How to Avoid the 7 Deadly Training Sins

These are the sins that cause people to walk out, complain, and otherwise torpedo your classroom training efforts.

Have you seen customer service improve since the pandemic? I haven’t. Of course, many organizations are short staffed—especially in the restaurant industry, where they often hire face-to-face employees who really don’t care about customer service.

Has your training improved since the pandemic? As I have periodically observed trainers in order to provide feedback to clients, I’ve seen apathy among trainers. It seems as though they just want to phone in their presentation. Sometimes the little things can make that a big difference.

7 Deadly Classroom Training Sins

Here are 7 Deadly Sins that really impact classroom delivery (don’t worry, while many also apply to virtual training, I’ll give you a separate list next time).

Sin #1: Appearing unprepared. It’s not that you’re not prepared, you simply appear unprepared. You reach for a handout but remember that you left it in the box in the back of the room so you have to go get it. You reach for your PowerPoint clicker and can’t find it in the mass of papers on the table. So you’re not unprepared—the handout is there and the clicker are there, but you appear unprepared because they’re not immediately at hand.

Sin #2: Not starting off quickly establishing a positive image. What kind of image do you want to project? Most people would say they want to project a positive one, a professional one, an approachable one. But they don’t do anything to deliberately achieve that. Years ago, research was published and written about in a book called “Contact: The first Four Minutes” by Dr. Leonard Zuni. In the book, he says that most people make up their minds about how they feel and what they think about another person in the first four minutes of meeting them. And actually, they make up their minds in the first minute and spend the next three minutes confirming it. So what are you doing in the first minute and the following three minutes to establish a positive image?

When you think about it, that first four minutes is not when your presentation starts. It’s when the participants walk into the room. Are you dressed professionally? The definition of that has changed over the years, but a guideline that has served me well is to dress a little bit better than your participants are going to be. So ,for example, if I’m teaching line workers who generally wear jeans and a long-sleeved work shirt, then for me, dressing professionally might be wearing slacks and a polo shirt or a long-sleeved patterned shirt. If I were presenting to executives, I would check to see what the dress code for them is. In Hawaii, it’s always going to be Aloha shirts, but anywhere else I’ve been, it has ranged from business casual to coat and tie. I can always become more casual. But it’s hard to take casualwear and make it appear more formal and professional. So give this some thought.

Sin #3: Ignoring Pike’s 15/15 rule. This somewhat relates to the first two sins. My goal is to always be available exclusively to participants 15 minutes before a class starts and 15 minutes after class finishes. I’ve seen too many trainers who are setting up right up to the last minute before class starts, and they seem to beat everybody out of the room when the class is finished. A friend of mine once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And the way they know you care is by being available and listening.

I might arrive at a class an hour before it starts and spend 45 minutes setting up everything and then the last 15 minutes I can focus on the participants. When the class is over, I touch nothing for the first 15 minutes—I interact with the participants. If the participants leave immediately, I’ll go about my business. But those first 15 minutes is reserved for them.

Sin #4: Handling questions improperly. I’ve seen trainers do this in several ways. First is the trainer who says, “Now, before we go to break, are there any questions?” Or “Before we go to lunch, are there any questions? Or “Before we go home are there any questions?“

Which participant wants to be the one who keeps everybody else from going on a break or to lunch or home because they now have a question? So the first part of the deadly sin is bad timing. Ask for questions after they come back from lunch or after they come back from a break.

The second problem is how we ask for questions. How many trainers have you seen (of course, you don’t do this yourself!) ask their class, “Are there any questions?” Some 80 percent of the time they don’t get any; 10 percent of the time, the person doesn’t have a question, they just want to argue; and 10 percent of the time, they have a question from Horshak (a character from an old sitcom called Welcome Back, Kotter. Every time Gabe Kaplan (Mr. Kotter) asked, ‘Are there any questions, Horshak would always shoot his hand into the air and say, ‘OOH. OOH, OOH!” The rest of the class would groan because they knew they were about to hear a totally inane question, the answer to which would have no value.).

So in most of my classes I say, “Get a group of three or four people together and you have two minutes to brainstorm what two questions you want to ask about anything we have covered so far.”

After two minutes, I ask, “Which group would like to ask the first question?” Whoever raises their hand first, that’s the question I answer. When I’ve answered the question, I make sure they agree I’ve answered it adequately and then I asked them to choose the next group to answer a question. We continue until our preestablished time has been reached or maybe I just answer one question for each group.

This method has the advantage of giving people a chance to think about their question. It also allows many other questions to be answered by the group. And it becomes the group’s question rather than any one person’s question.

Sin #5: Not starting and ending on time. I was a pastor. I never saw a congregation that was excited about me running 10, 15, or 20 minutes over in delivering my sermon. We might get excited when our favorite team finally wins after two or three overtimes, but we don’t want church or training to run over.

One solution I found is to chunk all of my content into “Need to know,” “Nice to know,” and “Where to go.” The need-to -now section of the workbook for a two- or three-day workshop might be 60 to 100 pages. The nice-to-know section might be another 60 pages. And the where- to-go section might be 10 to 20 pages. I know I can cover the need to know in a three-day program with probably two hours of spare time. I draw from some of the nice-to-know section, which can be valuable to the class and cover that so we come up to the total class time, including the two spare hours. If there are more questions during the regular class time or certain concepts that take longer for a class to understand than usual, than that two hours is a cushion.

Sin #6: Not involving the audience. No one ever put on evaluation form, “I wish there had been more lecture.” I always ask myself how can I help my participants to learn something without lecture. When I first started my training career, I had 19 alternatives to lecture. By the time I wrote the latest edition of my master trainer’s handbook, I had 67 alternatives to lecture. Now I have more than 90.

I do two things to help my preparation for involving the audience. First, I chunk all of my contacts using the 90/20/8 rule. We know from research that adults can listen with understanding for 90 minutes, but can only listen with retention for 20 minutes, so we need to involve them every eight minutes. The 90 and 20 comes from Tony Buzan in his book, “Use Both Sides of Your Brain.” The eight comes from my daughter, Rebecca, when she was in high school forensics because their speeches never went more than eight minutes because television doesn’t go more than eight minutes without a commercial break. So I did some research using ERIC, a higher education research database, and found that the average high school student in the United States is in class 14,000 hours by the time they graduate, but they have watched 19,000 hours of television.

Can you imagine teaching a group of participants who have had 19,000 hours of exposure to a medium that says you don’t need to focus for more than eight minutes before we give you a break? The application of this for me was to cut up all of my content into 20-minute chunks maximum. And then within the 20-minute chunk to look for at least three times in the 20 minutes when I could engage the participants in the content.

Sin #7: Using the evaluation form poorly. When do most trainers give out the evaluation form? My guess is about 90 percent do so at the end of the training. Would you agree? That’s the worst possible time to give out the evaluation form! The best time? Near the beginning. Within the first 30 minutes of a one-day or longer class, I hand out the evaluation form and say, “There are four things that are different about this form compared to others you may have seen. Get a partner and see what you can find.”

After a couple of minutes, I move from group to group, and they each give me one. Usually they have all the ones that I was thinking of.

My form evaluates four things:

  1. The content
  2. The instructor
  3. The environment and process
  4. The participants

Let’s focus on #4 because that’s the one virtually no one has ever seen. I ask if they have contributed to the learning of the other participants in the group, and they respond on a scale of 1 to 7. I also ask if the other participants contributed to their learning and again they rate them on a scale of 1 to 7. So this makes the evaluation form a performance appraisal form, and we are establishing the performance indicators before the appraisal period starts.

In most classes, I also split the groups up and asked them to come up with seven things that if I did them as the instructor, it would contribute to their learning. The other half works on seven things that if all participants did them, it would help everybody in the class to learn more effectively.

When the groups have done their work, we then finalize seven for the instructor and seven for the participants. Then I tell the participants that I’m willing to adhere to the seven they suggested if they will commit to adhering to the seven they came up with themselves. I’ve never had a group that did not agree. Why? Because of Pike’s third law of adult learning: “People don’t argue with their own data.”

My form also asks for their name and other contact information, along with their manager’s contact information. Why? Because this is also a customer service form. If, for some reason, I have not met their needs, I want to be able to follow up and correct that. If I don’t know who is submitting the evaluation, it’s difficult to do remediation. I also believe that anonymous evaluations have little value.

Another unique thing about my evaluation form is that I ask people to set three personal learning goals. Two-thirds of the way through the class, I ask them how they’re doing on accomplishing their personal learning goals so we know what we need to do to have everybody at 100 percent. I do this because many people come to class without knowing what the objectives of the course are—and they certainly haven’t personalized it to themselves. I want them to understand what’s in it for them as early as possible.

So there you have it—7 deadly sins and tips to avoid them. Let me know how they work for you. Drop me a note at with the subject line 7 Deadly Sins and share how you used this information. Then ask me for a copy of one of my evaluation forms, and I’ll send it free as a thank you for giving me feedback.

Until next time—add value and make a difference!