Although written material is important for training, like everything, it has a time and place. In my experience as a trainer, students pay greater attention during the first hour or so of a training session than at any other time.

So, if you hand out your training materials as soon as you walk into the classroom, you’re likely to lose your best opportunity to communicate with your students. In addition, if your handouts contain just about everything you have to say, you risk being almost completely ignored by the class. Here’s what I learned, the hard way, about timing and tailoring classroom handouts.

Booklets in tow, off I go…
In my first experience as a trainer, I was hired to teach two two-day classes on a software product designed by my client. Other than a rough agenda of topics to cover, my client had left everything up to me: how to cover the information, the sequencing, and the design of the actual training materials. I had already written the documentation for the software product I was teaching, so I had a lot of source material to adapt for the training.

As I was completing an assignment for this client, I was pressed for time. I pulled all the diagrams that were remotely related to the software for visuals, put together as many “how-to” steps as I had time to whiz through, and was pleased to come up with more than 60 pages of training material, which I copied and put into 70-something booklets.

I packed up my materials, lugged them through two airports, drove them over the Uinta Mountain—Utah’s tallest mountain just south of the Wyoming/Utah border—and laid them out on the tables early the first morning along with a training agenda handout. Then, another person doing supplemental training came along and placed another stack of handouts on top of my materials.

Hey, what’s this?
You can probably guess what happened when the class started. The students rifled through the stack of paper, flipping through the booklets, holding them up sideways to better see the landscape-oriented diagrams, and whispering to each other with questions and comments. I don’t think anyone heard much of anything I said for the first hour. When I showed a slide that matched a diagram in the book, everyone looked in the book for the diagram instead of looking at the slide and listening to my explanation of it.

And that was too bad, because in that first hour, the students were more alert and curious than at any other time during those two days. They wanted to learn more about the software and how it would affect the way they did their jobs. That curiosity was the reason they looked through the booklets—they wanted as much information as quickly as possible.

A second chance in round two
But I had another chance to do it right. I was scheduled to teach the same two-day class again at another location. This time, I didn’t place a scrap of paper on the tables, and I asked the other instructor to hold her materials until her training later in the day. Sure enough, the students came in and, with only their coffee cups in front of them, kept their eyes on me. I had tweaked my presentation to use more slides up front, and I barraged the class with all the details that I believed my students in the first session had missed out on.

When their eyes glazed over, I gave them a break and passed out the materials while they stepped outside. When they returned and class resumed, they quickly forsook me for my detailed training materials. Again.

A class critique
Obviously, you have to provide training materials at some point. Unless you hand out material page by page, you’re going to lose some of your students to the written word no matter when you present it. But my first class was flawed in these ways:

  • The training materials were the first things the students saw.
  • For the most part, the materials and the presentation duplicated each other.
  • The booklets gave the students something more interesting and self-directed to do in the first hour of class, before I had established a rapport or credibility with them.

Unfortunately, I then overcorrected in the second class because:

  • I overwhelmed students with too much verbal material at the opening of class.
  • I presented details of the software before the students had had a chance to use the software interface.
  • I kept them too long and tried to present too much because I was eager to take advantage of their fresh approach to the day.

Refining my approach
These classes were probably more of a learning experience for me than for the students. Since then, I’ve tweaked that important first block of training time as follows:

  • I still make sure students arrive to an empty desk or table, but I keep the opening discussion to high-level concepts and only a few key details.
  • At the beginning of my presentation, I intentionally omit some relevant piece of information from every slide so I can include it in my spoken presentation. The slides and spoken material complement instead of duplicate each other. (I do make sure that the materials the students take with them contain all relevant information.)
  • I stop my presentation and ask for questions only a half hour into the program. Although there are always a few questions about something I’ll cover later, I can briefly address the issues and let the students know that I will get to that information later. I also use the questions to gauge whether the students are completely missing what I’m trying to communicate or if they’re ahead of me on some points.
  • I keep that first session short. When the students come back in after the first break, I get into a little more detail, either recapping an important point or introducing one other big concept.
  • I hand out training materials at the end of the first session. I don’t expect students to ignore them. Instead, I go over the entire contents of the training materials with them, letting the materials themselves serve as the agenda.

After the training materials are out there, we immediately go into some hands-on work. Even if there isn’t much the students can do with the software at this point, this allows them to actually use the materials instead of trying to read them. They also begin to see the software interface, so they have a frame of reference for what I say and present later. By following this schedule, more often than not I’ve kept their attention for most of the morning.
How do you structure the flow of information in your classes? When’s the best time to hand out documentation or take a quick break? Send us your success stories and war stories about planning training sessions and we’ll use them in a future article.

Meredith Little has worn many hats as a self-employed writer, including those of a technical writer, documentation specialist, trainer, business analyst, photographer, and travel writer.