Better Training Through Show, Not Tell

Depending on the audience and the presentation, a trainer may need as high as a 90/10 ratio in favor of showing over telling.

By Frank Ryle, PMP, Senior Trainer, International Institute for Learning, Inc.

“You need to be able to show us and not tell us what we need to know.”

This was probably the biggest tip I ever received early in my career as a corporate trainer in project management.

A successful trainer needs to have or develop the ability to transfer knowledge and skills using engaging, interactive devices. He or she needs to be able to balance the needs and pace of the class with lecturing and interaction. Imagine for a moment how a golf coach would struggle with a room full of excited golfers and a six-inch-thick binder of instructions. Or another thought experiment: Imagine reading a bedtime story to your kids from a PowerPoint presentation on your laptop.

Depending on the audience and the presentation, a trainer may need as high as a 90/10 ratio in favor of showing over telling. Here are some tips and examples to help improve your Show/Tell ratio (STr) and get more interactivity into your training:

1.  Divide your group into “pods” with no more than five people in each pod. This will allow much greater participation for two reasons.

·  There will be less “free-loading” as team members will not allow some to slack while others pay attention and ask questions.

·   The human ear operates best at about the diameter of five people in a circle. This enables small group conversations to pick up much better on tone, as well as content.

2.  Allow and plan for frequent e-mail breaks. These have become the new “norm” to replace cigarette breaks of old.

·  This will allow students to deal with niggling issues and direct focused attention to your next exercises. Perhaps we have discovered a new physiological need (Maslow) that needs to be satisfied before other, higher needs can be met.

3. Limit yourself to no more than five slides between activities.

4. Ask yourself continuously: Would I listen to/participate in this?


As a trainer, you can get more interactivity into your training by taking a concept and making it into an exercise. The goal of these mini-exercises is to get the students to say something they might not ordinarily say without changing perspectives. Set up the class where each group/pod writes their “issues” pertaining to a relevant topic on a flip chart. Assume there are four pods or approximately 16 students for this exercise. Ask one group member to stay with the flip chart to record actions. Ask the other team members to rotate counter-clockwise.     

Exercise 1: “If you can get them to say it—then it is true.”—Socrates

For the first activity, group members must assume the perspective of board members or senior management of their own company. Ask them to provide advice and solutions.

For the second activity, they rotate again and assume the perspective of a vendor working with the company. Again provide advice and solutions.

For the third activity, they assume the perspective of a character like Dr. House (played by Hugh Laurie), who is permitted to be brilliant but blunt. For fun here you can limit the advice to “Surgery required,” or “We all hurt. Take two aspirin.”

Exercise 2.: “Speak to me in a language I understand and it goes to my head—speak to me in my language and it goes to my heart.”—Nelson Mandela

The goal of this exercise is to allow the students the opportunity to express ideas in another person’s vocabulary.For this exercise, ask the students to pair with a colleague.

Ask the pair to quiz each other on four topics (languages, hobbies, sports, and music) and to capture differences under their name on a table or flip chart.

Now ask them to describe a work-related issue to each other with some accompanying symptoms.

In turn, each student should address the other student’s issue using only words, analogies, and metaphors derived from that student’s side of the table.

Of course, there are many other tips and examples that can help you improve your delivery. Two key points remain: You must prepare for the greater demands that this type of training puts on your facilitation skills and your body. So get to know each student well before you start the exercisesand buy yourself a very comfortable pair of shoes.

Frank Ryle, PMP, is author of “Keeping Score: Project Management for the Pros” (IIL Publishing, April, 2012,, which uses lessons from playing golf to teach a practical approach to project management. He is a senior trainer with International Institute for Learning, Inc. A passionate golfer, Ryle has more than 20 years of international engineering project management experience and an additional 11 years as a teacher of the discipline and art of project management. He has taught more than 10,000 students in 22 countries across a range of industries, including banking, IT, accounting, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing.

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