20 Key Learning Points to Enhance Presentations and Training
by Peter B. Grazier
As organizations struggle to keep up with the demands of a changing world economy, people at all levels of the organization are being called upon to make presentations, conduct training, and influence others to make changes. For those new to the world of public speaking this is a threatening proposition that frequently results in dry, monotonous presentations. Even experienced trainers sometimes fail to maximize their teaching potential simply for a lack of a few strategically placed techniques to enhance the learning. Therefore, most trainers will “kill” for a new technique. My purpose in this session is to share unique ideas for enhancing training and presentations that have worked well for me over the last 18 years, so that we will be able to move the concepts of quality, participation, and human potential forward more forcefully and effectively.
Adults seem to learn best when they are enjoying the training experience. Think of those sessions where you came away energized and motivated as well as informed. What was happening? Chances are you will remember stories that clarified the points being made, metaphors that linked concepts to simple examples, visual props, gags, humor, and insights about yourself. You may have participated in the learning experience or heard other participants share their thoughts that provided additional learning opportunities. Perhaps also, you felt you were “entertained” as well as taught..
OK, so now you have been given an opportunity to speak before a group or perform training yourself and you’re not sure what to do. Since most of our formal learning from childhood on has been in the “lecture” format, we tend to see most training performed in this way. Much of the time little creativity was demonstrated by those who taught us early on, so we have grown up with teaching and learning “paradigms” that are less than exciting. So what do we do, we usually repeat what we learned, even though we yearn to do more.
When I first became involved with presentations and training, I was petrified with fear. But inside I felt I had an important message about participation in the workplace that needed to be told. Even though I had serious doubts about my abilities, I soon learned that I could create effective presentations and training sessions by applying some creativity in how I presented. I will say, however, that many of the techniques I use today I would have never considered when I began. I just felt they were too “outlandish” for a “professional” trainer and consultant. I was wrong. I have since learned that the more I stretch the limits, the more effective and highly-rated are my presentations and training sessions.
I don’t want to imply that simply being crazy is a solution. What I realized was that my quest for more effective training techniques was driven by a passion to enhance the learning experience. I truly wanted people to understand and learn the material, so if a strategically placed gag, exercise, story, or metaphor would help, I would use it. If I could get my audience to “feel” what I was saying to them, they would probably understand it better and remember it longer.
20 Key Learning Points to Enhance Presentations and Training
The following ideas and techniques are not intended as the “be all and end all” list for effective presentations. They are simply a collection of interesting ideas that have helped me to give better presentations and training. They are also listed in no particular order. I hope you find them useful.
1. Start with a sincere belief in what you are saying – One of the comments I have heard frequently over the years is “You really believe in these concepts, don’t you.” When the audience senses that you live and breathe your message, almost instantly your credibility goes up. Conversely, if you are trying to present a message that you do not totally support, it takes a real acting job to pull it off—and usually you don’t. People see through the act quickly.
The reason for this is that although your words may be saying one thing, your nonverbal cues will usually give you away. Your tone of voice, your facial expression, your body posture—virtually every cell in your body—will be saying you don’t really believe your own message..
So the best way to begin your quest for a dynamic presentation is to first work on yourself and how you feel about your topic. If you have some doubts, study it, experience it, and practice it until you can gain confidence in how you feel about your topic. Audiences will forgive mistakes in the presentation if they sense you deeply believe in your topic.
2. Be yourself – Not long after I began giving presentations a friend mentioned to me that I was coming off stiff and very boring. Since he knew me and my work first-hand, he gave me some wonderful advice that I have never forgotten. He said that when I was speaking to people one-on-one about my work I was enthusiastic, highly-motivated, and could convince anyone about its benefits. He said also that when I made presentations to larger groups, my entire style changed when I attempted to look “professional.” His wonderful advice was “Let Pete Grazier be Pete Grazier.” Don’t try to be something you’re not. I took his message to heart and almost immediately my presentations improved.
3. Change your mindset about “the fear of public speaking” – Surveys of human fears usually put the “fear of public speaking” close to the top of most lists. Some people would rather die than give a speech. When I began studying the human mind, it became clear that I would need to change some of the programming I had received earlier in life about public speaking. My simple technique that worked for me was to reprogram my brain to think about “the excitement of public speaking.”
Fear and excitement have different physiological responses that can either enhance a talk or destroy it. With fear, one’s throat and voice are harder to control the heart races, palms sweat, eyes blink rapidly, and the face looks pale and more drawn. Although excitement can induce some of the same responses, such as a racing heart, there is usually more control and enjoyment. People will clearly be able to tell the difference between fear and excitement. Excitement seems to mobilize whereas fear immobilizes and one loses control..
When you have a speaking opportunity, begin to think of your butterflies as a natural by-product of your excitement rather than your fear. Focus on excitement and eventually you will begin to change your prior conditioning about speaking in public.
4. “Breaking the Ice” with the audience – The first few minutes of a presentation are important to establish the relationship between you and your audience. Will this hour or day be formal, loose, fun, boring, or what? The beginning is also the point at which you as the speaker are most anxious and tense. So why not design a beginning that loosens up both you and your audience?
There are many ways to do this (some of the techniques that follow will also give you ideas), but one of the easiest is to begin by asking the audience some questions and get them talking. I find that if I can get them to say something early in the presentation, it relaxes me by taking some of the burden off of me to do it all. Sometimes I do a quick demographic check to assess the make-up of my audience. For instance, I might ask how many managers or supervisors are in the audience..
Some people are good at telling jokes, and even if you aren’t, with a little practice you can usually pull it off with ease. Everyone likes a joke and it quickly let’s them know you want to be at ease with them.
Sometimes it’s best to tell a story relating to the topic. You might relate a personal experience that interested you in the subject. Personal stories are easy to tell because they come from your own experiences.
The point is to do something early that establishes a relationship between you and the audience.
5. Find out what the participants want to know – Probably one of the most important concepts in creating successful training sessions is finding out what the participants want to learn. The trainer has an agenda, but what does the student want to know about the topic?
I have found that if I can surface their needs and address them, people will feel the training was particularly useful to them.
My favorite technique for this is to give them advance warning that I will be asking for their expectations of the session so they can think about it while I am presenting my opening remarks. I have colored markers and paper on the tables, and after I have reviewed the training agenda with them, I ask them to write down one or two expectations—or questions they would like to have answered—on the paper with the markers. I ask them to sign them, then hang them on the walls with masking tape. I also call these expectations “objectives” and enlist their help in getting these objectives met. I tell them that I will do everything in my power to help them meet their objective, but that they must help me.
As the training progresses, students are asked to remove their sheets from the walls if their objective has been met. It’s an excellent way to see if people are getting what they need. The exercise serves other uses as well, for example, getting the class up and moving around early in the session (a “pattern interruption” which will be discussed later).
6. Using drama and effects to enhance learning – When I began training teams of people I struggled with how to teach the impact of personal values and beliefs on our behavior. A simple lecture wouldn’t necessarily do it. Somehow I had to get the audience to “feel” the impact of their beliefs.
I decided to “trick” my audience by wearing a suit of clothes that I now call “my nerd outfit.” Before the session I put on black shoes, white socks, blue suit pants, a brown striped dress shirt, a pink paisley tie, and a green corduroy sport jacket (with wide lapels from late 1970’s). When I wear these clothes, the behavior of my participants is always different than when I wear clothes that match and have more class. When I wear the “nerd outfit” they tend to ignore me prior to the session (for example, during coffee and danish), and they cluster in small groups and snicker. Of course they never say anything to me directly–They just behave differently.
When I begin the session, I give them the definition of values and beliefs then ask them if they notice anything strange about me. They usually say nothing. When I probe further, eventually someone will break the ice by saying how my clothes look, and then they all chime in. Some say I look like I dressed in the dark; some say I look like an engineer; some say I look like a used car salesman; some say I look like I should be at the racetrack; and on and on..
I then take off the clothes revealing a set of clothes underneath that match and you can hear a collective sigh of relief. They were really worried that this “nerd” was their teacher. In just a few minutes, they have been put in touch with their belief systems in a dramatic way that they will never forget. It sets the stage for a meaningful discussion on the topic.
I have used this technique many times over the years and it never fails to achieve the desired results. People come back years later and say; “I remember the clothes.” This dramatic effect sensitizes people to the effect their beliefs have on their behavior with others. For example, one’s beliefs about a man in a nice suit and tie might be different than about a man in coveralls and a hardhat. This is important to organizations as they begin to use more collaboration to improve performance.
I was very uncomfortable at first using this technique, but have since come to believe that it is one of the most powerful forms of teaching. So don’t underestimate the use of drama and acting to sell your points.
7. Using magic as a metaphor – A few years ago I began using magic tricks to help make important points. What I found was an immediate benefit from a teaching point of view. First, the magic was a diversion from the other techniques being used to train. Second, there was an entertainment value… people truly seemed to enjoy the tricks. Third, was the impact of the message. If a trick can be linked to a concept being taught, the message will tend to be clearer. Fourth, was the retention value. If the concept can be linked with something unique and different, the student will likely never forget the message.
Earlier in my career I didn’t see myself as someone who could perform magic. But as I began to add one trick at a time to my trainer’s tool bag, I found that the impact was so great that I simply had to expand my repertoire. Today the magic is a significant benefit, especially during longer training sessions..
There are a number of ways to learn magic, the simplest being to visit your local magic store and have them teach you. Look for tricks that are highly visible (a benefit for larger audiences), easy to perform, and can be connected with your message.
8. Audience participation as an art form – Over the years that I have been working with the concepts of workplace collaboration and participation, I have gained an enormous appreciation for the innate abilities of people. People have so much more to contribute if we’d just let them. And this certainly holds true when training.
People like to contribute to the discussion at hand, so the presenter should provide opportunities for this participation. In training sessions in particular, I now strive to have the participants talking or working together about 70-80% of the time. This can be accomplished by applying exercises that reinforce training points, group discussions, question and answer periods, small group break-out discussions and problem solving, and a host of others. This is particularly useful when question and answer periods are coming up short. Simply ask people to turn to each other for 1 or 2 minutes and discuss any points of the session that need clarifying. This is a wonderful technique for generating questions. Surprisingly, this can even be done with large audiences..
When audiences participate in the learning experience, everyone benefits. More knowledge and insight is shared within the group, people enjoy the opportunity to participate, and it relieves the responsibility of the trainer to do it all.
9. Using “pattern interruptions” to maintain audience energy – When people sit for any length of time, energy levels tend to go down quickly. Even the best speakers and trainers may experience this energy drop in their audience if they sit too long without some kind of re-energizer.
One of the best ways to re-energize an audience is to perform what is called a “pattern interruption” every 5-10 minutes. A pattern interruption breaks the pattern of listening and causes the listener to re-activate the brain. There are many ways to inject pattern interruptions:
One of the best times to plan for pattern interruptions is after lunch. This is the time that energy levels drop most severely due to the digestion of heavy food, therefore, plan for the worst. I usually design training sessions to have my most active, and entertaining, exercises right after lunch.
If you can provide some form of pattern interruption at least every 10 minutes, your audience will stay energized throughout.
10. Waterguns as tension breakers – It is almost inevitable that during a training session, one or more participants will try to hit you with an antagonistic question or comment simply to get attention. They might also direct these comments toward other participants. These “zingers” sometimes cause a brief moment of tension in the session, leaving all participants looking at you for how you will respond. I have found that one of the best ways to break this tension is to pull out a water gun and simply shoot the offender. This surprise response completely changes the psychological state from one of tension to one of humor. The offender receives the attention he or she was craving and the rest of the class simply enjoys the experience. I usually carry two or three waterguns of varying sizes, pulling out larger and larger ones with each successive zinger. This is one of the best techniques I have found for breaking tension, adding a needed pattern interruption, and simply having fun.
11. Exploring the range of emotions – Much of the training we perform in team building, employee involvement, human potential, creativity, and so forth involves putting people in touch with themselves. Most of us have never received training about ourselves. Therefore, I try to create a learning experience that covers a full range of emotions. Anger, frustration, joy, excitement, sadness, hope, and pride are just a few of the emotions that can be generated in a training session or presentation.
There are a number of ways to accomplish these, but some of the best are through stories and exercises. One of my stories talks about a construction worker I encountered early in my career who was emotionally affected by simply being thanked for his outstanding work. As it turned out, never in his 30-year career had he been thanked for his work. This story affected me personally when it happened in 1981, and I have told it many times over the years..
Another way to invoke emotion is to design an exercise where people can tap into their own experiences. I will frequently ask people to think about the most successful and rewarding teams or groups they participated on in their lives, then tell those stories to each other in small groups. The stories they tell each other are usually exciting, heart-warming, full of pride, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always powerful.
12. Using prizes as incentives for participation – People love prizes, and they make excellent incentives to enhance participation. Just about anything can be used for prizes, but one of my favorites is potatoes. Potatoes seem to have no intrinsic value so at first appear to not be much of an incentive. But after I give out two or three potatoes to people who have contributed something to the class discussion, others can’t wait to get a one. It’s not the potato they want, but the recognition.
Obviously, if a potato can work, then just about anything else can be used as an incentive. Incidentally, if you mention to the first person awarded a potato that it’s theirs to do with as they want, sometimes they will draw on it with markers which creates further interest and opportunities for pattern interruptions. Sometimes they give away their potato to someone who is deserving of one, but was missed by me. It moves the subject of “recognition” from the trainer to the participants.
13. Setting up the classroom for success – The physical layout of the training room will either enhance or detract from your learning environment. If you are teaching team concepts and skills, for example, and the seating is in a “theater” arrangement, the meaning of “team” sometimes gets lost.
I almost always request round tables when training because I use so many group exercises, discussions, and so forth. When I need small groups to perform some task, the participants are already in natural teams..
Another benefit of round or separate tables is the opportunity to move people around during the session. True team building requires the breaking down of barriers between people. If I can move people to different tables during the session and have them perform an exercise together, barriers come down quickly. People form relationships that they might not have if the opportunity for this interaction was missing. The class, in itself, becomes a team building experience.
14. Using a flip chart – Most of us never receive any “formal” training on the use of a flip chart. One probably never even thought about it.) There are, however, a few tips that can turn the flip chart into a “success” tool.
First, use many colors to do your work. I like to use coordinated colors when writing on separate sheets, for example, dark blue, light blue, purple, magenta, and pink. I use the darker colors for the words or diagrams, and the lighter colors for highlights. It brightens the entire page and creates interest. I avoid using red for writing because a significant percentage of men are colorblind to red. Red’s and black’s are also “blocking” or “stopping” colors..
I also tape all flip charts to the walls during the session. Since I use flip chart paper extensively throughout my training, by the end of the session the walls are almost completely covered by the work. This sends a powerful subliminal message that the class has covered a lot of material and worked hard.
The covered walls also lend themselves to another interesting feature.. .the final review. To review the materials covered, I ask all participants to think about what was most important to them in the session, then get up and stand in front of the flip chart page(s) that represents this. When everyone is standing (usually spread conveniently around the entire room), I ask them what was important to them in that concept. They usually give a glowing testimonial about that particular concept, summarizing it better and with more feeling than I ever could. Since it comes from the participants themselves, it also has more impact. As each one gives his or her summary, they return to their seats, and when all are sitting down again, the review is complete. It’s a wonderful way to review the material.
15. “Simplify” training for comprehension and enjoyment – Through the years it has become clear to me that people come to training sessions looking for practical and useful information, not theoretical constructs. Although there is sometimes a need for the theory, more time should be spent on practical application so that people know what to do with it.
For example, in quality management, process improvement is a key concept. Some trainers spend inordinate time explaining the theory of processes and how to improve them. Today I spend little time on theory and simply show participants obvious examples of process improvements. This is a good opportunity to use props in the training. For example, I carry with me bottles of shampoo, skin cream, and others that I have collected from hotels. At one hotel, the shampoo and skin cream are in almost identical bottles—you have to read the fine print to determine which is which. I tell them a story of how at 4:00 a.m. while showering at that hotel; I used the skin cream to shampoo my hair (true story). I, as a customer, was upset because it was hard to tell the difference between the two bottles..
I then project the story further and ask them how hard would it be for the maid to set out the proper bottles each time a room is cleaned. Immediately they see that the process of setting out these bottles is not a good one. I then ask them how this process could be improved and they toss out some good ideas, such as make the bottles clear and put different colored fluids in each, or different colored bottle caps, and so on. I then show them bottles collected from other hotels that reflect their ideas and the point of process improvement is made instantaneously. The obvious visual cues in the bottles eliminates mistakes and reduces the time involved in “putting out bottles.”
Using these simple practical examples reduces tension in people, particularly some front-line workers, who feared coming to the training. They see the concepts as “real world” techniques that can be useful to themselves and the organization.
16. Moving people to action – A question that always haunts people about training is “What will people do with what they learned?” The fear, of course, is that they will leave the training and apply little or nothing. Many times this has more to do with understanding how to apply it than wanting to.
Today I conclude almost all my training sessions with a segment I call “Action Steps.” At the end of the training I break the group into pairs and ask them to “take a walk.” During the walk, which lasts about 15 minutes, they are to discuss ways to apply the materials learned and list for themselves at least 3 or 4 “next steps” that they can put into action immediately upon returning to work. These steps are to be practical and do-able with an emphasis on simplicity..
When they return to the room, we share most of the ideas in an open discussion. This is another good opportunity to pass out small awards.) The participants leave the training with a short list of practical ideas on how to apply the concepts. As simple as this technique is, I have been surprised by how many participants appreciate it.
17. Adding humor to your session – For years I envied others who could make people laugh. Laughter has many psychological and physiological benefits, not the least of which to a trainer is fun and energy. However, I never thought I could adequately do humor. I was wrong again.
There are many ways to inject humor into a talk or training session, some of which we have already discussed above. There are books for speakers with humorous stories and jokes. Listening to other speakers is another source for good humor. Sometimes you will say something and people will laugh but you weren’t sure what you said that provoked the laughter. Therefore, a good technique is to tape record your sessions and play back those parts where people laughed..
Don’t be afraid to be playful. If you can create a playful atmosphere, people will laugh naturally. Once when I was beginning a talk for a large audience, a photographer snapped a few pictures of me for the organization’s newsletter. All of the sudden I remembered that I had a small camera in my briefcase. I paused, went into my briefcase, pulled out the camera, and shot a picture of the photographer. The audience went crazy! I have used this technique many times since, always with the same effect.
I’m not sure why I decided to pull out the camera, but I think it relates to wanting the audience to have fun and enjoy my talks. If we approach our talks and training with this attitude, we will find ways to create it.
Another way is to tap into the humor of the participants. Some of my exercises let the talents of the class come to the surface, and there have been times when they had me rolling on the floor with laughter.
If you can envision your class or audience enjoying your presentation, you will carry that mentality with you always and new ideas will come to you naturally.
18. Story telling to sell a point – How often have you heard someone give a talk, when suddenly your interest was peaked by a personal story injected by the speaker? Consultant Tom Peters is a master at this. His successful talks are simply a series of one story after another.
The beauty of stories, particularly if they come from the speaker’s own experiences, is that they come off as genuine, they hold the audience’s attention, they are easy to tell because they come from personal memory, and they can be used to generate an array of moods. They can be humorous and they can make people cry and each time you tell the story, you get better..
In Idea No.11 above, I told the story of a crusty old construction worker who had been emotionally affected by simply being thanked for his good work for the first time in 30 years. This is a powerful story (I even had trouble telling it for years) because we can understand the pain of a person who has worked hard his entire career and never been thanked in some way. When this story is tied into discussions of paying recognition, it serves as a powerful reminder that we do not thank people enough for their contributions. The training takes on an importance that would be missing without the story.
19. Post-training follow-up – After the training session is over, a critical question that arises is what will people do with the information they learned? We talked about “Action Steps” as a way to jump start the use of the concepts learned, but sometimes additional reinforcement is needed.
One of the techniques I like is to have the participants call each other about two weeks after the training. I do this by having them write on a piece of paper their name, their phone number, the date two weeks after the training finishes, and the sentence “What did you do with the information you learned at our __________ training session?” I then have the participants form two lines in the room facing each other, ball up their papers, and on the count of “three” throw them at the people in the opposing line. Each person picks up a paper and takes it with them after the session. Nobody knows who will be calling them, but they know someone will..
The beauty of this little reminder is that it applies subtle pressure to do something with the lessons learned. A call or e-mail two weeks after the training also re-kindles the interest and brings back the training experience which, experts say, enhances retention.
20. Expand your speaker/trainer toolbox – The old adage “What you sow, you reap” should be a guiding principle for growth. If you are constantly learning new techniques to add to your toolbox, your sessions will be top level and you will seldom be caught off-guard.
Look for training seminars, conferences, newsletters, and books that can assist you. I have enjoyed Bob Pike seminars and materials for trainers (Creative Training Techniques 800-383-9210) and learned many new techniques that have enhanced my training. Another resource is Toastmasters International, which probably has a club somewhere close to you. These small clubs are wonderful opportunities to hone your skills as a speaker in a safe, supportive environment..
Another way to learn new techniques is simply to ask another trainer if you could sit in on one of their sessions. Most good trainers usually do not mind, and if you can share some of your techniques with them, it improves your chances. Another way to generate interesting ideas is to visit a toy store. The playfulness associated with toys opens a whole new range of possibilities when looking for ideas. The same goes with stores that sell puzzles.
The point is that if you push yourself just a little to look for new ideas, you will find your toolbox, and your skills, growing rapidly.
When I look back over my years in this work, I feel a great sense of satisfaction in knowing I have been able to provide some meaningful learning experiences for others. The ability to train and influence others to think differently is a powerful skill that can be used not only in our professional lives, but also our personal lives as well..
The term continuous improvement for me as a trainer means continually looking for ways to elevate my performance and results. It means always looking for concepts and techniques that add significant value to the training experience. I think if we approach this work with a true passion for helping and sharing with others, our abilities will grow naturally as we continually look for new ideas.
I sincerely hope that this article gave you some new thoughts on how to elevate and enhance your speaking and training performance. I would invite you to call me anytime you would like to discuss innovative ways to help others learn, because I usually learn as much from those calls as the person seeking the advice. Of course, if you would simply like to share an idea that has worked well for you, I would appreciate hearing from you. One of the beauties of this life is that what we give out we get back—what goes around comes around. Share freely with others and it will come back to you many times over.