How do you make your training matter to your employees?

Written by Teresa Ewington on 22 July 2014 in Features

Training doesn’t help one jot if people can’t remember it in the real world, Teresa Ewington says

It’s 3am and you’re out on call. You’re in a situation that’s about to turn nasty. Luckily, you attended a training course about handling exactly this kind of thing last year. If only you could remember what the trainer talked about.

So how do you make training matter? That’s the burning question. Well, a good place to start is by making it memorable. Because it’s all well and good if people engage with it while they’re in the training room, but training doesn’t help one jot if people can’t remember it in the real world.

Making memories

There are a lot of scientists looking at the way our memory works. What’s coming out loud and clear is that it’s not just one part of the brain that’s responsible for memories. Instead, memories involve the whole brain. Dr Richard C. Mohs writes brilliantly about this subject. He’s the vice-chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He’s done lots of research on cognitive function. Dr Mohs says that the process of memory begins with encoding, proceeds to storage and, eventually, retrieval.

If our brains are made up of different parts, creating, storing and recalling our memories, then we need to play to those parts to create the memory in the first place.

How do you do that?

By being creative. But what does that mean and how far do we go? I think a good place to start is by using the criteria the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (part of the Department for Education) came up with.

They characterised creativity as:

*         questioning and challenging

*         making connections and seeing relationships

*         envisaging what might be

*         exploring ideas, keeping options open

*         reflecting critically on ideas, actions and outcomes.

Now that feels like a great checklist to review our training against. Delivering something that’s interesting means it’s arousing curiosity. If we think back to what Dr Mohs says, then maybe we need to spend time thinking about what we’re really ‘encoding’.

This is doable

And in lots of different ways too. Show people they can expect something different straight away. Show it in what you call your session and what they’ll get out of it.

Let’s take a time management workshop as a prime example. It sounds boring and almost like a punishment for the people ‘advised’ to go on it. Change the title to ‘getting the job done’ and suddenly the course becomes much more relevant. And, ultimately, it’s what the course is really all about.

In our writing workshops we want people to remember that if they’re stuck on a bit of writing, there’s a simple technique to get them out of it. We get them to re-write a bit of business writing in the style of a fairy tale or political speech. It encourages them to try a different approach. It shows them what they’re capable of. And it helps it to stick in their mind. When we’ve followed up after our workshops, it’s something people remember long after the course has finished.

Feature or benefit?

This feels like a good spot to talk about features and benefits. I think we’re sold the features first and benefits, well, sometimes never. But it’s the ‘what’s in it for me’ bit that people want to hear.

Let’s go back to that ‘getting the job done’ session. We looked for the real benefits of going on it. We came up with things like: handling your blood pressure, getting to see your kids before they go to bed, watching your favourite TV programme (instead of worrying about the job you didn’t finish today).

It makes the training more personal. It makes it relevant. And most importantly, it makes it memorable.

Don’t be ruled by the rules

 In 2010 Ofsted did a survey of 44 schools that were using creative approaches to learning. They found some terrific stories and evidence for why it works. Recently, though, the Centre for Pedagogy at the University of Sunderland found that teachers are making lessons ‘dull’ in order to pass Ofsted inspections. The belief appears to be that to get an ‘outstanding’ you have to follow the rulebook word for word. Even when the evidence clearly points to the opposite.

Or the rule-makers

Do you have people who prefer the straight and narrow inside your organisation? Are they dictating your design process? Perhaps there’s a belief that being creative means spending more money or more time. And perhaps sometimes it might.

But we’re trying to create meaningful memories here. And if you’re limiting time and money, you’re also limiting the memories you create. We have to be honest about that, instead of cramming as much learning as we can into a suitcase. And then sitting on top of it to zip it up. Sometimes I think we leave learners feeling like that’s exactly what’s just happened.

Show off your smarts

‘Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun’, says the book critic George Scialabba. I like the idea behind that quote. We need to remember that behind the fun, intelligence is hard at work. And when we don’t use that intelligence, we slide closer to mechanical and downright boring training.

That little voice

Cast your mind back to the scenario at the top of this article. In a previous life, I was responsible for police training. We used to refer to the 3am test. Can a police officer, on their own at 3am, handle a situation based on what they can remember from their training? Will their memory give them the prompt they need?

If we get this right, we’ll create that little voice that tells someone what they need to do, when they need to hear it. They might not realise that voice comes from a seed we planted in our training session. Truth is, it doesn’t matter. As long as that little voice gets heard.


About the author

Teresa Ewington is head of training at The Writer (

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