A two-day seminar on the topic of ‘Executive E-mail Writing' for fifteen participants at one of the world's largest auditing companies. That's what I had been asked to deliver. Despite having plenty of experience, it was still a daunting challenge given the fact I hadn't walked into a training room to conduct a workshop or seminar in almost three years. It was time to put my trainer hat on and get back into the groove.
I've taught at this company's Bangkok office before so I'm not a complete stranger to them. Last year, I did a series of one-to-one coaching sessions with four of their management executives and the classes went OK. I can't find a better adjective than OK because I'm not a great fan of what many training providers market as ‘executive coaching' programs - one teacher, one management executive, one training room.
Years ago, I worked for a training company that marketed executive coaching and used to spin potential clients the following line - "think of your trainer as your own personal driver. You tell them exactly where you want to go. Perhaps you need to brush up your writing skills or practice your English conversation for those all-important networking evenings"
I thought it was a wonderful analogy. Think of your trainer as your own personal driver and tell them where you want to go. The problem is that most senior executives have no idea where they want to go. They are constantly stuck at the traffic lights.
If you've done any ‘executive coaching' and your executive student has been motivated and full of ideas for possible lesson content, then I tip my hat to you. I've always found the experience to be like pulling teeth. Executives often start such a program with the best intentions but the constant phone call interruptions and the pressure of falling behind with their ‘proper' work soon means that your wonderful executive coaching sessions are pushed way down the priority list.
I wouldn't mind a dollar for every time I've turned up for an executive coaching session with shiny shoes and my best smile, and upon asking Khun Somtee, The Accounting Manager, what he'd like to do today, Khun Somtee has replied with a shrug of the shoulders and the words every trainer in this situation dreads - "it's up to you".
Wrong answer. That's not what executive coaching is about and that's not how it's sold.
A two-day seminar with fifteen participants on the topic of E-mail writing is a whole different ball-game however. It's a chance to show off the best of your classroom management skills and make the rather ‘dry' topic of e-mail writing as exciting as possible.
I relish teaching jobs like this. Give me adult groups any day. And give me a topic I'm passionate about!
Generally, there are only two business training courses that I will touch - e-mail communication and presentation skills. I love both of these topics with a passion. And just as a salesman will never successfully sell a product he doesn't believe or trust in, I'm a great believer in that you can't teach a workshop or seminar on a topic that you're not passionate about yourself.
Although e-mail communication and presentation skills courses are very much in demand right now, many training providers also market English language seminars and workshops on the topics of meeting skills and negotiation skills. I've taught both of these courses a number of times but fail to see the point of them. I've never conducted a two-day course on either negotiation or meeting skills and felt that the program has been truly worthwhile.
In meeting skills programs, as the trainer, you are expected to arm Thai junior management staff with phrases such as "OK let's get the ball rolling" and "does anyone have anything else to add to the discussion?" And then tell them it's perfectly OK to say "I'm sorry Khun Peter, but I don't entirely agree with you on that point" when Khun Peter is four levels above them in the company.
It's not going to happen. Not a chance. It's a waste of everyone's time.
I feel the same way about negotiation skills programs. You are either born a good negotiator or you're not. OK, one can become a decent negotiator over time but it's achieved by gaining experience in real negotiating situations - and not from taking part in a few awkward seminar role-plays.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, my two-day seminar on Executive E-mail Writing went pretty well and the company is interested in conducting more and rolling them out to more departments. You can't say fairer than that. So the main purpose of this article is to share with you some tips and advice to make your workshops and seminars go smoothly. These ideas certainly work for me.
Possibly the best book I've ever read on the subject of running a good seminar is ‘How to Run Seminars and Workshops' by Robert L.Jolles. It's a book I dip into for ideas rather than treat it as my bible, but it's a book packed with good advice. Robert Jolles has conducted training at some of the biggest companies in the USA and you instantly get a feeling that here's a guy who's experienced all the good and bad points of running a seminar. He's made mistakes along the way - and he's learned from them.
Here are my own tips. Some of them are touched on in Robert L. Jolles' book but certainly not all.
Get there early!
I always make sure that I arrive at a company at least an hour before the program starts on day one. There's nothing worse than the trainer who arrives five minutes before the start of a seminar, covered in sweat, and looking like he just got mugged in the elevator.
Firstly, there's my equipment to set up. For e-mail writing seminars, I have a laptop, a projector, and a wonderful piece of machinery called a document reader. It's basically a lightweight overhead projector that plugs into the main projector.
With a document reader, you can put a student's finished e-mail assignment on the big screen for all the other trainees to read and analyze.
Setting up equipment usually requires the assistance of the company IT guy. There are three kinds of company IT guy. The first one is the gentleman who appears the moment you walk into the training room and for whom nothing is too much trouble. The second kind of IT guy is the man who shows plenty of willing but seems to know nothing about which leads go into which hole. And finally the company IT guy who goes missing altogether and it takes five members of staff to track him down. May all your IT guys be the first kind.
Arrange the furniture before the trainees arrive.
Decide how YOU want the room to look and where YOU want the trainees to sit. In a presentations seminar, I like the good old semi-circle arrangement so I can get up close and personal with each trainee. For an e-mail seminar, I rely on a lot of pair-work so I tend to have trainees sitting in small clusters of four.
When I walk into a training room for the first time, the furniture is almost never arranged as I want it. It's time to summon up a couple of staff and get them doing some serious scene shifting.
Don't chat with trainees as they enter the training room.
You know those first tentative moments on the first day of a seminar when trainees trickle into the room looking like they're about to face the firing squad? Look busy with your notes or fiddle about with your computer but don't engage in conversation. Leave the room altogether if you have to. I've got nothing against a cheery good morning and a nice friendly smile but if you start having conversations with early arrivals about course content, you are playing your hand too early. Keep an element of surprise and start the seminar when it's supposed to start.
Expectations - why are the students / trainees here?
This for me is the most important part of any seminar or workshop. You've done your warm-up activity and your introductions, etc. You've got the group buzzing. They can't wait to get into the topic. But they're going to have to wait a while longer. As the trainer, I want to know their expectations. And I will ask them straight up - "why are you here?" "What have you come to learn?"
I write down all the trainees' answers on a large sheet of white butcher's paper. Don't write the expectations on a whiteboard and then rub them off. You want to keep that big sheet of butcher's paper until the last moment of the final day. I love butcher's paper anyway. It takes me back to my childhood, standing in the butcher's shop, and my mother asking for ‘three pork chops and some scraps for the dog'. I would look up at my mom, just a wide-eyed little boy, and say "Wow! Are we getting a dog" Great days!
On that first morning, once the trainees have given me their expectations, I will go through the list and either tick or cross them out. If something is not going to be covered in the seminar, I honestly think it best to let the trainee down right at the start.
I was conducting a seminar on presentation techniques a few years ago, and during the expectations session, when I asked the group what they hoped to go away with, one lady told me that she wanted to learn how to speak ‘beautiful English'.
I looked her straight in the eye and said I was sorry. This was a seminar on presentation techniques. Although we would cover certain expressions and phrases to help your presentations go smoother, this was NOT an English class. And I walked over to my butcher's paper and put a big X next to ‘want to speak beautiful English'
To be honest, the trainee looked a little crestfallen but you need to make sure that trainee expectations are realistic. As I said - let the trainee down early doors. Don't make them sit through a two-day seminar and wonder what they are going to get out of it.
Let me end this section on expectations with one great universal truth - and this will make you happy. When trainees know what topics will or won't be covered in the program, and you the trainer deliver what you say you will - you will get much better student surveys and evaluations at the end of the program. And all teachers want to be loved and appreciated.
Take breaks when the trainees need them
You've planned your seminar schedule. You are going to start the program at 9.00 and take the mid-morning break at 10.30.
I might well shoot for a 10.30 mid-morning break but if I can see participants are starting to yawn, fidget, scratch and check text messages on their phone - and it's only 10.15, I will take a break there and then. Always stay aware of energy levels and decreasing motivation or you will get to the stage where you are literally taking to yourself and the trainees will have switched off long ago.
The post lunch slump
I think the hour after lunch is the hour most trainers dread. It's that terrible post lunch slump.
This is not the time to tell the participants to carry on with the task on page 24 or to return to the discussion on levels of e-mail formality. It's time to get them out of their chairs and dancing around for ten minutes. It's the only way to beat the post lunch slump.
I know of one trainer who asks his trainees to all stand up and then says "Ok guys let's do some running on the spot. Come on! Lift those legs up. Wave your arms about at the same time"
And he will carry this out for five minutes until the trainees are either breathless or collapsing on the floor with laughter.
It's silly. You feel a bit of a fool asking trainees to do it. But by jingo - does it work!
I'll admit I don't really have the balls to stage impromptu aerobics sessions, but I always keep a list of boisterous, noisy activities for adult students up my sleeve. And depending on the group, I'll get them moving around the room - and beat that post lunch slump.
Don't go to lunch with students
This may surprise you and you might accuse me of being anti-social, but I never do lunch with students in the middle of a seminar day. If I am invited to lunch by the group, then I will lie and say that I have to meet someone or I need to make a few phone calls. Anything to get out of it. Going to lunch with the students is unfair on you and even more unfair on them.
I want to sit in a corner of a quiet restaurant or coffee shop - far from the maddening crowd - with just my notes and my thoughts (and my food of course) I want to think about the afternoon session and how I'm going to teach it based on what I experienced in the morning.
What about the trainees? They want to go to lunch as a group and chill out and be Thai again. They want to natter in Thai and talk about what they've learned. Or just gossip about me or other members of the Thai staff. I don't care.
But I do know one thing. The group doesn't want some farang instructor sitting with them and ‘poisoning' the atmosphere. Have some pity for the trainee who would have to sit next to you and ask you if you like Thailand and if you can eat Thai food just out of sheer politeness. It's no fun for them. It's certainly no fun for you.
I love that hour in a dark corner of a coffee shop alone with my thoughts.
Reassure Thais that it's not because they are Thai
Thai trainees often have the misconception that their e-mails are poor or their presentations are unexciting and difficult to follow.........because they are Thai and English is not their first language. They have this notion that English native speakers are all great at this stuff, when nothing is further from the truth. I tell the group that believe it or not, some of the worst presentations I've seen have been delivered by British or American speakers, and don't get me started on e-mail communication. There are plenty of native English speakers who don't appreciate what an e-mail subject line is or wouldn't know about e-mail clarity if it was tatooed across their forehead. Thai trainees are nearly always surprised. They think that every native English speaker is born to perform these tasks well.
If you've got any other seminar / workshop tips and advice, I would love to hear them.