Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tell a Story

My last post talked about the importance of interactive and engaging trainings in order to appeal to the adult learner.  One of the best and simplistic ways to engage a learner is through the art of storytelling.  Even if you don't think of yourself as a storyteller, the truth is that all humans create stories.  Your stories may not be elaborately made up tales of adventure, but every time you recant your day to a spouse or tell a coworker about what just transpired, you tell a story.  These stories are the most powerful of all because they grip the audience with something they can relate to.

Learners attend training sessions for various reasons and one of those reasons may be because it was mandatory.  In order to incorporate people from all backgrounds and get them interested in the content from the start, you may find that telling a story engages your audience and peaks their interest to want to learn more.  Your stories don't have to be overly involved or complicated, but they should be honest and telling.  When I taught a course on computer basics, I had planned on the target audience to be mostly seniors.  Having planned for this group, I chose to tell a story about me, my grandma, and her computer.  The gist of the story grabbed the audience for two reasons: it was something the learners could relate to and it gave them hope that new things can be learned at any age.

Once you tell a story, it becomes easy to weave it throughout the lesson.  At the end of the computer basics class, everyone had created an email account and sent their very first email to my grandma - and she responded.


Stories help us relate to people and situations.  Without using words that your audience can understand and relate to, you risk losing their attention and doom your training success.  Instead, take advantage of stories and the use of similes and metaphors to bring a message home.  You can easily get a point across with a story.  Going back to the computer basics class, similes and metaphors helped the learners to visualize what a computer is and how it functions.  By incorporating something the class is already familiar with (in this case it was a file cabinet,) you ensure that every learner is on even footing and understands the content.

 If you've developed a story that is relatable and makes an emotional connection to the audience, you can almost guarantee that the individual learner will remember what you've taught them.  But remembering is no good!  The point of training is to make a change in behavior and/or thought processes; trainees should retain information and recall it later to implement change.  My computer basics class taught how to teach computers, yes, but it should have also changed the way the attendees thought about and related to their computer.  In order to motivate them to continue using computers, I using real world stories which explain why the attendee should learn a specific topic, increases their likelihood that a change in behavior will occur.

It may seem like using real world examples in the classroom is a no-brainer but if you think back to grade school and how many times you thought "when am I actually going to use this stuff," you will realize that we teachers do an incredible job of explaining how but can be a little shaky on the why.  It takes both, however, to make a training successful.

If you're thinking that you don't have any stories to tell, think again.  Sometimes, the story is not even your own, but the story of a friend, family, or coworker.  That's okay! Once you've used a story to establish an emotional connection, related to your trainees through metaphors and similes, and explained the why via real world examples, the result will get you buy-in from your learners as you begin to change their thought process.

Special thanks to Michelle Sienkiewicz for sharing an article about storytelling which inspired me to write this post.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Adults Learn Differently

A Facebook friend recently lamented her dislike for training adults - and she's not the only one out there.   Unlike teaching children, adults have already developed their ability to reason and question what they are exposed to.  If you'll allow me to use the analogy that people are like books, teachers are able to fill a child with new information on their blank pages - mostly uninhibited*.  Teachers of adults, however, are required to make edits or alter information already written in the memory banks of the adult learner.  This can cause confusion or outright denial in some learners when trying to add information or alter existing knowledge.  Here are a few tips to mitigate problems you may encounter with the adult learner:

Trainings should be well defined before participants even commit to attending.  Training that may be mandatory should also be clearly explained prior to the start of class in order to help spark interest.  A brief description of the class will also aid in recruiting more learners for those with an interest in the topic, ensuring you have learners who want and/or need to be there.  Descriptions of content prior to the training is only the first step in success with your adult learners, though.  The second step includes giving more details at the beginning of each session.  Before beginning, you will want to clarify what will be covered in class just in case there has been any miscommunication or misunderstanding.  Once you've explained the objective, you can get into the nitty gritty details.

Adults get caught up in the details you are giving them and often have trouble focusing on the bigger picture.  Because we, as adults, are action driven, we want information that is relevant and applicable to our work situation.  A trainee's motivations for attending can be across the board. In keeping with my book analogy above,  the trainee may be a Journal waiting to be filled with information or a Post-It Note needing only one piece of information.  By asking your trainees at the start of class what they want to learn, you can get a good feel for what type of learners you have.

  • Journals are the ideal trainees to have in class since they are vested in learning everything you have to teach them.  Depending on the subject matter of your training, don't forget that even Journals have already been written in and may need a rewrite of information.  Rewriting information almost always means being patient and slowing the pace down.  You'll save yourself time and a headache if you take it slow from the beginning instead of speeding through and backtracking later.
  • Post-It Notes need to know only one thing and they've attended the training hoping you have the answer. These learners can be intimidating because they may not participate with as much energy as other learners.  The key to reaching the Post-It Note learner is keeping them engaged and entertained throughout the training.  By keeping them engaged**, they may be surprised what other new things they learn.

Even when a trainer has done all they can do, they cannot plan for the outside problems that adult learners bring with them into class.  Sometimes, life gets in the way of learning.  As a trainer, you may not know that Jane just filed for divorce or that John had to put his dog down that morning but you know the show must go on.  Because there is no way to know which of your participants may be going through a hardship, you may find that interactive trainings are the most rewarding as far as retention goes.  As I have mentioned in several posts, follow-up is key for maximum recall.  Even if trainees are not suffering from any personal issues, other factors (such as workload, tiredness, and/or hunger) are always present.  By extending the training beyond your final wrap-up speech, you have one last opportunity to reach any learners who may not have been fully present.

*This is not to say that our children's teacher's have an easy job! Teaching, in general, is difficult and  requires talent, skill, and patience. The focus of this article is only to point out the specific nuances of teaching adults. I will also go on record to say that my child's teachers are one-in-a-million.
**For more ideas on how to keep your trainees engaged, see this previous post, or this one, or even this one.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

One is Not Like the Other

After reading the article The Librarian Doesn't Exist regarding the list of skills that every librarian should have, I began to think about my own branch within my organization.  While I certainly agree that there cannot be a set of skills every librarian should know (since librarianship covers a range of many specialties,) I would argue that it is essential for librarians within the same organization and job description to have such a list.  Certainly my skill sets are much different than my colleagues, but should they be?  This is quite a complicated question with a near impossible answer.  As with most of my answers to life's complicated questions, I look through the eyes of our customers and their expectations of the librarians who serve them.

Through the eyes of a customer, every person in the library is a librarian.  And who are we to tell them any different?  One thing that remains true for most libraries is that the word "librarian" is equivalent to supervisor or manager.  Sure, we may have a specific expertise but at the end of the day, when it comes to information, the library specialists are performing the job which customers view as "the librarian's job."

We train library staff to be knowledgeable by equipping them with skills we learned in library school, cross our fingers, and hope for greatness.  At best, staffers receive a couple weeks of training and are let loose on the library to get the real world training and experience.  It isn't until new employees are in the trenches that they realize, "we didn't have a training class on how to use the copier!" What's even worse is if the actual librarian doesn't know how to make that double sided copy.

Whether a customer is being helped by a librarian or library specialist, the one thing that should be consistent is knowledgeable customer service.  As I mentioned in Digital Literacy and You, we want to minimize circumstances where Jane Librarian needs John Librarian to help with a specific question.  This happens most often when technology is involved, but you may see it crop up in other situations as well.  When a staff member doesn't know the answer and must seek out a coworker's help, valuable time is wasted.  This doesn't mean that library staff must know everything, but they must know everything within their job description.

What is the best way to determine what everyone should know? Core Competencies.  I've seen technological core competencies floating around libraries for quite some time, but beyond a vague job description and a new hire training checklist, I have never heard of a list of core competencies for varying library positions.*  Core competencies would include things that seem like no-brainers but have the potential to stump even the best of library staffers.  Topics like searching, digital media instruction, and basic customer service expectations would appear on this list.

Library staff in a public library need to know different concepts and have other skill sets than staff in an academic, medical, or law library, etc..  Even within departments, knowledge varies.  For example, knowing the ins and outs of a MARC  record is really not needed for library staff who do not process incoming materials but knowledge of model reference behaviors is a must.

As a group, library staff at my location have developed a working document of core competencies that are relevant to the jobs we do every day.  Little things, such as good customer service practices, are on this list as well as the big, job description concepts.  Not surprisingly, compiling a list where everyone has input opens the floor up for discussion and helps individuals single out areas where extra training may be needed.

Taking into consideration the needs of your customers, the services you offer, and the type of library you work in, what are the core competencies of your job?  While all of our lists may share some commonalities, I guarantee that none will be exactly alike.

*Unlike the list of skill sets that are referred to in The Librarian Doesn't Exist article, core competencies would be varying from library to library and position to position.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Sometimes You Fail

It's impossible to be at your best every single moment of the day.  Being a great instructor for each and every class you give is just as unlikely.  Let's face it, life gets in the way sometimes and prevents us from giving our jobs the full attention it needs.  Life certainly got in my way this past month with the perfect storm of a sick daughter and eight separate training classes covering four different topics.  To say I was mildly prepared would have been an overstatement.  The truth is, I had to wing it and I'm not a big fan of that method because it leaves too much room for error.  So, when I decided to wing a few of the training sessions it should not come as a shock that I made a couple of mistakes.  In order to help you avoid making the same mistakes (or help you pick up the pieces once the mistake has already been made,) here are some tips for great instruction on your not-so-great days.

Rescheduling in my calendar means nothing will ever get done.  If you are not prepared by now, will the extra few days really make a difference?  Probably not.  It is even more likely that your participants will not be able to reschedule.  By planning your schedule better ahead of time, you can avoid much of the fallout that  comes with having to reschedule.  In my case, I should not have been so ambitious to teach eight classes in four weeks.  Had  I scheduled better, I could have given much more thought to my classes when my daughter became ill.

Under normal circumstances, a trainer should understand all the ins and outs of the course content before teaching it to others.  But when life gets in the way, we often make do with being half prepared.  If you find yourself in this position, you should not be surprised when you get a question where the answer is unknown.  Even worse than receiving a difficult question is trying to answer it - risking the possibility of giving out false information.  For a training on Google Sites that I had only half prepared, I began to lead my class in the wrong direction for accomplishing a specific task.  Suffice it to say, I quickly figured out what I was doing wrong and had to backpedal my instructions. Ouch! I would have been better off skipping the task altogether and covering it in the follow-up . . .

Following up with classroom participants is an integral part of training and information retention.  If you think you may have had a training failure, the follow-up may just be your savior. There are many ways to save face with a follow-up and the easiest is by sending an email to participants with a "homework" assignment.  In this email you can include additional information or attachments that may help them in the future.

If, on the other hand, you are unsure of a failure or want to prevent one in the future, asking participants to fill out a quality survey will force them to recall what they've learned and open up the lines of communication if clarification is needed.  It will also give you feedback on what works and what doesn't.

Failure has a bad reputation, but in it lies success.  We learn and grow from our mistakes and that is what makes failure so important.  Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and think "what can I do to make this a success?"