Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What trainers can learn from the art of Public Performance

While a lot of training is science and has to do with how people learn, research in instructional theory and neuro linguistic programming, the one thing that none of this science can hold good without, is presentation and performance. Now some of my more informed readers will scoff and say "Performance!??" and I will go back and say a little louder, "Yes! P E R F O R M A N C E!". There's a very good reason I say this. Think of some of the most enjoyable sessions you've attended -- did the trainer display humour? Possibly yes! Think of the most engrossing sessions you've attended? Did the trainer display great speaking skills? Possibly yes! Think of the sessions from which you remember the learning most clearly? Did the trainer create a compelling experience? Possibly yes!

If your answer to any of the above questions was "Yes." then you'll perhaps agree about the element of performance in training. If your answer is "No" to all three questions, then I'm sorry I think you're just being difficult! Well anyways, having coached trainers for years now, I realise that as a tribe we can take great inspiration from the cult of street performers and tour guides. Why is this important? Its important because we as trainers owe it to our audience to give them the most engaging, interesting and entertaining learning experience possible. Its also important because we owe it to ourselves to be engaging speakers and to not be "insufferable bores".

Anyways, I've recently been in London as you all may know and I'm intrigued by how many lessons we trainers can learn from London's street performers and from the Yeoman Warders at Tower Bridge.

I have two very typical examples for you to examine as evidence of what I'm saying here. The video above is that of a street performer on South Bank. Its a two part video and it shows what London street theatre is all about.

My second example below, is a five part video of a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, giving tourists a guided tour of the fortress.

Please do look through these videos and you'll get my drift sooner or later. There are a few key things for trainers to keep in mind to keep their performance at the very highest level. Here are a few things I tend to do and have learnt to do, from examples such as the ones I've shared with you.

Start with a bang

If there's anything that sets the tone for how your session is going to be, its how you start it. This is where you grab people's attention by making them feel, "Yaay! This is going to be a hell of a session!". Please please don't speak so softly that you can't hear yourself. If you don't want to be creative about your beginning, then the least you should do, is begin with a loud voice. Gain everyone's attention with a LOUD "Hello everyone!", at the very minimum. If you are nervous, get the monkey off your back and ask a question, or ask for a show of hands. That gets the audience involved early. I do not recommend using contraceptive devices as props in a classroom, but see how the performer begins his show in the first video. Creativity is perhaps your best friend here!

Modulate your voice

A consistently loud voice and a consistently soft voice are both not recommended. Remember modulation and volume are two very different things. A great performer should be able to make a whisper audible at the end of a large room. In fact I remember that in acting classes I took at school, this is exactly what we used to be taught. I remember I took a few singing lessons before I started to croak and we were asked to sing "Do Re Mi" at various volumes and speeds. I haven't been able to pinpoint a technique that has worked for me, so I'll ask you to pick a technique that works for you. But remember that the change in your message is best illustrated by your expression and the change in the tone of your voice. Watch the Yeoman Warder videos for examples of how he does this.

Interact with your audience and steal their attention

If you notice the Yeoman Warder videos, you will notice that none of his segments are more than 10 minutes long. Even the slightly long ones have various pauses and interjections where he allows time for the audience to laugh, gasp and ooh. Most adult brains cannot process information for any longer than 6 minutes without any stimulation. That stimulation could be your interaction with the audience. Often you ask a closed ended question and you don't get a response. Watch out for how the street performer goads his audience to encourage him. In a situation where I'm not getting a response, I sometimes stop and ask the class, "Yes, No, Maybe?". If they're still unresponsive, I have a few ways to make them respond even then. The key is to find your own ways. Find a way to steal attention if you aren't getting attention. Having a super loud "Alarm Voice" is not a bad idea as well.

Humour is your best friend

Make a conscious attempt to use humour in your sessions. Find out spots in your session plan where humour is relevant and appropriate. Bring in your life experiences to make training colourful and enjoyable. Be self-deprecating if necessary. Check how the Yeoman Warder talks about himself being a resident of the castle in video 2 and you'll see what I mean. If you notice, he's subtly made the point that Yeoman Warders reside in the Tower of London with their families and are not medieval creatures but technology savvy denizens of the digital world (the Facebook reference). Watch how he answers yet deflects the question about why Anne Boleyn was beheaded with a sword in video 5. He keeps his answer short, yet uses humor to ensure that the audience member is not offended. This is a dextrous skill and hey, it takes practice. The Yeoman Warders have been doing these tours for years -- each day of their life! So obviously, they've had some practice. How about you do yours?

Stick to ONE theme

I can't help coming back to the Yeoman Warders. They are just so A W E S O M E! While he gives you nuggets of history about the castle, the crown jewels and the weaponry displayed in the White Tower; his main theme is prisoners, executions and torture. He sticks to that theme throughout. Guess why? Because the audience wants it. How is what you are teaching addressing what your audience wants? Have you tugged at that cord? Is it useful to keep tugging at that cord throughout the session? Food for thought, I would think.

Tell a story, don't convey facts

Yes, we're expected to give students a lot of information. But is the information an end, or a means to an end? I'm sure you'll agree its the latter. How do you deliver information in a way that's relevant to what you expect students to do in the end? Watch how the Yeoman Warder doesn't just point out buildings and give you history. He's setting context and he's telling a story. You want to know all of the details because in your head you're playing a bit of a movie about how people get locked in the tower and eventually executed. The pieces of information you get, about the position of archers, the methods of escape, the origins of the soldiers guarding the Queen's house are incidental. They are part of the story. What's your story?

Show some passion

I must be serious about this and though this may seem cliche, "I wouldn't be doing my job, if I wasn't passionate about it!". In fact, I don't see what else I would have done in life. I wouldn't trade my job for anything else. I do this because I'm devoted to it. I strongly believe that if you're passionate about something, it shows. I'm passionate about training. Maybe you're a Subject Matter Expert and you're passionate about your subject matter. The key is that if you're training a group of people, you need to either be passionate about creating learning or about the subject matter you're responsible to deliver. If you're passionate about neither, then I'm sorry you should avoid training that session. Really, I'm serious about this. Forget about the two videos above. Look at TED Talks. Pick a talk you liked and you'll realise that part of what got you hooked was the fact that the speaker was passionate about the topic. In fact I cannot, and I repeat - I cannot remember a talk/ presentation/ training session I've enjoyed where the trainer didn't display any passion. I have no great love for Steve Ballmer, but if you haven't seen the video above I seriously recommend you do. Love him or hate him, a man can't work up a sweat like that when talking, if he's not passionate. I have to give it to him and so did the audience.

Now obviously if you're doing this for the first time, then all this will not be easy. I recommend though that you seek feedback from a seasoned practitioner and work on their suggestions painstakingly. I am a great believer in setting high goals and high standards. Set yourself the highest standard possible and back yourself to achieve it. To repeat an oft repeated line, "Practice makes perfect."

To add to all this of courese, presentation skills matter and if you found my thoughts above useful, you may find my other posts on training and presentation skills useful too. Read through them if you like and I hope you enjoy watching the videos I've posted!


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