[Those who know me will be amused to know that all of the photos of me teaching involved shots of me talking with my hands in some exaggerated way.]

This week I had the pleasure of presenting at the ASSE PDC in beautiful Cape Cod on the topic of “Seven Secrets to Prevent a Safety Training Snooze-fest!”

Comments came back from the audience that left me blushing:

“My favorite speaker, she was very high energy and engaging, the meeting was very well run with useful tools to practice for training.”

“Great presentation – lots of really good ideas!”

“Very nice job Patti, no need to drown your sorrows in vino – but maybe a couple glasses to celebrate!” 

  “Best session all around; Patti, it was excellent!”

It was a bit of a departure for me, teaching safety professional colleagues on an almost philosophical topic, rather than employees on matters of regulations and risks. It was refreshing to have such an engaging group play along with the subject matter. We confessed that we’ve all suffered through snooze-fests, confessed in some cases to having contributed to one, and had the opportunity to share ideas, rules of thumb and cautionary tales to our safety training partners-in-crime.

(And only one attendee fell asleep, I think!)

So how do you prevent a snooze-fest?

[Disclaimer: This is just what works for me, on most days, with most audiences. I certainly don’t profess to be the be-all or know-all but we do typically get pretty positive feedback on our classes, such as “That was not nearly as bad as I expected it to be.” High praise like that.]

In general, I think we put our learners to sleep through one of two fundamental failures: training design (the work we do before we hit the classroom), and training delivery (how we approach our learners and engage with them on training day).

These seven tips focus on both Design and Delivery.

Tip #1 – Ask The Existential Questions?

Why am I here? Am I presenting regulatory information for a client? Am I trying to convince workers to change their unsafe behaviors? Am I facilitating a discussion on which future safety decisions will be made? All of that information impacts how I both design and deliver my courses.

Who is my audience? What’s the age and experience range? Is this their first or fourteenth time receiving training on this topic, or do I have a mix of new learners and experienced workers — how can I make that work for me? Are they paying to be in training (and thus a likely motivated group of learners) or are they attending because they have to be there, entering the room with a groan and a hefty chip on their shoulder?

What are the training goals? What information and ideas am I intending to convey? Have I hit the regulatory requirements? What is it that they are interested in learning or achieving?

A critical aspect of teaching adult learners is that they are sitting in class with one over-riding question in their head —

“What’s In This For Me?”

My goal is to tie what I have to offer in that class to something that they value in a fundamental way.

Knowing this information in advance –or worst case scenario– at the very start of the class, so I can size up “what’s in it for them” and make adjustments to my delivery (even if I can’t change the course design) is critical to engaging my learners.

Tip #2 — Exploit Your Learners’ Experiences

Adult learners are not typically ’empty vessels’ waiting to be filled with knowledge.

They are judging what you’re offering against their already (sometimes substantial) life experiences, and as I mentioned above, asking themselves if there’s enough in it for them to pay attention, engage, absorb, and perhaps change their views or behaviors. Don’t kid yourself, teaching adult learners is always, at least to some extent, a sales job.

Smart instructors do their best to link their learners’ past experiences to the topic at hand, so that they can ensure the relevance of what they are presenting to the learner’s interests and needs.

Let’s say you’re teaching about Electrical Safety to a room of fifteen employees. You ask them to share about a time, at work or at home, that they received an electrical shock. As they share their experiences, you hit the fundamental topics you wanted to convey about workplace electrical hazards — the difference between current and voltage, just how little current it takes (with the right path) to cause a fatality, ways we can protect ourselves with work practices and PPE, and as a kicker, you let them know that almost all of their unpleasant (and sometimes funny in the telling!) electrical incidents, in slightly different circumstances, could have been a fatality. [Bam, you’ve linked their experiences to the value of the information you’re conveying. And I’ll bet they’re awake.]

If you’ve got an in-class SME (or Subject Matter Expert), you can often benefit from their in-depth knowledge, with a caveat. SMEs often have a hard time simplifying their subject matter to the group who is seeking understanding. Sometimes asking them to explain the concept to me, as the instructor, as through I were a fourth grader, seems to get them to show us the bigger picture.

Which leads to Tip #3 —

“Don’t Tell Them How To Build a Watch If They Just Need to Know the Time!”

Like the SMEs in our class, sometimes we safety professionals confuse the “nice to know” with the “need to know.” Be certain, if part of your discussion or a learner question leads you down the road of describing how to build a watch, that you get back to reminding the audience of the time.

As an example, I often teach classes on chemical safety, and we can get pretty ‘in the weeds’ with the chemistry geeks, or toxicology types, on the effects of a chemical exposure — and I use the term “geek” with the utmost respect. [I’d like to think that I’m a geek on a couple of topics too.] But after the dust has settled from the tangential discussion, always bring it back to the fundamentals. “And this is why it’s so critical that we wear the right gloves and don’t get Methyl Ethyl Death on our skin!”

Tip #4 — Tell A Story

Like my close personal friend Oprah Winfrey, I believe that everyone has a story.

Certainly, with nearly 30 years of experience in the world of hazardous waste and remediation, and spill response, and confined space entries and machinery hazards (etc.), I have a few “war stories” of my own.

When it comes to story-telling, however, I’d rather the learners share their stories with one another than me sharing mine. Sometimes it is just a matter of asking — “Does anyone have any experience with an incident involving a failure of Lockout/Tagout?”

And then the flood gates open …

Stories from the learners are so much more powerful than mine. It brings home the concept of relevance, the idea of “what’s in it for me” — and a story from a co-worker hits far closer to home than a story from the instructor, who isn’t even employed here doing the same type of work the learners do.

If there’s no learner stories, my own will suffice, or a real or fabricated case study can fill the bill.

Stories are powerful.

Tip #5 — Mind Your Learners’ Needs

  • Most instructors prefer a class size of 15-25 people and a U-shaped set up. This facilitates healthy discussion, the ability to make eye contact between the learners, and is not so large as to squelch interaction. In a class of 50+ people, it’s darned difficult to get anyone to speak up!
  • Right from the get-go, establish a respect and partnership with your learners. Let them know you’re there to help them learn some information or skills and establish what’s in it for them. Thank them for being there, encourage them to speak up if they have questions, tell them you don’t know it all but are committed to helping them find answers, and let them know that you know how tough it can be to sit in safety training.
  • Remind them of job aids and resources who can help them in the future if they forget something from class. Or give them links to more information that they can seek out if they want to study more on their own.
  • Make sure they get restroom and stretch breaks! For me, this is at least once per hour — I figure if I tell them that they need to take a break and move at their workstation every hour to control ergonomic risks, I’m a hypocrite if I don’t get them up from their training room chair at least that often.
  • Feedback. Whether it’s written or informal, employees like to be able to provide feedback and constructive suggestions, preferably as the class is being designed, but at a minimum, after it has been taught.

Tip #6 — Mix It Up!

Different learners grasp new information in different ways, and for most of us, it’s a mix with one primary learning style. Some learn by seeing what’s on your slide, seeing what you draw on a flip chart, reading information — we call them “visual” learners. (They usually sit toward the front of the class so they don’t miss anything visual that they might miss at the back of the room.) “Auditory” learners take in new information from hearing you talk or discussing it with others. If you need to touch, feel or do something for it to sink in, you’re a “kinesthetic” learner.

For those of us who instruct, designing our training to satisfy all three learning styles improves your learners’ retention rates.

Some ideas for “mixing it up:”

  • Practice skills that will transfer to the job — removing gloves “contaminated” with shaving cream to learn good decon techniques, following a LO/TO procedure on a simulated set up in the classroom (or better yet, on the plant floor), or arrange a work area walk after you’ve conducted Safety Inspection training. Our web-based PIV/Forklift training includes a skills practice where the operator “honks the horn” on their forklift as it maneuvers through a warehouse.
  • Play games. We have little contests — everything from “guess the right answer” to Hazwoper Jeopardy to Heat Stress Bingo. Is it silly? Sure. Does it reinforce learning? Yes. (And for most learners, it sure beats the stress of a written quiz.)
  • Brain-storming. “What are safety violations we see on the plant floor?” If we get the learners to write them down – they see, they hear, they do. We’ve fired on all cylinders.
  • Role-playing. Exploit the volunteer thespians in the room. Give them a scenario. Let them play it out. This is especially effective for peer-to-peer or supervisor safety coaching skills.
  • Team problem-solving. Give them an incident case study. Let them work in teams of 4-6 to identify root causes and corrective actions.
  • “What’s Wrong With?” photos. Especially effective with photos from the learners’ workplace. Especially fun with a goofy co-worker hamming it up and simulating a blatant safety violation.

Tip #7 — Humor Helps!

A friend recently suggested to me that if this safety training thing ever dries up, she’s often thought I’d fit in nicely as a stand-up comedian or a televangelist.

[I’m not quite sure what this says about me, but I think it was a compliment.]

My belief is that if someone is laughing, they are awake, and if I’m losing an audience, I find new and creative ways of tip-toeing on the edge of an unpleasant call from Human Resources about something I said to get them laughing and participating. Almost 18 years doing this, and no calls, so I think I’m staying on the correct side of the fine line, but it’s important to size up an audience and get a sense of their tolerance for humor. (Some clients’ company culture keeps me pretty straight-laced, for others, I find myself playing the “straight guy” to the learners’ silliness.)

If you’re not naturally inclined to being a jokester, that’s perfectly okay. Embrace your own style of humor.

  • Can you use on-topic cartoons to transition from topic to topic?
  • Perhaps imbedding a funny video snippet will keep your learners smiling.
  • Do you have a self-designated class clown who occasionally inserts humorous anecdotes in a positive way?

And how does all of this apply to web-based training?

As we’re starting to develop our customized web-based safety training, we’re capturing these elements in on-line training as best we can without a human being there to gauge the learner’s reactions as the course goes along. Much of what’s currently on the market is a Snooze-Fest for the same reasons many live classroom sessions put employees to sleep.

Poor design, un-engaging delivery.

Monotone voice over of a series of PowerPoints. You’ve lost them before you had them.

We’re learning it does not have to be that way, and are passionate about changing the market because we know it can be done. Drop us a line if you’d like to chat about how we can do this for your workplace.

In Summary …

In the end, we all have our own personal style, but the best instructors and facilitators realize that the safety training challenge is really not about them, it’s about finding countless ways of engaging the interest of our diverse learners so that they walk away saying–

“Wow, that’s not the usual boring safety training!”