Start with a Promise

“What am I going to learn today?” This question has become ever more important now that we are teaching online and it answers the fundamental question that people ask about attending a training session. People may question the format, how engaging an online webinar might be or how the work sessions will operate with no one physically gathered. But the fundamental question is actually much simpler – “Am I going to waste my time?”

I was chatting recently with Peggy Baumgartner, Chief Learning Officer at Third Factor, the well known training and coaching firm that focuses on performance, collaboration and leadership. It was a wide ranging conversation on the challenges and opportunities that online learning and technology represent and it is one of the privileges of my job that I get to share “shop talk” with insightful and committed professionals like Peggy.

It became one of those conversations where every sentence triggers the “I must write this down reflex” but one thing that Peggy said really resonated with me: “We have to make sure we encourage people to gather with purpose.” It reminded me of Patrick Winston’s recommendation in How to Speak: Start with a promise. Winston admonishes teachers and lecturers not to use humour or to thank attendees at the beginning of a lecture or seminar. Begin with a promise about what you will learn and how you will change from that knowledge. In other words, tell them about the way they will change as a result of the course.

As we have mentioned in prior articles, moving online is much more than just presenting your materials as you would in an in-person classroom. Many of the small social cues and interactions are missing and you have to find a way to engage your participants individually and sustainably. “What’s in it for me” has never been more important to maintain the attention of your participants.

What has this meant for us in our virtual sessions? We still always start with a promise of how the skills we teach are going to change the way you approach financial analysis and make you more efficient and see issues more clearly. But we also have to frame our tasks and skills exercises with reference to the purpose of the activity. For example, we don’t just explain how a function works in Excel since that is simple mechanics. We explain which problems the function is best at solving and how it is faster and less error prone than other methods. If we can answer the why then we know participants will benefit. And it reminds them throughout the session that they have gathered with purpose.