CXO

Training Tips: When is it okay to say okay?

Sharpening your verbal skills is a work in progress. Bruce Maples provides a crash course in cleaning up your speech.


Quick now, honest answer—how much time have you spent as a student in the past year? Most technical trainers spend more time than the average Joe as a student in a classroom, simply because most trainers are continuing to garner certifications and new skills or are prepping for a new class. With that in mind, let me ask you something: How good were the instructors you’ve seen in the past year? Here’s an even tougher question: How would your students of the past year answer the above question?
Over my learning career, I’ve sat under some trainers that were excellent, engaging, and enlightening teachers. I’ve also been subjected to people with no presence, knowledge, or ability. For the most part, though, I’ve seen lots of trainers who were above average, but who needed to work on a few techniques to take their training ability to the next level.That’s the purpose of Training Tips. On a semi-regular basis, I’ll be pointing out tips and pointers that make the difference between a B-level trainer and a training classroom Mr. Chips. We’ll look at simple things like fillers (today’s topic), and complex things like learning styles. We’ll give you some checklists and even the occasional pop quiz. (Hey, this is a column about teaching, remember?) So, uh, check back often for the latest Tips column, okay?
Now to today’s pointer
Like many of the bad habits we’ll try to zap in our Tips, this problem can sneak into your teaching style like a weed, becoming so embedded that it takes an extraordinary effort to rip it out by the roots. I’m talking about the use of fillers.

The most obvious filler, of course, is “uh” (as indicated by an earlier sentence). You don’t have that problem? Uh, I don’t, uh, believe you. Almost every human being occasionally uses “uh”—the pause that refreshes. Even so, it is a syllable we have to guard against if we want to be effective teachers. The use of “uh” (and “ah,” “mmm,” and similar meaningless sounds) makes you sound uncertain, flustered, ignorant, and, worst of all, boring.

You may be thinking, I don’t have that problem. If that’s true, congratulations are in order. But beware: If you have driven the barbarous “uh” from your border, you cannot drop your guard, because right there—lurking behind your back—is the treacherous “okay.”

The use of “okay” to end a declarative sentence has become an epidemic. Earlier this year, I listened to an accomplished teacher do an excellent job of presenting a week’s worth of difficult material. It was a performance worthy of Shakespeare—except that at least a third of his sentences ended with “okay?” By the third day, I wanted to answer “no” every time he asked “okay,” but I was gracious and kept my insolence to myself.

I know, I know: You ask “okay” at the end of your sentences to make sure the class is with you and to encourage them to ask questions or raise their hands if they don’t understand. Let me put it as bluntly as I can: It doesn’t come across that way. Instead, the rampant use of “okay” at the end of statements appears at best as a nervous tic and at worst as a sign of insecurity and insensitivity. It is as if you want to look like you care, but your real objective is to cut off questions and move on to the next topic.

Unlike “uh,” the word “okay” is not itself anathema. There are legitimate uses for it, such as finding out if a course of action is acceptable. (“We’re going to break at 10:30, okay?”)

Let me say again, though, for emphasis: The use of “okay” as a tag is not an acceptable substitute for actually asking for feedback. Obviously, you take a risk if you come to a full stop, put down your marker, and ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” In the long run, though, you show respect for your students when you choose that feedback technique, rather than the sleight-of-tongue inherent in the “okay” tag.

How to cut the filler
There are two or three techniques for eradicating the filler from your teaching. The easiest, and probably the most effective, is to audiotape your classes, then listen to yourself later. Note: Use audiotape, not videotape. We‘re focusing on your voice and your speaking mannerisms. Video is for another time, when we want to watch your actions.

Another method is to have a friend sit in the class and make a small gesture every time you use a filler. This has the advantage of immediate feedback, but it can be distracting. A variation is to have the class itself help you watch for filler. This, obviously, only works if you and the class have a strong relationship of mutual trust.

Whatever method you use—and I personally recommend tape—you may be amazed at how often you use these fillers. No matter whether you use them a little or a lot, however, our goal must be to rid ourselves of them. For you to be the best trainer you can be, all the filler must go. Okay?

Bruce Maples is an author, trainer, and speaker living in Louisville. His latest project is a Dictionary of Fillers, which includes a compendium of doughnut fillings. Follow this link to comment on this article or write to Bruce .

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