Facilitating Training

Imagine that you are a newly minted physician reviewing your first case as a practicing oncologist.  A thirty-two year old Caucasian female, mother of 11 month old twin boys, has presented with unexplained yet severe weight loss, fatigue, intermittent upper abdominal pain, jaundice, and high blood sugar levels.  Recognizing this as textbook symptoms of pancreatic cancer, you immediately order a magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography.  A scan of the resulting images confirms your diagnosis.  Unfortunately for this woman and 40,000 other Americans each year, pancreatic cancer only rears its ugly head in advanced stages.  Your next task is to share the devastating news with the young mother that she has inoperable cancer and only months to live.


If you were lucky enough to have completed your residency at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in New York, then you should be as well prepared as anyone can be for this moment.  The teaching physicians at MSK take communication skills training very seriously.  So much so, in fact, that physicians in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences have put their peers under a microscope to study their ability to learn to be facilitators.  The architects of the communication skills training program are striving for something the medical profession refers to as ‘treatment fidelity.’  In more accessible terms, achieving treatment fidelity in facilitator instruction means churning out trainers who share identical content and apply consistent best practices in the sessions they run.  In the ideal, such trainers are perfect substitutes from the point of view of their charges.


In a study published in the journal Medical Education 2009, Dr. Carma Bylund and five of her colleagues systematically scrutinized the abilities of thirty-two novice facilitators who were themselves engaged in role-play exercises during communication skills training.  In short, the researchers were trying to ascertain whether or not their future trainers were acquiring a consistent set of best practices that would make them great facilitators.


Dr. Bylund’s team discovered that many important facilitation skills are easily acquired.  These include managing role play exercises by providing participants with enough time to review the scenario, with a clear understanding of the starting point, and with sufficient actor direction.  In addition to managing role play exercises well, novice facilitators were naturals at feedback related best practices.  These include inviting learners’ feedback first, drawing out a balance of positive and constructive feedback, and inviting all group members to give feedback.  The only blemish in the feedback arena was that people generally forget to invite positive feedback first.


However, the researchers also found consistent weaknesses in peers’ ability to absorb key facilitation skills.  The deficient areas included eliciting and then staying focused on learners’ goals, involving group members in solving each other problems, and summarizing learning.


Though the workshops you facilitate may not have the same compassionate impact as coaching doctors to deliver bad news, you owe it to your trainees and to your business to be the most effective facilitator that you can be.  The best practices enumerated below will deliver training that sticks.


Define the learning objective

Trainings are both costly and time consuming.  You will need to develop materials, fly people in, fly yourself out, reserve facilities, and accommodate the demands of many masters.  Consequently, there is an ever-present temptation to load workshops full of a broad range of objectives.  If absorbed, each objective may legitimately have the potential to deliver tremendous business value.  But, therein lays the rub.  Human beings, even very talented ones, have limited capacity to soak up more than one critical concept in a training session of reasonable duration.  If there are multiple concepts, then they must tie together in an elegant and obvious manner.  It is not by accident that we so often ask each other the following question with singular noun declension: ‘What was your key take away?’


If you have enough lead time, then you can treat the definition of learning objectives in a similar manner to locking down requirements in new product development.  That is to say that you might synthesize a number of potentially valuable objectives by yourself or with your fellow managers.  However, you may not have clarity on how important each concept is to the learners.  Moreover, it might be that people have already mastered some of the concepts to a reasonable degree.  The way forward is easy.  Just ask.  By surveying, you will establish the true needs of your audience and uncover the actual gaps in their knowledge.  Additionally, if you go in with an open mind and some open ended questions, you may uncover a learning objective that trumps even your best ideas.  A beneficial side effect of this extra step is that your are likely to have a much more engaged group of trainees since they will justifiably feel the session is conducted for them rather than feel they are being subjected to yet another corporate mandate.


Finally, carve out enough time to pilot the training with a small, safe group.  Make sure you let the participants know that they are the guinea pigs so that they are primed to give constructive feedback.  Even a single iteration will provide massive improvement in every dimension of the training including but not limited to objectives, timing, and messaging.


Start scheduling immediately

Never underestimate the logistics involved in choosing a location that everyone can get to on a date when they are available.  Start the scheduling process as soon as you starting thinking about conducting a training session.  In general, it is best to choose offsite facilities in good physical condition so that you can isolate participants from the distractions of their regular work environment.


You might object, ‘But how can I do that when I do not know how many people I will have in the training?”  The short answer is that you should strive to run sessions with between ten and twenty attendees.  Anything fewer is inefficient, anything greater is ineffective.  You might further object, “But how can I do that when I do not know how long the training will be?”  Shorter is better.  In my experience, a single two and a half to three hour session is ideal.  If you have no other choice, then design two of these modules with one conducted in the morning and the other in the afternoon.


This leads to the next question.  If you are only going to run one session, what time of day is best?  For years, I accepted my gut instinct and the prevailing conventional wisdom that morning is superior.  From my experience, ninety nine out of a hundred would agree. But is it really?  To answer that, we need to roll the clock back to 1977.


In that year, researchers subjected 130 twelve and thirteen year olds from the Thomas Bennett School in England to a rather illuminating memory game.  The 62 boys and 68 girls were divided into two cohorts, each consisting of three groups.  All of the little darlings were told in advance that they would need to listen carefully to a story since they would be asked some questions about it.  (The British must have a thirst for this sort of torture given that they popularized the phrase “Pop Quiz” in a 1981 game show of the same name.)


At 9:00 am, the first cohort of three groups listened to a tape recording of a single 2000-word, 12-minute story entitled “A New Horse” by Lo-Johannson.  Right when the story ended, one of the three groups was given a multiple choice test consisting of twenty questions.  Exactly one week later, the second and third groups took the same test at 9:15am and 3:15pm, respectively.


A nearly identical approach was used for the second cohort save for the fact that they heard the story at 3:00pm.  Just as with the other cohort, one group took the immediate recall test and the other two groups got their chance a week later at 9:15am and 3:15pm.


This experiment allowed the researchers to draw two important conclusions.  First, immediate recall is better in the morning.  Students that took the pop quiz just after listening in the morning got 84% of the questions correct versus 76% correct for the afternoon group.  This result is probably what guides our gut instinct that it is better to train in the morning.


However, the second result, the one that addresses long term memory, is more relevant to facilitating successful training sessions.  It turns out that delayed recall is better following afternoon instruction!  Students who received morning instruction and were tested a week later scored only 64.5% as compared to 70% for those who received afternoon instruction.  Over the years, countless other academic researchers have validated this finding on both children and adults.  The bottom line, counter to universal opinion, is that you will get the biggest bang for the buck training in the afternoon.  Though explanatory stories abound, a reasonable justification is that long term memory forming synapses fire more actively in the afternoon when our fact-processing prefrontal cortex is oversaturated.


Start the session with passion and purpose

Trainees will absorb your material more effectively if they have faith in your teaching ability and in your passion about the subject matter.  You must make sure their first impression of you is as a professional.  To that end, you should treat running a workshop as you would treat any formal public speaking engagement.  In particular, make sure to arrive early so that you can set up the room, the technology, and any materials you will be using.  This will ensure that you are able to start on-time and are not frazzled.


To cement your authority and provide added motivation, secure a senior leader to introduce you.  The leader’s opening remarks should satisfy two objectives.  The first is to briefly introduce your background and bona-fides.  The second objective is far more important.  You want the leader to issue a call to action for the participants to complete when the training is over.  Many solid but not spectacular trainers miss this step entirely or leave things to chance in a harried discussion five minutes before the start.  To have the greatest impact, work with the leader at least a day in advance to craft a call to action that is achievable within a well defined time frame and that will be measured.  In my experience, leaders are open to recommendations and are particularly interested in the challenges set by their peers.  Inciting a little bit of friendly competition can go a long way.


The moment you take the stage is the single moment of maximum attention span.  As quickly as possible, and with passion, share the what, the why, and the how of the training.  The ‘what’ should cast a blazing spotlight on the key takeaway.  Revealing the key takeaway right at the start is a compelling, if underutilized, best practice.  If the key learning is more complex than one or two sentences, then you can express the key takeaway as a concept.  The ‘why’ inspires the heart to learn by sharing what is in it for them.  Finally, the ‘how’ should outline the training approach.  As discussed below, the approach will usually consist of waves of content followed by an activity followed by discussion.


By way of example, imagine that you are running a training session for account executives with the aim of teaching them how to write prospecting emails in a way that maximizes response rates.  This is the digital age equivalent of a cold call.  I would start that session as follows:  “Three hours from now, you are going to leave this room knowing how to write prospecting emails that will double your response rate.  If we do this right, then you will have an easy way to double your commissions.  Our workshop will cover three topics. One on crafting compelling subject lines, one on writing an effective elevator pitch, and one on formulating a call to action.  With each of these topics, I’ll provide an overview, then we will break out into groups of two for an activity, and then we will reconvene to share our experiences.  Let’s get started.”


Many trainers make the mistake of starting their sessions with a round of introductions.  This is a fatal momentum killer.  The point of training is not for people to get to know each other better.  The point is for them to learn something that will make them more productive or otherwise improve their lives.  If the idea of skipping introductions all together makes you uncomfortable, then it is safe to do so after the what-why-how kick-off.  This is most useful when the group and small and the participants do not know each other.  It is a good idea to provide guidelines for introductions to keep people from pouring out their life stories.  Name and function usually suffice.  Unless it is critical to the training, avoid introduction games or gimmicks such as having everyone share their favorite color.


An excellent best practice is to solicit questions from trainees early in the workshop.  This will help you to uncover their burning issues and what they want to get out of the day.  Since this tactic can open the floodgates on pent up energy and angst, you will need skill be successful.  To control the torrent, be upfront and crystal clear that you are going to capture but not immediately answer questions.  The temptation to answer will be overwhelming, especially for easy inquiries, but you must resist the urge.  So that people have a chance to adequately empty their bucket, record the questions in a visible place.  Make the commitment that every question will either be addressed during the training or be answered in a follow up communication.  Visibly and audibly check off the items that you have covered as you conduct the training (a good time is just before breaks).


Facilitate, do not lecture

A good way to think about the role of the facilitator is as a guide for each individual’s voyage of discovery.  The paths may be different, but the destination is the same.  Rather than preaching, you want to help people learn for themselves.  Style is important; great facilitators are enthusiastic, open, and knowledgeable.  You will know you have succeeded if participants view you as peer, partner, and collaborator.


In the most valuable training sessions that I have attended, I learned as much (and sometimes more) from my fellow travelers as I did from the trainer.  The trainers in those sessions were expert in three techniques.  The first one is actively encouraging participants to share their stories.  This happens as a natural consequence of asking open ended questions.  The second technique is using a modified version of the Socratic Method.  Rather than directly answering questions, skilled facilitators redirect queries to the group for problem solving.  The third practice is being an advocate for every individual in the group.  At its most basic, this means creating a safe environment where people can share openly, give feedback, and receive constructive criticism.  Moreover, advocates read body language and gently draw more reserved souls into the conversation.


Execute the content-activity-discussion training format

During the heart of the training, strive to deliver self-contained forty five to sixty minute modules.  By following the content-activity-discussion, you will achieve a 50/50 balance of formal instruction and experience.  In practice, that mix will keep participants engaged while absorbing knowledge.


During the activity portion of the module, begin by sharing the concept.  Since people imprint stories in long term memory better than facts, share a case study that illustrates what great looks like or what terrible looks like.  The whole world yeans for best practices and lessons learned.  For variety, mix things up with exercises that involve the entire group.


Once people have grasped the concept, it is time for the activity portion of the module.  Compelling training activities come in many forms.  The most effective format is pairing people up to role-play with one another.  The role-play must have a concrete objective; otherwise, people will lapse into purely social conversations.  If practical, you might even video capture selected role plays.  Other activities that work well include self tests with immediate results as well as individual competitions that have a public reward.  The reward may have nominal monetary value, but recognition alone is usually a powerful enough motivator.


Once participants have been exposed to the content and applied it during an activity, it is time to cement the concept by debriefing as a group.  If you captured some of the role-plays on video, then project to the group to reinforce learning and grab a few laughs along the way.  Encourage trainees to articulate their key findings and to ask any remaining open questions.  Keep the session upbeat by seeking positive comments ahead of constructive comments and strive to get feedback from everyone in the room.   Finally, review and visibly document each key take-away from the module.


Conclude by summarizing takeaways, building an action plan, and capturing feedback

Although you will have reviewed key findings at the end of each module, carve out time at the conclusion to run through the entire set of takeaways.  This is not only an opportunity to review the learning objectives, but also a chance to close any unanswered questions.  If there are questions that you do not know the answer to, that you do not feel are appropriate for the larger audience, or that are simply out of scope, commit to follow up as soon as possible after the session.


Even if you applied every best practice enumerated above and ran the world’s most amazing training session, your effort will be wasted if participants do not have ongoing opportunities to practice their new skills.  To give your instruction a fighting chance at sticking, dedicate time for each participant to create their own action plan.  If you engaged a senior leader to kick the session off with a call to action, then this is a good time to bring them back in to set expectations.


Last but not least, make sure to capture candid, anonymous, written feedback that you can use to refine the training.  Keep questions to the minimum necessary – think one side of one piece of paper.



Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to facilitate compelling training sessions:

  • Define the learning objective
  • Start scheduling immediately
  • Start the session with passion and purpose
  • Facilitate, do not lecture
  • Execute the content-activity-discussion training format
    • Conclude by summarizing takeaways, building an action plan, and capturing feedback


  1. Lesley Vos says:

    I’d like to share my takeaways from your article.
    – Continue to develop my ability to craft meaningful stories – like your opening physician story
    – survey participants before the class to help evolve the learning objective and gain buy-in
    – a good reminder to practice my opening so that you are sure to start with passion and purpose. I’m not sure that I agree with having leadership introduce you by sharing your credentials. I don’t think participants care about your resume and I believe it is my job as facilitator is to prove my value and demonstrate my relevant experience. Although having someone else state your credentials is much better than stating your own qualifications. I’ll have to try it.

    Thank you for expanding my mind today!

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