It never fails. Whether you’re a contract trainer out on your own or the in-house hotshot in your organization’s training department, somebody at some time will ask you to teach a course that you’ve never taught before. And once that client hooks you by acknowledging your expertise, complimenting your training skills, and otherwise stroking your ego the person sandbags you with, “Oh, by the way, the course is tomorrow.” Naturally, the course must be customized, which means (surprise, surprise) there is no instructor’s manual. And so, for whatever reason, the job of designing a customized course in less than 24 hours becomes yours.

I’ve talked with many trainers who’ve been in situations very similar to the one described above. And the biggest frustration for almost every one of them was deciding where to start in the absence of any specific guidelines. To help you through those times when you have nothing more than a topic to go on, here’s a quick and dirty way to put together a syllabus that will allow you to shine in a short-turnaround training session.

Where do I start?
This instructional design technique involves asking yourself four questions about each concept that you’re trying to get across to your audience. A concept can be very specific, such as how to construct a table in Microsoft Access or how to allocate RAM to an application in Macintosh OS 8.6, or it can be much more broad, such as, “Should I upgrade my Windows 95 computer to Windows 98?” The answers to the following four questions will guide you in selecting what to teach and how to teach it. Ask yourself:

  • What’s the main thrust of what I’m saying here?
  • What do I bring to the table?
  • What’s the best mode of presentation for this particular piece of information?
  • How do I make it worth the participants’ investment in time?

Let’s look at each of these questions in detail and see how to apply them. For each question, we will work through an example to show you the effectiveness of this technique.

What’s the main thrust of what I’m saying here? By using this as a starting point, you can determine the crux of the issue. As a subject matter expert, you can decide what aspects of each concept the participants must take with them at the end of class. For example, let’s say you’re teaching Introduction to Microsoft Access, and the first concept you decide to teach the class includes the similarities and differences between Access and any other databases they may have come across. Your first hurdle, then, is to start the day without overwhelming everybody in the first 10 minutes. Never fear. Ask yourself question one, What’s the main thrust? You’ll generate a list of facts and ideas, probably similar to the one below:

  • Access is a database program.
  • Databases are collections of information.
  • Databases store information in organized sets called records.
  • There are two main types of databases, and they’re distinguished by how they manage or interact with these records.
  • One type of database is a flat-file database, which is like a phone book or a cookbook. Microsoft Excel is a flat-file database.
  • Another type of database is a relational database, so named because it can see relationships between different records. Microsoft Access is this kind of database.

Once you determine the main thrust of the first concept, you virtually guarantee a solid foundation for your lesson. So far, not so hard (and, frankly, nothing really special). But you’re not done yet.

 The next three questions are the ones that will make your class the most enjoyable and informative.

What do I, personally, bring to the table? To answer this question, search your treasure trove of war stories, IT experiences, and training tales to find something that will bring your point to life and give your audience a real-world view of the concept in action. You need an example of concept number one in action, because the audience members will invest themselves more in things they find relevant. Something out of your personal repertoire will fit the bill nicely. Here’s what I mean. Let’s refer back to the Access class example mentioned above. Once you have defined a relational database and contrasted it to a flat-file database, you need a real-world example that demonstrates the limitations inherent in flat-file databases. Conversely, you could select an example that demonstrates the power of a relational database. Think back to questions raised and examples used in past Access classes. Think of your own experiences. And if you have to create a composite example, go ahead. Just remember that the most effective examples are the ones that are real.

Answering question three correctly is crucial, because the answer has a direct impact on how you actually deliver your information.

What’s the best way to present this particular piece of information? Some sub-questions you’ll have to look at include:

  • Is this information sequential and methodical? Should I create a PowerPoint slide that shows the steps one at a time?
  • Is this information visual, lending itself best to a diagram or other picture?
  • Is this segment very precise? Do I need to slow down the pace a bit here and take special care to explain what I mean all along the way?
  • Is it time to present a demonstration?
  • Is this a concept best suited to an analogy or a metaphor?
  • Is this a good place for some form of audience interaction?
  • Does this particular segment lend itself to humor? Can I lighten things up without sacrificing the message?

By way of example, let’s return to the Access class. You’ve moved past the introduction and on to creating and using a database, specifically training the audience in using the database window. There’s a lot of information on the screen: six tabs and numerous buttons that are either active or dimmed, depending on what you are doing at the moment. You can still see the title bar and Access menu commands. It is now time for something visual, most likely a demonstration. There’s far too much going on for you to simply lecture your way through it, and it’s a disservice to your audience to try to do so. You’ll have to wade right in to what’s on the screen and show, rather than tell. Reinforce important concepts, perhaps by creating a PowerPoint slide titled something like “The Database Window: Five Key Points.” In any event, use the correct mode of presentation for each segment of your class.

It is now time to address the final question:

How do I make it worth the participants’ investment? I doubt that there’s a single hard-and-fast answer to this question. I’ll share with you one guideline and three tips I use when I design my own classes.

First, realize that the audience has invested at least one irrecoverable resource by being in your class that day—their time. Our responsibility, then, is to leave the audience satisfied with the quality of our work. The first guideline I use to keep myself focused on that goal is something I call “exclusivity.” I look at the topic being taught and ask myself: “OK, if I were coming to this training session, and this was the one thing I was coming to learn, what would I have to take home to make me happy?” As a manager and trainer of trainers, I have high standards, and if I can figure out what would please me, I’m well on the way toward pleasing my audience. Here are my tips.

  1. Avoid using wizards and tutorials. These are things the audience members can go through on their own. They don’t need to take time from their workday to do it with you. It’s your job as trainer to make the material understandable and valuable to them. Invest yourself in your students’ training, and, in return, they will invest themselves in you.
  2. Always explain the value and relevance of what you’re teaching. Even if you’ve taken the trouble to build the relevance in, you cannot count on your audience to pick up on it. Tell them. Tell them why what you’re about to teach them matters. Tell them it’s something they’ll see or do often. Tell them they need to know it so that the material coming later makes sense. Whatever the reason is, make sure you tell them.
  3. Finish strong. Don’t let your conclusion be an outline, or worse, a rehash, of the preceding day or days. Use vivid, active language such as, “You now know…” or “You’ve learned…” or “You have a great set of tools to use for…” Remember, an audience remembers best what they hear last. End with a challenge, a call to action, a list of new skills, something that will help them focus on the value of their time spent with you. Your efforts will reflect in your evaluation score. And more important, they’ll reflect in your reputation.

If you have any suggestions for “on the fly” course development, please share them with us by posting them below. If you have any topic ideas for future articles, please send us a note .

Bob Potemski, MS, CTT, is a writer and trainer originally from New York. He and his five dogs now make their home in the Midwest. He has spent the last 10 years working in human development.