If you are a technical trainer, you are probably used to being in a classroom, but let me remind you that being a student in a classroom can be tiring and boring. The monotony of listening can try the patience of even the most tolerant among us.

Keeping your class alert is your main challenge when you’re acting as a technical trainer. You may face a classroom full of people who have been forced by their bosses to learn a new piece of software, or you may even be seen as the villain if your department is spearheading an upgrade to a new version.

However, even for the most eager to learn, the “click here, type there” style monologue cannot hold people’s interest for very long. Your students quickly will be longing for their coffee break. Here are a few ways you can make your training classes more interesting and help them run more smoothly.

What you say and how you say it: Questions work wonders
The rhetorical question is the best weapon in your speaking arsenal. Why use questions? The automatic reaction to hearing a question is to try to think of an answer. You do not expect—by definition—an answer to this kind of question but it does give a good introduction for your next demonstration.

For example, during an Excel training session, instead of saying: “The Data menu allows you several options to filter out employees from a specific region and department,” say “How can I select only salespeople from Ontario from this employee list?” After a short pause, provide the answer. For example, “I can use the Data menu…”

Fire away when you need attention
When your class is small, you can direct a question to a specific student. Use your instincts to identify those students who could use a cold shower. The point is to refocus the students, not to stump or embarrass them, so you must avoid asking about something that is directly related to the training subject. Just engage a conversation. This should grab your sleepy student’s attention and help maintain a more interactive session.

Hope for more than stares
Another way to use questions in class is to throw a general question out for group response and hope to get back more than just stares. I like to use the following motivational trick: After I have sensed the average level of my class, I come up with a question I know that some of the students could answer. Before I actually ask the question, I artificially build it up as if it were very difficult by saying something like, “Now this is a tough one, see if you can figure it out. How do you add a new contact to your address list?”

Everybody seems to be satisfied with this technique: I interact more with the class, and the student who answered this “advanced” question often becomes more motivated and attentive.

Speak your mind
Many software instructors that I know feel that they must talk the software up in front of their trainees. I feel that the instructor doesn’t need to sell the application in the classroom. My attitude is, if you like it, by all means praise the software. But if it is a buggy app, just say so. Don’t go out of your way to defend a lousy application. This will make you sound less natural and more boring.

We techies usually have an opinion on software. Let your class know about your opinion. You aren’t just a person who knows the software well; you also know its strengths and weaknesses.

I may be in the minority, but I recommend being honest but not scathing. For example, if you’re teaching a function that seems a bit counterintuitive to you, say something like, “I really can’t understand why they made this function so inaccessible.” It sounds more honest than, “Uh… All right then, it’s easy. From the Format menu, choose Style, then Normal | Change | Format | Paragraph…”

Teach them what they need to know
Keep in mind that your students constantly evaluate the relevance of the training to their work (and the work they do at home). Show them a handy shortcut they can use at home or back at the office, and you have bought their attention for the next few moments. I’ve learned that sometimes it takes only one super-useful tip to make you the hero of the day.

Get your act together
Actions sometimes speak louder than words. Let’s look at some of the technical aspects that may help you to keep your students on their toes.

Light keeps the zzzzs away
Even if you are equipped with a state-of-the-art, super-bright overhead projector, you will still have to dim the lights in the classroom once you turn on the projector. Otherwise, students in the back row won’t be able to see what’s on the screen. The problem is that dim lighting invites the entire class to take a nap. I turn up the lights every once in a while so that I can maintain eye contact with my students. These “illumination breaks” help to keep the class energized, and they are also an opportunity for you to jot a few more comments on the whiteboard.

Fun content
I’m sure you have all your sample files ready on the training machines. Why not spice them up a little by adding some funny content to them? Collect some computer jokes and comic strips for use as training material. It is much more fun to practice Copy and Paste functions on Dilbert’s words of wisdom than on some dull text.

Give them a (trivia) break
Break time is no less important than the session uptime. First take care of your personal needs (don’t forget to get a soft drink). Then try to entertain your class with a nice online trivia game.

There’s often downtime at the end of a break, when the trainees start heading back to class. During these minutes, I like to take advantage of the hardware in class and play a little online game, until everyone gets seated and I can continue with the training. It depends on the people in class, but I believe that playing a game helps to make a smooth transition between break time and session uptime. I found out that online trivia games, such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire, serve as great fillers. The trainees usually start yelling the answers spontaneously, as soon as the questions appear on the screen.

This is a good practice because it immediately grabs people’s attention—which is exactly what you need to get your “real” presentation rolling again. A quiz blends fun and concentration—again, you want your trainees to enjoy the session and get concentrated—and, unlike most computer games, any number of people can enjoy the same trivia game at the same time.

Once the class is seated and calm again, minimize the game window and get down to business. Of course, creating your own trivia, or playing a computer-related trivia game, is also an option.

The big CD giveaway
People love getting little treats from the IT department. Burn a CD for each student. It might contain your presentation, help desk documentation, class notes, and anything else that you think may be of interest. Promise this CD giveaway as you begin your session, but hand over the “present” when you have almost finished. Add a cool wallpaper or a freebie desktop game to your CD. Believe me, this will make you a star.

How do you keep the zzzzs away?

Do you have tips for making classroom training livelier? Provide your advice in the discussion below.