How To Get The Most Out Of An External Trainer
A few heartfelt tips and ideas for making sure you really get the most from your training budget…
Over the last 20 years, I’ve delivered several hundred training courses and workshops on topics like writing for the web, digital copywriting, content marketing and tone of voice. I’ve also booked quite a few courses for our teams internally, and attended a fair few courses myself.
All of which has got me thinking about how to make sure you the make the most of an external trainer. Whether it’s email marketing or Google Analytics, presentation style or customer service best practice, the way you approach the planning, delivery and follow-up of the day can have a big impact on its ROI…
Be very clear and realistic about what you want from the course.
The most effective training is the result of a clearly-defined requirement. As with any planning, you need to start with the end in mind, and ask some key questions like:
What concrete problem or skills gap do we hope this training will address?
Who specifically is the training for?
Is the desired result realistic, given the available time and budget that will be allocated to it?
How will we able to follow up on the training, to make sure that learnings get embedded into the team?
Realism is important too. If you are hoping to train 30 non-writers in how to become expert bloggers in the course of a 3-hour session, your are likely to be disappointed.
Better to trim your ambition eg: ‘Introduce the group to the best-practice principles of blogging, and identify a smaller set of trainees with the potential to become expert bloggers for us.’ Training is often a step on the way to the achievement of a goal, not always the whole goal in itself.
Push back on training for training’s sake.
Sometimes a course gets booked because there’s some training budget to use up, or because a senior person has seen a talk or read a blog post they like, and thinks it would be useful to get the author/speaker in and share their insights with the whole team. But unless you can turn this desire into something strategic, the result is likely to be less than satisfactory all round.
Spend time briefing and liaising with the trainer beforehand.
A good trainer will usually want to make this happen anyway, but it’s not enough to brief a course out via a pitch document and some emails – or just at one remove, via the Learning and Development Manager.
External trainers are likely, by definition, to be ignorant of your internal issues, challenges, politics and so on. And only you know best what your team’s real needs are.
So filling the trainer in on your business priorities, stakeholder sensitivities, operational constraints and the like can help avoid them trying to cover topics that aren’t central to you or teaching people to change things that can’t be changed, and to focus instead on realistic wins.
Think hard about the make-up of the group
It’s tempting to fill all available places on your training group, which can mean you end up with interesting diversities, such as the intern doing pair-work with the senior business analyst, or a silo of customer service people surrounded by a cabal of marketeers.
Sometimes this mixing up can be very valuable and part of the learning process itself – I’ve done lots of courses where part of my brief has been to help different groups get to know and understand each other’s roles better. But sometimes it isn’t: if you have a group of very mixed abilities or responsibilities, the trainer will inevitably have to sacrifice depth for breadth in their material. Which may well be the exact opposite of what you want.
Think hard about group size
A related point to make here is that around 8 people is considered by communication experts to be the optimum size for effective group interaction. The right group size for you will depend on the nature of the course, of course, but it’s a safe bet that the bigger the group gets, the less scope there will be for interaction and detailed individual feedback. Which again may be the opposite of what’s required.
Look for ways to tailor the course material
In my experience, courses often fail to be fully effective because the trainer doesn’t have enough understanding of the trainees’ daily challenges. The flipside, of course, is that the very best courses are often those which feel really tailored to people’s needs.
When I do bespoke copywriting training, for instance, I always try and arrange for an email to go out beforehand asking attendees to submit examples of their work and to raise any issues or questions they’d like to see covered on the day. Sometimes it takes a nudge from management to get people to respond, but the training is always massively improved when it can be informed by such real-life inputs.
Don’t overlook the logistics
It sounds obvious but it’s important and too often overlooked – I’ve wasted lots of valuable training time trying to find the right room, or getting a presentation re-sent because I’d understood it was going to be pre-loaded on the client’s laptop. So make sure you nail down the practicalities:
Technology: Is the trainer to bring their own laptop? Will they need internet access? Will there be someone on the day to help set up?
Venue: How should the room be set out?
Timing: How long will the day last? When should the breaks be?
On the day: Where exactly does the trainer need to go when they arrive? Who should they ask for at reception etc?
Make sure you gather feedback – from trainees and trainer
Draft a simple feedback form designed to elicit comments that map back to your initial briefing requirements. Keep it simple - better to get a few thoughts from everyone while it’s fresh than just a few belated responses to a very in-depth questionnaire. You can always follow up in person on any key themes that emerge.
It’s a good idea to get feedback from the trainer too. Often, they’ll have valuable thoughts about which people have demonstrated the most potential in the area. And their perspective can provide a useful corrective to people’s own subjective assessment of their skills: sometimes a trainee who is at a low level in a skill will lack the insight to realise same.
Think hard about embedding learnings
Too often, training courses leave a warm, fuzzy feeling for a day or two, then get forgotten as people get caught in business-as-usual once again. So look at what you can do to make the impact of the training extend a little deeper into your working culture…
Are there are any assets that the trainer provided that could be circulated and discussed?
Could you organise for some trainees to present back what they learned at a wider team day?
Did the trainer offer any follow-up services (eg feedback on projects or follow-up phone calls) that you could make use of?
Are there any issues or learnings from the feedback that you could take up and turn into action points to raise with management, perhaps, or help you build a business case for further development activity or a process change, for instance?