I’ve just completed another training class, and I am again struck by one unavoidable conclusion about trainers: People are scared of us.

More accurately, people are scared of training. They’re afraid of being made to look foolish in public. They’re fearful of questions and of being made to look incompetent in front of peers, their reports, or, heaven forbid, their boss.

We all do the “there’s no such thing as a dumb question” thing when we start a class, but you know what? You don’t believe it, and neither do they. If someone comes to your NT Administration class and asks what TCP/IP is, you and the rest of the students will involuntarily roll your eyes. The students know that there really are dumb questions, and they’re scared they will ask one.

Slowing down the fast track
Students are also scared of not keeping up. Let’s face it, much technical training is fast and furious. We do NT Admin FastTrack, VB FastTrack, or Design-Your-Own-Microprocessor FastTrack. Typically, the only students who really get anything from fast-track education are the ones who are already fairly familiar with the application.

Therefore, I am convinced that one of the key tasks of a technical trainer is to put your students at ease. I’ve heard teachers say, “I like to keep some tension going in my class, because research has shown that people learn better if they are a little uptight about it.” And you know what? They’re right—research has shown that. But be sure you get the whole story: Research indicates that people are poor learners if they are apathetic and disinterested in the material; they learn better if they feel pressure to learn and are worried about being able to master the material. But they learn best when they are enthusiastic about the material and relaxed about their ability to learn. You can have the “Nervous Nellie” methodology; I’ll take enthusiasm and a comfortable, engaging classroom manner any time.

Tips for an engaging classroom
The first step, therefore, to putting your students at ease is simple: Put yourself at ease. If you are tense, irritable, or angry, students will pick up on it immediately. Many of your students will assume you are upset with them. You know it’s really the dim bulb in the projector, but they figure that they are the dim bulb you’re harrumphing about. Before the class starts, take a breath, get some perspective, and relax.

The second step is to smile a lot. I cannot begin to tell you the number of trainers I have sat under who must have had surgery to cut the smile muscles in their cheeks. Look each of your students in the eye and smile.

The third step is to watch your pacing. I know, I know—you’ve only got a day for lessons seven through 14, and the company’s training coordinator has told you they might have to cut the last day short. But let me ask you, which is more valuable: getting 85 percent to 90 percent of the material in their heads thoroughly, or getting 100 percent of the material just somewhere around their heads? The catch is we already know this stuff, and it’s hard for us to remember how strange and new the lessons can seem. To check your pacing, watch your students’ faces. If people start tensing up, it is up to you to get them relaxed and receptive again.

Another helpful tool is learning to be self-deprecating. There are some trainers who disagree with this approach, because they feel that teachers give up some of their authority if they admit they have ever made a mistake. I recall, though, that the teachers I enjoyed the most—and from whom I learned the most—were the ones who did not take themselves too seriously but took their material very seriously. It’s also true that worrying about one’s authority in the classroom reveals that you have none. Teachers should be respected for their grasp of the material and their ability to help their students grasp the material, not simply because they stand in the front of the room.

Finally, keep your perspective. This work we do is important, but it isn’t life and death. There’s an old line that I’ve heard speakers use to start their talk: “How many of you would rather be here than in the nicest hospital in town?” It always gets a laugh, but even better, it always helps people get perspective. The next time you feel “trapped in a classroom,” ask yourself that question and put things in perspective.

Our students are already nervous and tense when they come to class. Change that emotional state to confident enthusiasm and you’ll be able to make the learning experience what it should be: a time of enjoyment.

Bruce Maples is a technical trainer and writer. Bruce is certified in several Microsoft technologies and frequently travels to client sites to troubleshoot problems and train employees.