Trainer Talk: Feel-Good Training

Learner self-esteem often is overlooked in training programs. Remember to look for ways to build participants’ confidence, as well as their skills and knowledge.

By Bob Pike, CSP, CPAE, CPLP Fellow

One of the main purposes of any training program is for participants to leave feeling better about themselves—impressed with what they now know that they didn’t know
before, and what they now can do that they couldn’t do before. But we often overlook the affective domain: Do participants leave with a greater feeling of confidence that they can apply what they now know in the real world?

It is far too easy and, unfortunately, too common, for us to parade our subject matter expertise and training skills in a way that makes our participants feel they never could achieve our level of confidence and competence. Instead of leaving impressed with themselves, many trainees head back to their jobs intimidated.

Make Me Feel Important

For the first 10 years that I led train-the-trainer seminars, I used an easy-to-remember acronym as a reminder about keeping adult education centered on learners’ needs. I talked about all training participants being tuned into radio station WII-FM: What’s In It For Me. But then, in 1984, a Los Angeles seminar participant shared an idea with me that fundamentally changed how I approach training—that made me acutely aware of the importance of each trainee’s self-perception. He proposed that all training participants also are tuned into a sister station called MMFI-AM: Make Me Feel Important About Myself. That thought was seared into my mind as if etched by a laser.

That insight broadened my perspective of training and what it can accomplish. And I now strongly believe that one of our chief goals as trainers should be to help participants develop their own confidence and self-worth. So I ask, am I—are you—creating situations in the classroom that help people feel good about themselves and that help them have successful experiences? I’ve adjusted my training strategy in one key way to better meet that goal. I focus on helping participants demonstrate and increase competence, rather than demonstrating my own.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

In the early 1970s, I took a memory course from Jerry Lucas, who co-authored (with Harry Lorayne) one of the most successful memory books ever written, “The Memory Book.” It was a two-weekend seminar, and as we started on the first Saturday, he asked anyone he had met and shook hands with coming into the seminar to please stand. Then he went around the room and named every person standing—except for one. He kept looking at this one man and after a pause said, “Stay standing.” Then he continued, “Good morning, Peter. You can be seated, Betty, etc.” Finally, when everyone was seated, he looked at the lone man standing and said, “Thank you, Simon. You can be seated.” It had been a set-up. And we were all taken in.

Seven hundred of us were in that workshop, and our Jerry, who had met 200 of us at the door, had remembered who we were even though we now were sitting in random places throughout the room. Talk about a WOW factor! Were we impressed? You bet. Were we sitting there saying, “By the end of next Saturday, I’ll be able to do the same thing”? Not even close. Most of us were sitting there thinking, “I can never do that.” Did I learn a lot during that course? Absolutely. But when it came to memorizing names, there was that sense of intimidation—I can never be that good. And perhaps by extension a little bit of “so why even try?”

But for the next couple of years, when I taught memory skills for trainers to use in helping participants learn, I mimicked what I had seen. My standard way of teaching those skills began with a demonstration by someone who had mastered the skills…me. I asked participants to create a list of items, and after writing them down and numbering them 1 through 10, I would tell them to name one item on the list and I would provide its corresponding number…or I’d ask them to give me the number and I would name the item. People never failed to be impressed with my ability to memorize, yet what is more important is that they improve their own memories.

Bring It On!

So I decided to change my approach. Today, I begin my sessions by asking people to predict how well they could score on a 20-item memorization test. They get one point for each item they can remember and two additional points (for a total of three) if they remember the item in the correct place. A perfect score would be 60. I ask each participant to predict how well they will do, then have each team in the class average their members’ scores, and we post them. The average is generally somewhere between 18 and 30. Now we have a baseline. I then display 20 items on a PowerPoint slide for three minutes. I remove the list and then start talking about the approaches they might have used to memorize the list. In just a few seconds, there are murmurs and protests. People want to be tested right now!

My point, though, is that training is about learning for living rather than learning to pass. What good does it do to teach participants something in a class and then have them say, “Quick, test me right now. I know it right now. I may not know it in a day or a week, but I know it right now!” What is more important is that tomorrow when you need it—or next week when you need it or even two months from now when you need it—you still remember and can apply the knowledge and use the skills you’ve developed during training.

Then I ask the group to commit to following some simple steps with me (these are specific memory techniques, but I don’t intimidate them by using those words). My promise is that if they’ll focus with me for the next couple of minutes and do what I ask them to do, the average score per team will be more than 40, most teams will average more than 50, and at least 20 percent of the class will have a perfect score. Of course, they are willing to commit.

I then help them apply the seven ways to remember anything that we teach to the list. These are simple techniques that can be applied to any content. And then we test them again. The test scores soar. And so do participants’ attitudes. They go from fear about taking the test to an attitude of “Bring it on, I’m ready!” And they are. The next day I’ll ask them to get a learning buddy and repeat the list to each other. They are eager! Bring it on! They now are impressed with themselves, not intimidated by the instructor. It’s a little different way of looking at what people need from training. And it all stems from an attitude and strategy worth considering: Trainers should search for ways to help participants be impressed with themselves rather than impressed or intimidated by their instructors. Remember to look for ways to build participants’ confidence, as well as their skills and knowledge.

Is there a question you’d like me to answer in a future column or a comment you’d like to share? Just send me an e-mail at I’d love to hear from you. Until next time—add value and make a difference!

Bob Pike, CSP, CPAE, CPLP Fellow,is known as the “trainer’s trainer.” He is the author of more than 30 books, including “Creative Training Techniques Handbook.” You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook using bobpikectt.