6 Empowering Lessons I Learned as a Corporate Trainer
We are all presenters.
We may not have to stand up in front of a class, or a corporate boardroom. We may not be mired in a world of PowerPoint slides. But we all have to communicate ideas.
For five years I taught at a major university, then I moved on to a corporate training gig. I would travel around the southeast U.S. and occasionally beyond, teaching classes on a piece of business communication software that was popular at the time.
College teaching taught me how to perform in front of an audience. Corporate training, however, took my presentation skills to a higher level. In this post, I’ll share some of the things I learned. Whether you’re presenting to an overflowing lecture hall or talking informally to a couple of colleagues, these tips will help.
It’s OK (and a sign of strength) not to know the answer to every question
Even when you’re in a position of expertise, you can’t possibly be prepared for every question someone could throw at you.
When it was time to get certified on the software I’d be teaching, I had to present before a master trainer. My bosses warned me in advance to expect a question I would not be able to answer. The master trainer would be looking, I was told, to see if I would do any of the following in my response:
- Lie: Pull an answer out of thin air and use my authority as a trainer to B.S. my way through. Once you get caught lying to people who look to you for expertise, your credibility is shot.
- Present a guess as anything more than a guess. If you have a ballpark answer that you’re 60% sure is in the right range, tell the questioner that. Don’t present an uncertain answer as certainty. Once again, if you get caught, your credibility gets flushed away.
- Take the question as a challenge to your authority: If you take the attitude of, How dare the questioner try to embarrass me like that? and craft a rude, snippy response, you’ve lost your audience. Most likely the person is asking because your presentation connects with them and they’re engaged with the topic — not because they’re trying to challenge you.
The best response is something like, “You know, off the top of my head, I don’t have a firm answer — but I can find out. I’ll write down your question in my notes and have an answer for you next time we meet.”
Or, if you won’t see the questioner again, “Off the top of my head, I’m not completely sure — but I can find out. If you want to leave me an email address, I can consult with my colleagues and get that information to you in a day or two.”
Someone might come back at you and say, Well, you have this great reputation and you’re highly paid to be an authority figure. How can you not know?
My response would be that we humans have access to thousands of times more information than U.S. President Warren G. Harding or King George V of the United Kingdom had access to 100 years ago. We can’t be expected to have it all stored in our brains.
Now, I don’t know, period, end of sentence, alone would be a quite unacceptable answer. It would show an attitude of not caring about the audience. I don’t know but I’ll find out, on the other hand, shows honesty, authority, and builds a connection.
Demonstrate composure in the face of the unexpected
To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.— Paul R. Ehrlich
One of the questions on my corporate trainer application was, “You’re in the middle of a software demonstration, and the software crashes and you can’t continue. How do you handle it?”
The answer I put down was that I would tell my class, “…Annnddd the computer gods have decided not to smile on us today. Why don’t we take a 15-minute break? That’ll give you time to grab some coffee, check your email, and see how your company’s stock price is doing this morning. I’ll get things back on track and we’ll be ready to roll again.”
The master trainer told me that response was just about perfect. When you speak with authority, you have a rapport with your audience. If the unexpected causes you to panic, your audience will feel panic too. However, if you handle the unexpected with confidence, your audience’s confidence in you as a presenter will increase.
Note also how my response bought me a little time and space. My students weren’t used to being away from their desks. Allowing them to get back to their normal routine for a few minutes comforted them and gave me some valuable alone time to work past the error.
Body language is everything
Software developers at Fortune 500 companies often live a rather drab life. I realized that in a sense, getting to go to a class was something of a vacation for them — a few days when they didn’t have to be at their assigned workstations. They had the capacity to get excited. I just needed to bring that excitement out.
I’d start out the first day with somewhat subdued but positive body language — subdued because I wanted to match them where they were. As the day rolled on, though, my gestures would get more sweeping, my smiles would get bigger, my voice developed more of a boom. I wanted to raise their attention to the next level.
Eye contact, of course, was a must. I hardly ever had a class larger than 12. Eye contact allowed me to connect with each student personally. This encouraged them to ask questions and keep engaging with the material.
If you want to learn more about body language, the author I recommend is Joe Navarro. He’s a former FBI agent with 25 years of interrogation and negotiation under his belt. Joe also advises poker players on reading other players’ “tells” without giving away any of their own. Joe’s book What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People is a fine start in the study of body language.
One more suggestion: Try filming yourself to look for ways to improve your body language. If what you do involves any kind of presentation role, this can be time well spent.
Give people a little more than they expected
When I agreed to teach courses, I promised to give 3, 4, or 5 days (depending on the course) of the best instruction I could provide. I would show my students how to build the software tools they needed.
However, I would go a step further and give them a headstart on developing those tools. On the second day of the course, after teaching about database mail merge, I might tell my class:
“Now, I don’t do this for all my students, so don’t tell anyone. But I really like teaching at ACME Corp. and, having taught here several times now, I have an idea of the challenges you face. So I’m going to give anyone who wants it a copy of the mail merge tool I use.
“You can use it out of the box as it is, and it will work. You can customize it to your needs as you like. Or, if you wish, you can go underneath the hood and analyze the script I wrote for a deep understanding. Just shoot me an email and I’ll send back the file as an attachment.”
“Cool, we’re not just getting an education. We’re getting tools we can use in the real world!” students thought.
Guy Kawasaki wrote in his 1989 book The Macintosh Way that “underpromise and overdeliver” was a strategy Apple used in the Mac’s early years to make a dent in the PC-dominated market. It’s also, Kawasaki writes, how successful businesses like Disneyland leave their customers with a great feeling — the sign said you’d wait in line 30 minutes for the ride, but you only waited 10.
What can you do to deliver bonus value to everyone you meet?
Don’t get too attached to stats
“You know how, at the end of the semester, you’d grade your university students?” one of my two bosses explained. “The difference is, in corporate training is, at the end of the class, they grade you.”
It was true. At the end of every class I taught, students would fill out an evaluation form, written using the very software on which I was training them. They’d assess my knowledge of the software, my presentation skills, my interactions with students, and they’d give me an overall score. All these ratings were on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest.
“But don’t sweat over the ratings too much,” my boss told me. “As long as you maintain a consistent 9.4 average out of 10, you’re good. It’s only when you fall below that threshold that clients start to say, ‘We’ll hire your company to teach us, as long as you don’t send that trainer.’”
9.4 out of 10? So I had to get almost all 9s and above on my evaluations. Anything 8 or below represented a threat to my livelihood.
This was a problem when I traveled to a prominent Fortune 500 company in the Upper South of the U.S. One of the software developers was known as “Mister 6.” No matter how fabulous your presentation was — even if it contained the solution to every known problem in the universe — that developer rewarded you with a 6 out of 10.
I came into the class determined that I was not going to let fear of a bad eval from Mister 6 cloud my week. My goal was to go out there and deliver incredible value and let the chips fall where they may. It paid off. Mister 6 lived up to his reputation, but most of the rest of the class gave me 10s, keeping my average in the sweet spot.
If you want to read more, here’s another post of mine on how delivering value is the ultimate metric.
Listen to your body and know when it’s time to walk away
A couple of months later, I found myself back at the same Fortune 500 company, but this experience was much less pleasant. I was slated to teach Software Development III, a week-long class. There were two major problems:
- Although I had sent in the paperwork to teach Software Dev III, I didn’t have my certificate in hand yet. I could technically be de-certified from the entire program by teaching the course. “We need the revenue, so you have to do it,” my bosses told me. “No client has ever asked us, show us your certification. You’ll be fine.”
- The Fortune 500 company had allowed employees who hadn’t had Software Dev I and II yet to sign up for my Dev III class. Therefore, I was not surprised when the class dragged hours behind schedule. There were so many rookie questions. I complained to my bosses. “As long as the company’s paying us, we aren’t going to dictate the order in which their employees take our classes,” was the response I got.
By Friday of that week, I was stressed out to the moon. On one of the breaks, I discovered one of those take-your-own-reading blood pressure machines in the company lobby. I put my arm in the cuff and pressed the red button.
145 over 95.
I was 29 years old, not overweight, and had never had any kind of serious health problem in my life — and here was my diastolic reading clocking in at just 5 shy of the century mark.
I finished out the class, drove home, and requested a meeting with one of my bosses. I told him I’d be happy to finish out classes he already had me booked for, but after those, I was done. Also, no Software Dev III. He understood and we parted ways amicably.
You only get one body. If it tells you the stress in your life is too great, listen. Get out. Whatever your aim in life, is it really worth it if its achievement means literally killing yourself in the process?
Let’s take a quick look at how these principles can benefit you in everyday life.
- It’s a sign of strength to say “I don’t know, but I can find out and get back to you” — This builds trust without sacrificing authority.
- Demonstrate composure in the face of the unexpected — This exudes confidence, which will draw people to you.
- Body language is everything — When people know, like, and trust you, they are more likely to see things your way. Proper body language builds those feelings.
- Always give a little more than expected — This will keep people coming back to you over and over again. Look no farther than this platform; the best writers deliver value beyond what they promise in their headlines.
- Don’t get too attached to stats — Instead, listen to your intuition, as well as feedback from your audience. Am I helping others? That’s the ultimate stat.
- Listen to your body — After all, you only get one. If it tells you, this is no longer a relatively stress-free place to be, love yourself enough to start looking for an exit. Your soul expresses itself through the sensations you feel in your body.
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