I remember watching old Western movies on TV when I was a kid. They all seemed to have the same plot: The bad guys figure out when the stagecoach will bring the payroll to town, and prepare to ambush the driver.

Trainers are far from stagecoach drivers, of course, but they still have something to deliver. There are ways to prepare for those times when you feel ambushed by a class that expects something other than what you are prepared to teach. The following tips will help you prevent an ambush from becoming a crisis in the classroom.

Be proactive
Never let “caught by surprise” equate to “caught unprepared” in your classroom. Simply put, the degree of success with which you respond to the ambush depends on how you approach it.

All trainers and training managers should be intimately familiar with Steven Covey’s book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If you’re not, I suggest that you read it, or better yet, listen to it in an audio format. In writing this book, Covey studied a number of people who could be considered “effective” in all aspects of their lives and identified seven traits and behaviors common among these individuals. What is Habit One? “Be Proactive.”

In the next few paragraphs, I offer two steps for becoming proactive in the classroom, followed by two suggestions for turning a training ambush into a training success.

Step 1: Stay current
A typical training ambush is discovering that the participants for your software class expect to be taught the very latest version, released only a few days ago. You may not have had the opportunity to purchase or even try out the new version yet, but you can still be ahead of the game. The World Wide Web is loaded with sites where you can find previews, technical information, and other relevant data.

Save the information you find on disk or as hard copy. You can then spend your breaks and lunchtime reviewing the information and incorporating relevant material into your older syllabus. Beta testing programs are another good source of early information. Find out if beta testing is available for new versions of the software that you teach in your training classes, and join the program, if you can.

Step 2: Stay ahead
Even if you haven’t been asked to teach a particular course, go ahead and prepare your own instructor’s guide. Keep the guide with you at all times, so that if your class requests the material, you’ll have the starting point you need to teach the class.

Trainers have to think fast to keep the class members from getting restless. Attitude and approach are a major part of the battle. If you project fear or apprehension at teaching on the fly, your students will sense it. If you project anger or frustration, they’ll mentally write you off, right then and there. But if you project confidence and assuredness, the audience will begin to establish trust and confidence in you. The following two suggestions will help you turn a training ambush into a training success.

Suggestion 1: Distribute blank index cards to each student, early in the class. Ask participants to write down the specific concepts they’re expecting to learn. Use your breaks and lunchtime to incorporate or highlight those areas in your syllabus.

Suggestion 2: Build on what the class already knows. If you typically use a lecture-only approach, switch to a style that’s more interactive. If you like to pontificate, step down from the pedestal and have a more discussion-oriented class. Draw in more advanced class members by acknowledging their expertise and inviting their input.
“Are you familiar with the term synergy? Synergy is a scientific principle used to denote a situation where the whole of something is much greater than the sum of its parts. In order for me to give you the best possible seminar, I’m asking my more advanced students to share examples, illustrations, anything that will help the newer students get a real-world perspective on what we’re discussing. And that’s what synergy is all about. All of us put together are smarter than any one of us individually, so the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts in our class today.”
By keeping your original training objective in focus and preparing in advance, you will deliver a high-quality training session no matter how adverse the circumstances.
If you’ve been asked to customize your training at the last minute, please share your story of how you handled the request, as well as any additional pointers you might have for your fellow trainers. Please post your comments at the bottom of this page. If you have any suggestions for future training articles, please send us a note .

Bob Potemski, MS, CTT, is a writer and trainer originally from New York. He and his five dogs now make their home in the Midwest. He has spent the last 10 years working in human development.