01 Jun 2015

Training Around Triggers

Does this sound familiar? Slide 1, a quote by some famous person. Slide 2, some persuasive statistics. Slide 3, a long list of tips. Slide 4, instructions for an activity. Slide 5, some debrief questions. Slide 6, another long list of tips. Slide 7, another long list of tips. Slide 8, another long list of tips.?And one final list of tips on Slide 9.

What I am describing here is a lack of organisation. With so many tips to condense into one topic, the best thing to do is to just write lists. It’s the trawler approach of casting the net wide and seeing what gets caught. It is assumed that trainees will be able to comprehend the mass of information presented to them. It is also assumed that giving them everything they could possibly need is helpful. But I strongly disagree with this approach.

In my opinion, anything presented to trainees should be as organised as possible. Now I do agree that every trainee is going to come away with something different. But I don’t think this means we shouldn’t make an effort to at least give them similar takeaways. Presenting a list of 20 tips will result in every trainee remembering a few different tips each. But presenting 3 key takeaways is far more likely to result in every trainee remembering exactly the same thing.

This does not mean that we need to cut down on the tips. It simply means we need to chunk them. Read through your list of tips, and group them into similar categories. Think about when each tip should be used, how they should be used, why they should be used and so on. This will help you identify any similarities between the tips you have. With similarities identified, now you can group them.

Similarities can be grouped into acronyms, processes or even simple categories. And these are what I call Triggers. Before I explain, first take a look at the video below:




This video introduces a process for CPR. The trigger in this mini training is “AB-CABS”. All you need to do after watching this video is remember “AB-CABS” and the list of tips presented should come back to you. As you bring “AB-CABS” to mind, you will recall A stands for Airways. This will remind you to first check the person’s airways. Are they open? Is anything blocking them? B will then help you recall Breathing. Are they breathing normally? And so on. By recalling 1 word, you have actually been able to recall a long list of tips. And all of this without any strain on your short-term memory.

Let me talk about memory for a minute here. Our memory is a bit like a special automated closet. In this closet we have our short-term memory shelf. Every time we make a decision, we will store on this shelf any information that can help us make this decision. What shall I wear today? Well, let me check the temperature first. Oh and where am I going? And is it going to rain today? Oh and am I going for a meeting with a client or just sitting in the office all day?

But there are limitations to this shelf. It can only store a certain amount of information at once. The general consensus is that most people can store a maximum of 7 items. Once the limit of 7 is reached, a special robot that I will call the Gatekeeper, is called to analyse the shelf for any irrelevant information. The Gatekeeper comes along and says “Hmm…Temperature. Yep, don’t need that anymore”. Then once a new item wants to appear on the shelf, the temperature item is wiped away by the Gatekeeper to make space for this new item.

Perhaps you can see why a list of tips is not a very effective way of presenting information. Anything over 7 means less relevant items get removed by this Gatekeeper. For every trainee, their own Gatekeeper is making judgements about each tip on the list. Is this relevant to me? Perhaps I’m already good at this one so don’t need to remember it. Oh, I rarely encounter that situation, so I’ll just forget that tip. Yeah, that tip will definitely help with my current situation.

These tips are evaluated based on their relevance to the trainee. Each trainee’s Gatekeeper can only make judgements based on what’s important at that moment. For example, you are giving a training on presentation skills. You have just presented a long list of 20 tips on how to improve body language when giving a presentation. One of the tips was “stand still and don’t sway”. Another tip was “Always make eye-contact with the audience”. One trainee, Bob, is sitting in your training. He thinks to himself “Hmm…Well I always give my presentations sitting down, so that tip about standing still and not swaying isn’t relevant to me”. His Gatekeeper then wipes that tip clean to make way for the new tip about eye contact. When he finishes the training, he remembers the tip about eye contact, and works on it. Every time he sits down to give a presentation he starts making eye contact. His presentation skills start to improve. Then one day, two years later, Bob changes jobs. In his new job he has to give presentations standing up. This feels unnatural to Bob. Something feels wrong. But he can’t quite figure it out. He has a feeling there was something in that presentations training that he attended a long time ago that might be relevant now. But he can’t remember. Then one day, just after a presentation to his new boss, his colleague speaks to him in private after everyone has left the room. “Did you know you sway a lot when you give presentations?”.

Just because something is not relevant now, does not mean it won’t be relevant in the future. Had Bob been presented with something far less taxing on his short-term memory, then he might have remembered everything he needed to, when he needed to. He might have been able to catch himself swaying as soon as he started presenting standing up. The training he attended 2 years ago would not have just been relevant at that time. It would have started to unravel new meaning and value for him in his new set of circumstances.

So let me come back to this automated closet for a minute. The short-term memory shelf and Gatekeeper robot are just a small part of this complex machine. Once used up, information from this short-term shelf can be passed through into our long-term memory. And in our long-term memory there are many, many drawers.

Our long-term memory has an unbelievable amount of drawers for any category you can imagine. Music I listened to when I broke up with my first girlfriend. Things I smelt when I first travelled to Beijing. Colours. Animals. Animals I have seen in the zoo. Animals I have seen in the wild. All the types of cups that I have ever drank from. Chinese cities I have visited. Japanese words I have used in context. Things my wife complains about. And so on.

Now this closet is not just an automated sorting system with lots of drawers. It’s also kind of magical. Because every item in this closet can be simultaneously stored in multiple drawers. For example the TV show Game of Thrones appears in a number of my drawers. TV shows my wife doesn’t like. TV shows I like. Things that motivate me to read fantasy novels. Videos I would like to watch on the plane but can’t due to adult content. TV shows that make me feel good. TV shows that make me feel bad. Cool characters I admire. Evil characters I for some strange reason quite like.

Because Game of Thrones appears in so many of my drawers, it’s extremely easy for me to remember. And this is the way our magical closet works. The more drawers something appears in (in other words, the more categories something is related to) the easier it is to remember. But there’s also another thing about these drawers that makes information easier to remember.

Not only is our closet a magical automated one, it’s also a kind of biological one with drawers that are like muscles. The more they get used, the stronger they become. Saturday nights with my wife mean my ‘TV shows my wife doesn’t like’ draw gets opened A LOT. The fact that I’ve been watching Game of Thrones on a weekly basis for the last month also means the ‘TV Shows I like’ draw gets opened a lot too. So for the time being, my memory of Game of Thrones is pretty strong.

So let’s go back to Bob’s presentation skills training. We want him to remember to stay grounded and not to sway. What drawers?could we put that in? Well for a start he doesn’t have a ‘Tips for presenting when standing up’ drawer. We could create a new one for him, and then open it and close it a lot during the training to make it strong. But, if he isn’t going to give lots of presentations standing up after the training, then that drawer is going to get pretty weak. However, he might have a “Bad habits I’d like to change” drawer. He might also have a “Strange things I do that I don’t notice but that other people have pointed out” drawer. He may even have a “Things I should do to appear more confident” drawer. If we want Bob to remember, we should find as many drawers for him as possible to store this tip in. If I were training Bob I would point out this swaying habit to him when giving him feedback. I’d let him watch a video of himself doing it too. I’d get him to stand still for 1 minute and let him know every time he starts swaying. I’d ask him to think about whether or not he does this when he is just chatting casually with his colleagues or customers. I’d ask him what his perception of someone else would be if they always swayed when talking to him. I’d ask him if that matched the perception he wanted to give to other people. All of these questions will help Bob find various drawers that he can store this information in.

I’d give him, and every other trainee a new drawer too. I’ve give them a “Acronyms and models I remember from the presentations training”. Throughout the training I’d get the trainees to chant “Grounded-Descriptive-Connected!”. Every time I introduced a new model or acronym I’d write it on big paper, and then stick it on the wall. At the end of the training I’d get them all to take a photo of everything stuck on the wall and share it on social media. Hopefully they’d then get questions from their friends asking “What’s that?” and “What does Grounded-Descriptive-Connected mean?”. I’d get them to write an email to their boss saying which models they learnt from the training that they intend to use in their work. I’d ask them to describe how they are going to use them, why they are going to use them and when they are going to use them. I’d give them an A4 sheet of paper with all of these models and acronyms on, and tell them to hang it on their notice board in their office. I’d tell them to set a reminder on their phones to read through their training materials the next time they are about to give a presentation. I’d send them an email a month later with a list of questions about the various models. I’d do everything in my power as a trainer to create those drawers and then open them as often as possible.

So following in the spirit of this post, let me break everything down into 3 simple steps.

  1. Treat your trainees’ memories like a magical automated closet.
  2. Create new drawers and find existing drawers to put things in.
  3. Open and close those drawers as much as you possibly can.
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