Delivering Training to Adults

Thursday Oct 29th 2009 by Rob England

In the third part of this series on IT training, Rob England looks at the practical aspects of training adults.

There is a high ratio of amateurs delivering IT training. This is especially true for in-house training, where IT workers are asked to train their peers.

But it is also true to some extent amongst professional training organizations, and even in tertiary institutes. Technical understanding is valued above the ability to train adults.

Perhaps this is inescapable in such a complex field as IT, but we are all professionals. If we can acquire the theoretical frameworks and practical techniques we need to do other areas of our work, we should do the same when delivering training. There is a body of knowledge out there to be accessed.

This series of articles gives an introduction. Hopefully those delivering training will be inspired to go find out more. Why go to the effort of reciting all that information of it is not assimilated by your trainees?

(See IT Teachers Suck and Teaching Adults (Yes, It's Different)

In the last article we looked at broader theory, such as Knowles Six Assumptions and Bloom’s Taxonomy. Now at last we can get down to the practical aspects of delivering training. Look at your course. Select an approach, a teaching style, a format and even a location, based on four aspects: Audience, Yourself, Content, and Delivery.


Your audience are adults (well, nominally). They deserve respect and will respond to it. Don’t patronize – you might be surprised how much expertise and experience there is in the room on your chosen topic. Don’t teach as if teaching children: bossing and nannying will lose an audience in no time.

Adults learn best when they are involved in the teaching process, when they have a sense of control, when they take responsibility for their own learning and contribute to achieving it.

They need motivation: Adults who don’t want to learn won’t learn. (The same is of course true of kids). The best adult motivator is WIIFM: What’s In It For Me.

Explain how valued this learning is, how it is strategic within their company, how good it looks on the CV, how much more they will get paid – make it personal. People also respond to benefits for their peers, their organization, and for the community at large.

Pay attention to the basics of communicating with any audience. Be clear, be heard. Be engaging. Get their involvement and input. Encourage feedback so you know if they are getting it.

If we consider specifically a technical audience, there are some more focused considerations. It helps if you establish credibility up front. Technical people love jousting to see who has the strongest technical knowledge (“I think you’ll find that feature wasn’t enabled until release 7” “Ah but it was available from 2001 in a patch”). Don’t bluff; you are either a geek black-belt or you are not. If not, switch to a collaborative learning mode (“I’m as new to this as you are. Let’s work it out together” “I’m relying on you more experienced guys to help out as we go through this”).

A greater proportion of technical people than the general population are detail oriented. Make sure you give them the detail they crave, even if only in supplementary material.

Tech folk are also inclined to a Bob the Builder mentality. Tell them how this is always broken and the course will teach them how to fix it. Provide lots of practical advice and tools, especially on tweeking, tuning, improving and debugging.


Next, consider Yourself. As we said, you don’t have to be an expert. It helps, but don’t stress out if you are not. The ability to clearly impart the main principles is appreciated, and you can facilitate everyone exploring the material to their own abilities even when they go beyond your own. If you are really struggling, try to have an expert standing by on the phone, or better yet get them into the room. They might not want to train, or may not be any good at it, but they can still field the hard questions.

If you are the technical top-gun, you can adopt a lecturing role to share your wisdom. Don’t do it all the time – it appears pompous and people get bored. Make time for activities so people can assimilate and catch up with you. If not, then as we discussed a collaborative facilitator role is effective.

Try to be yourself. Adopting an uncomfortable style will tire you out and alienate the audience. If you are naturally formal, be formal. Or be casual (beware of over-familiarity though: you need to retain control). Whatever works for you. As we said in the last article, studying amateur acting can be a big boost to your teaching skills. In this case, it does allow you to adopt a wider range of styles and still carry it off.


After your audience and yourself, consider your content (we talked about all the types of content last time). In IT you will almost certainly have too much material for the time available. Don’t cover everything. It is better to teach one thing effectively than to gabble many things. We in IT have a natural tendency to be exhaustive, comprehensive in our coverage. That is good in documentation but not in teaching. If you swamp them you will overload them and nothing will stick.

To get control over the amount of content, work out what is the one message you want the training to deliver. There is one and you can find it – you are just not trying hard enough. If they only remember one thing three months from now (and most will), what is it? OK, tell them that at the start and the end and at various times during the course.

Next make a list of the key points. Three months later the smart ones will remember not just one thing but several. List what you want those points to be. Don’t teach anything else. Seriously, you can elaborate on those points, provide supporting material, and even refer them to other topics for their own investigation, but stick to those key points. Even if it is a five-day course, structure the course around those key points and provide lots of elaboration and lots of learning exercises where they can learn other stuff for themselves as they go along exploring the key points. Once again, don’t try to cover everything.

Don’t over-prepare. It is important to know the material well, but it is also possible to know it too well. You lose the ability to see it as they are – with fresh eyes, for the first time. You can get stale from repeating it too often. You may well burn yourself out – by the time you get up front you are sick of it. You can’t hide a negative attitude to your material.

On the other hand, study beyond the course material. Expand the envelope of your understanding. Prepare for questions. Understand the wider context, the connected areas, the considerations and consequences. The best courses you ever give will be the ones where you never came close to the limits of your own knowledge.


Ok we’ve looked at Audience, Yourself, and Content. Finally, we talk about Delivery. Three things:

1) If there is one practical mechanical thing you must get right in training (and presenting) it is timing. You must keep the class moving, so that each item gets the proper proportion of the allotted time. If you do run out of time, don’t babble the material to make a run for the line. There is no point: They won’t learn any of it. ‘Fess up. Explain what hasn’t been covered and either arrange for a further session or set it as an exercise for them to teach themselves.

Obviously this will not always be acceptable. If you are delivering professionally then you must practice when it doesn’t matter: do trial runs until you can do it in the required time frame.

2) If there is one thing you should remember to actually do during a course, it is to review and consolidate. Not just at the end (though that is essential) but also as you go, at each major point. Tell them what you are going to teach them, teach it, then discuss, practice, explore and review what you taught. You saying something is a hundred times quicker than someone else grasping it. This is the most fundamental error I see amateur IT trainers making: saying is not teaching. Slow down and go back until they get it.

And if there is one thing you can do to make it easier for yourself, it is to control the environment in which you are teaching. Don’t settle for a hot or cold or stuffy room. Get it changed. Move the furniture round. If the desks are full of computer monitors and you won’t be using them, get them removed. If you will be using them, try to have a lecture environment and a lab environment – either two rooms, or one room arranged with the PCs along the wall and classroom seating in the middle.

3) Fight distractions. Try to run training away from their workplace. If it is onsite, make it clear that interruptions are rude. “Whatever it is can wait until the next break – leave please.” Phones off until the break. If the training is not important enough that the world can wait for 90 minutes, why do it at all?

Get the right approach to Audience, Yourself, Content and Delivery, and you will produce a good course. In the next and final of this series of articles, we will look at some practical techniques to use in the adult classroom.

Rob England is an IT industry commentator and consultant, best known for his blog The IT Skeptic.

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