As many IT support personnel have realized, it’s often the top execs who have the least amount of computer knowledge. When learning new skills, these students usually feel more comfortable asking questions when their colleagues, bosses, or subordinates aren’t in the same room.

For those clients, and for others who need special help with an application or project, one of the most efficient tools the IT instructor has is a one-on-one session. Unlike classroom sessions, this type of individual coaching is usually held in the offices of trainees, on their own PCs. This provides corporate employees or private clients with the advantage of learning in their own working environment, using their own custom settings, etc.

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned several techniques for creating comfortable, productive one-on-one training sessions. I’ll explain some of my techniques so you can use what I’ve learned to create successful one-on-one sessions for your own clients.

What do I say in the downtime?
When two people sit behind a computer screen, it’s quiet in the room. When the computer is booting up, shutting down, or performing any other lengthy operation, an awkward silence can result. This happens a lot when you do one-on-ones. So, what do you say in the downtime?

Well, of course this is up to you. You can always chat about the weather, but I can give you a suggestion about what not to say. Steer clear of conversations about what’s inadequate about the user’s equipment, especially if you don’t have the power to change the situation. Some users look at training sessions as an opportunity to press for a larger monitor.

I generally try to avoid these “give me new hardware” talks. I’m not saying you shouldn’t discuss computer topics; on the contrary, one-on-ones are a great opportunity to do some help desk PR. A user who enjoys an effective training session will be more aware of the services the IT department provides. This is also a good time to share some general computer tips, useful Web sites, keyboard shortcuts, etc.

Adjust your volume to the environment
The awkward silence may not be such a problem if you’re in an open-space environment. Undoubtedly, an open space is the technical trainer’s nightmare. I have nothing against cubicles; I spend a great deal of my day inside one. The problem is, you really have to keep your voice down while teaching to avoid disrupting the user’s coworkers. Also, you don’t want to embarrass trainees by allowing the entire room to hear you teaching them.

If you’re lucky, your trainees will have offices of their own; but then, another dilemma arises: Do you leave the door open or closed? By closing the door as you enter, you can eliminate the nuisance of people popping by, phones ringing in the hallway, and so on. On the other hand, some people like their door wide open, or you may give the wrong impression. If the trainer and the trainee are of the opposite sex, you’d do well to leave the door the way you found it when you entered the office.

What do I prepare in advance?
Once the computer is booted up and the software is launched, you should have a plan for what you’re going to show the user. But it’s important not to go overboard. I remember being rather overexcited about my first official one-on-one training session. I spent hours preparing a presentation, a slide show, and everything. Needless to say, this was probably the most boring session ever held on planet Earth. While presentations work well in classrooms, they are absolutely useless when it comes to a one-on-one situation.

So what do you prepare before conducting a one-on-one? The simple answer is: Not much. A one-page handout with a few helpful hints should do just fine. And, of course, don’t leave your office before you’ve tried out and feel confident with all the software options you’ll teach.

In my opinion, a good one-on-one session is when trainers focus more on trainees than on how they are conveying the information. This brings us to the most important rule of one-on-ones: Don’t touch the mouse.

Keep your hands off the mouse
The first rule in one-on-one sessions is to let the person you are teaching do the clicking. Always grab a chair and sit next to trainees; never take their place in front of the screen. I know it requires a lot of patience, especially with novice users, but it almost always pays off. People learn best using a hands-on approach.

Also, let your student do most of the typing. When students operate the software you are teaching them, they’ll become more involved and attentive. Your role is to guide, explain, and occasionally demonstrate the software. Your role is like that of a driving instructor; you don’t actually sit behind the wheel.

Insist that your trainees take notes
A few years ago, I traveled to remote offices around the country to teach department managers the basics of using Outlook with the newly installed Exchange Server. Almost always, on my way back to the corporate office, I got a call from one of them asking, “How can I request a read receipt when I send a message?” That was definitely one of the things I had demonstrated just an hour before my cell phone rang.

When you teach the same software over and over, you notice that the same questions keep coming up. These questions often pertain to the counterintuitive, sometimes hard-to-remember features found in all software. With the more experienced trainer, everything seems easy to understand during the session. It’s after you’ve left that the trainees, quite naturally, start forgetting everything. That’s why, when you go through the more subtle, less-intuitive software behaviors, you should make sure trainees write down the instructions. I usually encourage my trainees to jot down notes on the document that I give them during training.

The ping-pong technique
What I’ve described here is a cyclic process. While you demonstrate a feature in the application, the trainee should take notes and ask questions. Next, you’ll want to switch roles. Give users hands-on exercises to perform while you ask them questions, and verbally guide them if they are stumped.

If you use this approach and put the tips I’ve provided to use, you should leave your next one-on-one training session feeling more confident in your abilities and sure that the user is satisfied.

More tips for one-on-one training sessions

Would you rather teach one-on-one sessions than a classroom full of folks? Do you have tips or techniques for creating successful one-on-one training sessions? Send them to us via e-mail or post them in the discussion below.