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Jonathan Saipe

Engaging the Non Techie Trainee

20 December 2007, Jonathan Saipe

Whenever I visit my accountant, we have a one hour session where he clearly explains my current set of accounts as well as the whys and wherefores of my latest tax bill. I listen to him carefully, absorbing everything he says and nod knowingly.

Whilst the accounting jargon is crystal clear during the meeting, you can bet your tax rebate that the minute I walk out of his office, I have forgotten everything I’ve learned and will be on the phone to him later that day.

The parallel with training non-technical delegates technical material is phenomenally similar. Take an SEO training course as an example. Whilst we often train technically literate developers or IT staff, our delegates are often made up of marketing or operational staff. Whilst their enthusiasm for improving search engine rankings knows no bounds (and rightly so given that SEO is such a topical subject), their technical grounding is limited.

So, how can we engage such delegates and ensure that they absorb and apply learned skills over a 7-8 hour course? And how can we ensure that their nods of approval actually translate into a permanent understanding of the subject matter?

Real case studies
Any training course that focuses entirely on strategy without citing real examples runs the risk of putting attendees to sleep very quickly. Learning strategy followed by an identifiable case study provides the perfect reference point or benchmark especially when the strategy is intangible. This applies to technical and non-technical material.
So, using our search engine optimisation example, when learning about on-page optimisation techniques or link building strategy, cite good and bad approaches using real-life examples in order that the delegate can understand the implications in real terms.

And of course, if the training course is carried out in-house (versus a public training course), use material directly relating to that company or the company’s clients or suppliers.

Providing exercises not only allows the trainer to gauge whether or not the delegates have grasped the material, but it also allows the trainee to test their own knowledge and ask questions accordingly.
Don’t fall into the “all chalk and talk” trap where you talk at the delegate for 8 hours in order to impress them with your vast knowledge.

Exercises can be carried out in small groups or as a whole depending on the group size. It is important to pitch exercises at the right level so as not to intimate or patronise.

When training delegates who are real beginners, we often refer to exercises as “quizzes” to appear less intimating; equally we might offer multiple choice answers to make the whole experience more enjoyable and less of a chore.

Technically competent delegates prefer to be challenged and will often be more than happy to get the answer wrong in order to learn an additional soupcon of information.

Audience participation
Audience participation tends to vary according to the group dynamic and whether the training course is public or in-house; the latter often being better for audience participation as delegates usually know each other.

Non-technical attendees on public courses often shy away from asking “obvious questions”, so it is very much down to the trainer or facilitator to spot that confused look in delegates and assess their understanding of the material.
Trainers or facilitators should also be wary of the more demonstrative delegates intimidating the more reserved ones – irrelevant of whether the subject matter is technical.

Drawing parallels
As mentioned earlier, technical material is often intangible and therefore hard to grasp if the delegate doesn’t perform technical tasks relating to the subject matter day to day. Drawing parallels with every day examples that are more tangible is a good technique to promote understanding.

For example, when discussing the importance of information architecture in web design and SEO, why not apply it to real architecture where the foundations of a building compare to the underlying technology, and the bathroom fittings apply to the on-page components that enhance the user experience.

Summing up and listing objectives
One of the most important things I learned at University was that the content of an essay or paper needed to be summarised in the opening paragraph in order to set the scene for the reader.

The same applies to training courses. Not only should you introduce the structure of the course from the outset but you should summarise learned material at the end of each section or module. Equally, when it comes to technical material, draw an overriding conclusion about the main technical components.

Also highlight the underlying objectives of that section, and if required, remind the delegate to perform a number of tasks relating to the technical material, in order that they can take away an action to perform not just knowledge.

Impromptu questions
Whilst no trainer wants to appear intimidating, it’s a useful to keep your delegates on their toes by asking them impromptu questions about learned material. We wouldn’t recommend picking out individuals but rather posing questions to the group to ensure they have understood key technical points. It’ll then be easy to assess whether their nods of approval actually translate into real understanding.

Frequent breaks
Last but not least, allow your delegates to take frequent breaks and supply lots of refreshments. Absorbing technical material to the technically illiterate is challenging at the best of times and losing concentration is certainly not going to the help the delegates’ engagement levels.