There is a story that often does the rounds of motivational seminars:
‘A king asks his wise man to capture the complete wisdom of the world in a book.
The wise man comes back with five substantial volumes.
The king is impressed but suggests that five volumes might be a bit too much for people to read and could he shorten it.
The wise man comes back with one volume. It’s still too long! Then he shortens it into one chapter. But it’s still too long. Then he brings just two pages. But even now, it’s still too long.
Finally, he returns with one sentence written across the middle of one sheet of paper:
‘There is no such thing as something for nothing!’
‘Indeed’, says the king, ‘That is the wisdom of the ages.’
The final line of that story changes between versions, but I refer to it for one reason. The wise man can wade through a mass of detail and present it in an easy to grasp manner.
That is the job of an exceptional trainer. That is the skill of any effective communicator:
To make the complicated simple.
You cannot completely understand your subject until you’re able to sum it up in a few words, so that when a student comes to you before training and asks:
‘What is today about?’
Instead of answering with a longwinded ramble about the training content, you can respond neatly with a clear, accurate purpose statement. I remind you of a famous quote from Pascal:
‘I am sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I did not have time to write a short one.’
Our job is to take the complicated and make it simple, and as Pascal implies, that takes time; it takes work, and it takes effort.
What I am recommending is, before you deliver your training programmes, you should be capable of: summing up the purpose in one clear statement; highlighting the three fundamental principles that unlock a pathway through the rest of the training material; developing those principles into good, workable learning outcomes and delivering them in a way that engages and energises the students.
Simple? That is how it needs to seem to the students! Easy? Probably not.
And that is the second critical skill of a trainer:
To deliver with ease, confidence and flexibility.
If you had asked me 25 years ago to write down my thoughts and tips on training, I would have written quite a slender book. At the time, I had picked up some valuable insights and training techniques, and mostly they seemed to work well in the classroom.
However, as the saying (variously attributed) goes:
“It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
It was adequate but too one-dimensional. I am sure I could have given you plenty of valuable techniques for pounding nails. I might have even tried to convince you to hit a few screws into the wall as well because my range of alternatives was reasonably limited.
If you had asked me ten years ago to write down my thoughts and techniques on training, the book would have been much thicker and heavier, but I am still not sure you would have gone away much wiser about how to drive a screw into the wall.
There is a state in professional development where we suffer from ‘the curse of knowledge’.
It is when you know your subject in depth. Over time, in becoming an expert, you have lost the ability to see things from the student’s point of view. The more expert you become, the less connected you become to the student’s perspective. Therefore the third essential skill of the exceptional communicator is:
To keep seeing the world from your students’ point of view.
Any trainer can stand up in front of a class and say, ‘This is a complicated subject. Let me tell you how complicated it is.’
The exceptional trainer learns to say, ‘This is a complicated subject, but in essence, we need to start with these basic elements, and once we have understood those, we can build further.’
With ‘the curse of knowledge’, the danger becomes that rather than having one hammer, you have such a range of tools you can now dazzle your student with all the different options you have at your disposal. Your student is impressed with your knowledge but becomes slightly overwhelmed by the volume of information delivered and possibly still leaves confused.
Now, twenty-five years on, my book has become relatively thin again. I realise how easy it is to overcomplicate, and you can achieve lots with a hammer and a few nails. So now, rather than overwhelming my students with too much information, I focus on what matters. Occasionally, I reach into my bag to pull something out for those specialised jobs.
In the end, your range of knowledge is not there to impress your students; it is there to support them. You need to reach into your bag and provide them with the tools they need right now. And on the whole, once they understand the basics, the rest they can work out for themselves.
My intention, therefore, is always to focus on those fundamental principles that are essential to any successful training programme. Once you understand those, you can probably build the rest of the tools yourself. I have indeed aimed to get my ‘five volumes’ back down to one.
Can I slim it down to one sentence?
I am not sure I can, but maybe we move closer with this:
You can learn everything you need to be an effective trainer. You can learn techniques; you can learn structures; you can learn teaching theories. However, the one thing we cannot teach you is compassion. Unless you genuinely care about the well-being of other people, you probably should not become a trainer.
Therefore maybe it all comes down to this: Being an exceptional trainer starts from:
‘having a keen interest in, and genuine empathy for the development of your students’.
(The rest you can learn)
And then with that compassionate foundation to build upon, you add the next layer, which consists of three key skill sets that we will be returning to regularly, the ability to:
Deliver with ease, confidence, and flexibility create simple structures that are clear, compact and easy to follow. View the world through your students’ eyes.
Simple as that sounds, it is not always easy to achieve, but that is an exceptional trainer.