Trainer Talk: Focus on the Fundamentals

Think of this column as earning continuing education credits for a course called, “Six Reasons Why Once You Can Run, You’d Better Not Forget How to Walk.”

By Bob Pike CSP, CPAE

Often in this space I write about “excellence”—what it takes for trainers to shine at what we do. I meet thousands of other trainers every year who, like you and me, always look for ways to be incrementally better at our work, to be like the professional baseball players who get three hits out of every 10 times at bat instead of 2.75 times out of 10. (The difference in pay between these two, by the way, is about $10 million per year!)

Something important to remember about those kinds of superstars: They don’t abandon the basics. You can be sure if Justin Verlander (National League MVP and pitcher for the Detroit Tigers) or Ryan Braun (American League MVP and left fielder for the Milwaukee Brewers) were trainers, they’d remember these fundamental rules. Think of this reminder as earning continuing education credits for a course called, “Six Reasons Why Once You Can Run, You’d Better Not Forget How to Walk.”

1. All visuals should be visible. Before you dismiss this rule as just too obvious, think of how many times you’ve heard trainers, public speakers, and other people who should know better say, “I know you aren’t going to be able to read this slide in the back, but…”

2. Audiovisual equipment should work. A friend relayed this story: A mayoral candidate in Minneapolis invested significantly in developing a video to kick off his campaign speech at his party’s convention. For several moments, there was picture, but no sound. Finally the sound came up, but it was virtually inaudible. It’s frustrating and counterproductive when technology fails (and often, it’s not the technology that fails—it’s that we have failed to prepare and check out the technology we’ll be using or teaching). Trainees expect the people running sessions to know how to use the equipment on hand. They don’t want their time wasted while we fumble with our tools.

3. There should be a proper blend of content and process. Too many trainers I’ve observed focus on one or the other. The key is to focus on both. It is not either content (the right stuff) or process (the right delivery method)—it is both content and process.

Too much information in too short a time equals information overload. As trainers, we may be covering the content but delivering it so fast that it doesn’t allow our participants to capture much of it in a useful way. We all need time to process, integrate, and apply what we learn. On the other hand, too much focus on process leaves people wondering, “Where’s the beef?” There just isn’t enough practical takeaway value to justify the time and energy each participant is expending—let alone the money the organization is investing in making the training possible.

4. There must be time for reflection. If learners don’t have time during class to think about how to apply what they are learning, chances are slim they’ll make time to think about it—or use it—after class either. Reflection time during training allows each participant to create an action plan on how they’ll apply the new knowledge, skills, and attitudes they are developing back on the job. If they don’t create this action plan during the training, chances are they won’t create one once they are back on the job. Remember that the purpose of training is to deliver results, so our training isn’t over until we see things happening differently back on the job. Action planning that comes as a result of reflection during the training is a critical factor in getting results.

5. The content of the training should be relevant. Drawing rave reviews from attendees is great, but if the material doesn’t affect behaviors and performance on the job, it’s a waste. We always need to think about how we’re helping people do their jobs faster or better or safer. What benefits do they gain? What losses are avoided? And what benefits is the organization gaining—and what losses is it avoiding?

6. The material should be current. It is difficult for learners to stay focused on old information. And the last thing trainees want to do is sit idle while we make notes and alterations in our training materials to bring them up to date. Or worse yet, watch as trainers back pedal when participants point to out-of-date or irrelevant content we have no business presenting. It’s our obligation to change our materials before we walk into class.

This may sound like commonsense stuff. But I fear in our enthusiasm to be superstars, we sometimes swing so hard for home runs that we end up missing the ball altogether. In virtually every sport, when an athlete’s performance starts to suffer, the first thing every coach suggests is going back to the basics—going over the fundamentals that, when put together, provide the world-class performance the athlete wants and the fans expect.

I began this article by using baseball as a metaphor, but let me conclude by casting a wider net and including all of the sports that were contested at the London Olympic Games by the time you read this. In every sport, the athletes who mounted the podium were the ones who best mastered and executed the fundamentals of their respective sports. Whether in track and field, soccer, swimming, cycling, diving, basketball, or any of the more than 300 events that produced gold-medal performances, it will be the athletes who best prepared and then executed the fundamentals who were honored most frequently.

I close by reiterating my six Ps: Proper Preparation and Practice Prevent Poor Performance. Until next time—add value and make a difference.

P.S.: I made one deliberate error in writing this article. Most of you reading this won’t even notice, but for a few of you, the error will be so troublesome that you might dismiss the value of the content of the rest of the article because of this “little” mistake. And if this had taken place in a class and the one or two learners who caught it circulated the mistake to other participants rather than bringing it up to me as the trainer, the value of the training could have been significantly diminished because I either didn’t know or didn’t care—or I was just plain sloppy.

And that’s the danger for the seasoned professional, isn’t it? We may reach the point where we have so much knowledge and experience that we think the fundamentals don’t apply to us anymore—we’ve reached another level; we’re beyond the basics. But know this: High performance always is built on the basics, the fundamentals—it doesn’t replace them.

What was the “little mistake”? I deliberately switched the leagues for the MVPs. Verlander is the American League MVP; Braun is the National League MVP. You might be thinking this really doesn’t make any difference. But if you’re a baseball fan living in either Milwaukee or Detroit, you’d say it makes a big difference. If I’m so sloppy in these obvious facts, what else is there about my content, my analysis, my expertise, and my recommendations that might be suspect? My credibility and ability to influence has been significantly affected by a “little mistake.” Remember, it is the little things that can make a big difference.

So, if you’re one of those who caught the error when first reading the article, I’d love to hear from you about what went through your mind when you caught it—and what you were thinking as you continued reading (of course, some of you may have just stopped reading and, therefore, never saw my “reveal” at the end—just as someone might stand up and walk out of a presentation or training program because they decide the presenter isn’t credible). Send me an e-mail with your thoughts on this article—my e-mail is

Bob Pike, CSP, CPAE, 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.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.