show while learners will feel more engaged.  As one of my mentors would say “Facilitating is not about being the ‘sage on the stage’ – it’s about being the ‘guide on the side'”, leading participants to water instead of blasting them with the fire hose.  Try it and you’ll find that participant-centered learning is a better approach to facilitation that can work for anyone… anyone… anyone?

If your organization is dealing with these issues, or any other learning-related challenges, please contact Sonata Learning.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.