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Engaging the Elephant in Training

In her wonderful book, Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen likens our brains to a rider on a elephant. The rider is the conscious part of the brain that CONTROLS. The elephant, however, is everything else—feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, intuitions. This is the part that WANTS.

We often overestimate the rider’s control over the elephant. If the elephant really wants to do something else, the rider can only exert so much self-control before it is exhausted and the elephant gets its way. It takes a lot of energy and attention for the rider to remain in control, and that energy is limited.

Elephant in training

In training, we expect our participants to exercise self-control, but we also need to attract and engage their elephants so that they can divert energy from self-control into learning. Recently I have been thinking about the things in training that cause me to disengage. My elephant rears back and trumpets its distress, making my rider work hard to keep control. These are some things that we should avoid in training to be more effective and engaging.

The first is presenting long formal learning objectives. Learning objectives are for learning professionals and are vital for designing a good course. But learners don’t need them, and because of the formal language, it can take a lot of brainpower to translate them. Instead, just let learners know what will be covered in the course—in simple, straightforward language. An agenda that lays out the topics to be covered in the class is sufficient. The elephant does want to know what is going to happen and what they can look forward to, but it doesn’t want to work to find out.

I also get disengaged whenever there is an activity that requires every person in the class to say something to the whole class, one at a time. My elephant starts thinking about what I’m going to say and only hears maybe half of what is said, or it starts thinking about my to-do list, a recent unpleasant incident, what I am going to eat for lunch, my evening’s plans, or any of a dozen other things instead of what each person is saying. If the class has fewer than 10 people in it, I can control my elephant well enough to take in what everyone is saying. Once there are more than 10 people in the class, my elephant starts to wander.

The alternative is to have people write things on whiteboards or flipcharts or post-it notes that are then displayed. Summarize what you see to the rest of the class or have everyone do a “Gallery Walk” and put stars on other people’s pages next to anything that stands out to them. My elephant tends to behave when I walk around and write on things.

At the beginning of training, I often have flipcharts with questions on them hanging around the room when people arrive and immediately I get participants involved in writing their answers to questions such as, “What do you most want to get out of this training?” or “What is your biggest concern about <topic>?” I may also have a timeline for them to mark with how long they have been in their job and their title, and maybe their company name or whatever information might be helpful to know. We don’t have to take precious classroom time then to do introductions one-by-one while all the elephants in the room get restless.

Another thing that disengages me in training is when the instructor asks unclear questions or asks a question and doesn’t wait long enough for answers. My elephant starts to sulk and wanders off to pay attention to something else or nurses a grudge because I was confused or didn’t get to answer. A trainer who asks clear questions, taking the time to phrase the questions clearly and then waiting for an answer is much more engaging. Elephants like to interact with others, so make sure to allow space for that by asking interesting questions and waiting for responses.

Slides full of bullet point text are also disengaging. It is even worse if the trainer reads these word-by-word. Either give me the text to read and mark-up myself—and get through a lot faster, OR give my elephant relevant visuals and stories to engage my interest. The trainer could allow participants to tell stories by asking how they might use the information presented or to tell about a time when they experienced a certain kind of problem, or have them construct relevant scenarios for use in class.

When the trainer is a “talking head,” meaning they talk and talk and talk without asking questions or allowing others to ask questions, giving minute detail information that the audience is not able to absorb, my elephant disengages. Elephants like to interact and they like to be surprised. Trainers who look for information that doesn’t seem to fit together and ask the participants to resolve the discrepancy, who do the unexpected to highlight important information, who ask interesting questions, and who allow and encourage participants to figure things out for themselves are using the element of surprise to engage the elephants. They are not being “talking heads” with the focus totally on themselves and what they have to say, but instead these trainers are putting the focus where it should be—on the participants.

Elephants are engaged by moving around, interacting with others, seeing strong visuals, hearing stories, and by being surprised. Your participants will be much more engaged in your training if you take the time to incorporate all of these elements into your training.

Before doing your next training, ask these questions:

  • How can you incorporate more participant movement and interaction?
  • Are there more relevant diagrams and pictures you can use to help clearly convey information?
  • What stories can you tell to help illustrate the content?
  • Are there places where you can have participants tell the story?
  • What puzzles can you pose for participants?
  • What interesting questions can you ask?
  • What can you do that would be unexpected and thereby make a moment more memorable?

I would love to hear some of your answers. Please share yours in the comments!

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