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It’s the Activity, Stupid

Many trainers fall into the content trap and waste their time and resources. More
importantly, content-based training is proven to be ineffective.
Trainers are often pushed into the content trap by their clients, subject-matter experts, and
instructional designers. These people aid and abet each other in the belief that the key to
training effectiveness lies in analyzing, organizing, and presenting content to participants
so they understand and recall everything. Eventually, participants also fall into the
content trap and everyone believes there is a direct correlation between how much you
know and how well you perform on the job. They also believe that there is one – and only
one -- specific set of content that will guarantee perfect performance.

A Tragic Story of Training


Here’s how these people design training: They take a topic such as leadership and read a
lot of books and consult several subject-matter experts. Confused by different leadership
theories, styles, models, principles, approaches, and other things, they decide to place all
their trust on the latest bestseller or the most popular guru. They analyze and arrange all
the content using the BLM (“Be Like Me”) principle that postulates that if the
organization of the content makes sense to the training designer, it should make sense to
everyone else. They gleefully produce hundreds of PowerPoint® slides, graphics,
handouts, job aids, and glossaries. In the end, transmission these pieces of content
becomes the goal of training.
Trainers now present the content through a variety of modes: lecture, handouts, manuals,
and electronic page-turners. They make sure that participants understand everything and
can recall the facts, terminology, steps, principles, and what not. They also effectively
pass on their belief that once the participants master (and recall) this slice of content, they
should be able to perform perfectly on the real-world job.
After the training, everyone gradually find out that none of this stuff transfers to the job.
Participants can recall the five steps of communicating their vision and the seven
components of the vision statement. But they cannot apply any of this inert knowledge to
real-world job requirements. So the trainers (aided and abetted by subject-matter experts)
recall the participants and fill them with more content. They explain molecular details of
each step, complete with lists of things to avoid. They subdivide the seven components of
a vision statement and generate a total of 47 subcomponents.
This type of remedial training does not work. All of these content presentations appear to
have nothing to do with the realities of the job.

Practice and Feedback


Knowing and recalling the content does not automatically improve human performance.
What is urgently needed is practice and feedback. To provide this, participants must
participate in training activities that reflect real world context, require application of the
content, and provide constructive feedback.

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Does this mean that we should dump all content presentation and trust participants to
learn from activities alone? No, what I am suggesting is to provide participants with
content that is integrated with training activities. This is how we present content in an
appropriate context:
• We provide the minimal amount of need-to-know content before the training
activity as a part of briefing.
• We provide just-in-time content through coaching, job aids, and performance
support during the training activity.
• We facilitate sharing of additional insights, best practices, and adjustments
through debriefing and follow-up after the training activity.

Where Content Is Essential


What if the performance is directly related to understanding and recalling the content?
For example, salespeople should have fluent product knowledge at the tips of their
fingers. PR people must be able to rapidly recall the philosophy and mission of their
pharmaceutical company and spout off facts and statistics related to clinical trials, FDA
approval, publications in the New England Journal of Medicine, and alternative
explanations of why some patients died. They should be able to handle all types of hostile
questions during a crisis press conference.
It is clear that in both cases effective performance requires important skills such as
figuring out the customer’s real needs and keeping your cool during nasty questions from
a tabloid reporter. However, the fact remains that we need to train these professionals to
understand and recall appropriate pieces of content.
My advice in this situation is the same: Focus on training activities, not the content. The
content already exists somewhere in some form and depending on its location, you can
create a suitable activity to require participants to interact with the content and master it
at a greater depth of understanding and breadth of application.

Different Activities for Different Content Sources


When it comes to designing activities, trainers make one of these two mistakes:
1. They repeatedly use a couple of game formats (such as JEOPARDY® or
MONOPOLY®) to teach everything to everybody.
2. They assume that designing training activities is a complex and time-consuming
process — and give up easily.
Different types of templates are available for designing training activities rapidly and
effectively. Here are brief descriptions of the template types associated with different
content resources.
If the content is available in books, articles, handouts, and other printed
sources, use textra games to create your training activities. This type of activities
combine the effective organization of documents with the motivational impact of

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games. In textra games, participants read the assigned piece and play a game that
uses peer pressure and support to encourage recall and transfer of what they read.
If the content is available in the form of job aids, use application games. These
activities involve groups of participants to use the job aid for solving authentic
problems. The size of the group is gradually reduced until individual participants
are able to perform independently with the use of the job aid.
If the content is available as video or audio recording, use double exposure
activities which enhance the training value of recorded content. In a
typical double exposure activity, participants watch a videotape and
then play one or more games that help review and apply the new
concepts and skills.
If the content is primarily available in the form of disorganized bits of
information, don’t waste your time organizing them in a way that makes sense to
you. Instead, use item processing activities in which individuals and teams
generate, organize, and sequence ideas, facts, questions, complaints, or
suggestions. This type of activity enables participants to construct meaningful
categories and sequences from isolated items.
If bits and piece of the content is probably available among participants
(based on their existing experience and expertise) use structured sharing
activities which facilitate mutual learning and teaching among participants.
Typical structured sharing activities create a context for a dialogue among
participants based on their experiences, knowledge, and opinions.
If the content exists only inside the cranium of a subject-matter expert, use
interactive lectures. These training approaches involve participants in the learning
process while providing complete control to the training. Interactive lectures
enable quick and easy conversion of a passive presentations into interactive
experiences. Different types of interactive lectures incorporate built-in quizzes,
interspersed tasks, teamwork interludes, and participant control of the
presentation.
If the content is available online, use Bernie Dodge’s WebQuest approach. In
this special type of inquiry learning, participants collect information from the
Web. WebQuests focus on using the content rather than merely retrieving it. A
typical WebQuest requires participants to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the
content.
The simple idea behind all of these training activities is that participants learn, recall, and
apply the content better, if they interact with it.

An Acronym
People learn more effectively by actively participating in activities than by passively
absorbing the content. Yet, most trainers equate telling and training. My friend Andy
Kimble refers to the typical behavior of trainers as providing “mindless explanations”. He
claims that training activities provide genuine alternatives to mindless explanations.

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Genuine Alternatives to Mindless Explanations? Hmm…I wonder what would happen if
I take the initial letters of the key words in this phrase and create an acronym.

Useful Books
Finkel, Donald L. (2000). Teaching with Your Mouth Shut. Portsmouth, NH:
Boynton/Cook Publishers. (ISBN: 0-86709-469-9)
Nitsche, Pearl: Talk less. Teach more!: Nonverbal Classroom Management. Group
Strategies that Work. Charleston, SC: Create Space. (ISBN: 978-1453683637)
Stolovitch, Harold. Telling Ain’t Training. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press. (ISBN: 978-1-
56286-328-9)