E-mail is fun, especially for those new to it. For this reason, teaching beginning Outlook can either be a wonderful adventure or a tremendous test of your patience.

The upside to this is that students usually have a great time zinging e-mail messages to one another across a room. The downside is that it’s easy to lose control of your class and not meet your training goals. To avoid this pitfall, it is imperative to go into class with clearly defined goals, a detailed plan to accomplish them, and the wisdom to know when to change course.

Basically, there are three rules I follow when teaching Outlook:

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Provide the system administrator with your class outline.
  3. Relax and have fun.

This article is the first in a series featuring tricks and tips for teaching Microsoft Outlook. Look for next week’s article, “Outlook Training: Managing and sorting e-mail.”
Slow and steady wins the race
When setting goals for your beginning Outlook class, rule number one reigns: Keep it simple. Outlook can seem overwhelming to the novice user. So many screens and so many different things that seem terrifically similar can become a whirlwind of useless information unless it’s presented slowly and methodically, with plenty of time to practice in between lessons.

On the other hand, it’s important to have “Plan B” in case your class of “beginners” ends up being far more advanced than you’d anticipated. Figure 1 shows a simple Outlook class outline that’s easily modified or embellished for slightly more advanced users.

It’s important to teach to the level of your median student. When explaining how to compose and send e-mail, for instance, make sure that your students have firmly grasped the use of the Personal Address Book and the Reply and Reply All commands before adding something like attaching documents.

It’s also important to note that demonstrating a lot of Outlook’s options may not be the best use of your time in a beginning class. Although the options can be very helpful in the day-to-day routine, they won’t be useful to a student still struggling to perform the basic functions. If you have multiple experience levels in the class, simply mentioning the Options dialog box under the Tools menu will be enough for more advanced students to discover what’s available.

You also may want to repeatedly draw students’ attention to similarities within Outlook. It’s easier for students to feel comfortable with new concepts when you draw on previous lessons. For instance, be sure to point out that the New button is in the same place no matter if you’re creating a new mail message, task, or appointment. Or, regardless of whether you’re requesting a task or scheduling a meeting, you’re still using the same address book in exactly the same manner.

Check with the techs
If you are teaching a group of people who work at the same company, I strongly suggest that you do not ignore rule number two: Provide the system administrator with a copy of your class outline. If you do not have access to that individual, you may suggest that your contact at the company forward the outline to him or her.

The reason for doing this is that many times they DO NOT want you to teach certain Outlook functions. For example, many system folks don’t want to advertise the stationery options available when sending mail in Word/HTML format. After you’ve shown your students the cool new designs they can use, they’re likely to head back to work and e-mail a flurry of them. HTML and Word e-mails are much larger than their text-only counterpart and can bring small servers to a crawl. If you are teaching a group of people who don’t work together, you may want to pass on a friendly warning so that your students are aware of the potential hazards. With this simple courtesy to the IT staff, you can avoid causing an on-site catastrophe.

All work and no play make Jack hate Outlook
If you take this advice yourself, rule number three is easy: Relax and have fun! Many instructors (I, for instance) feel uncomfortable the first time they teach an e-mail class. E-mail classes are different from other software classes because the students are supposed to talk during class.

Don’t make the mistake of trying to combat the nature of the beast. No matter how carefully you’ve planned the class exercises, there are going to be little e-mail side conversations going on causing random giggles and smiles to erupt. Be prepared for it, and go with it.

To keep the students on task, make sure your class exercises are fun. Have them assign a task to a classmate that says, “Wash my car.” Or have each student schedule a two-week vacation with an exotic destination. The trick is to keep them entertained when talking them through a new exercise; then, step back and let them “play” with it for a few minutes. By allowing this “play” time, your students will be more likely to pay attention when you move on to the next item—and as an added bonus, it will increase students’ retention of the material.
What has your experience teaching Outlook been like? What tips and tricks do you offer for other trainers or for your students? What area causes you the most grief when you’re teaching Outlook? Write and let us know or post your comments below.