Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Trainer Insights

Your Problem May Be that You Know Too Much

We’re all aware of the benefits of knowledge. We’ve come to know that knowledge is power, and education has an immense impact. But I’ve concluded that, when it comes to teaching and training others, there is a downside to knowledge.

When I facilitate certification courses, I hear soon-to-be-trainers say something like, “Once I get to know this stuff, I’ll feel much better and do a much better job training.”

I reply, “Maybe.”

A decade ago, I partnered with a client to test an updated version of one of our courses. The client provided an audience of learners and two trainers to help us test the new course. One of the trainers had been training the course for a few years, but the other trainer had only recently been certified—she’d never actually trained it.

Her first time training the course would be training this updated version, which she’d never seen. To her credit, she didn’t hesitate to try.

So, I was sitting in the back of the room, observing this new course being tested, as the experienced trainer and novice trainer cotaught the course. The experienced trainer looked very relaxed and told lengthy stories. He was as “cool as the other side of the pillow.”

The new trainer seemed a little nervous, and she didn’t have long stories. She simply clicked through each slide and read what was on the screen. Her delivery wasn’t flowery or complicated.

I observed something that surprised the me. When the experienced trainer set up an exercise, learners looked around confused and raised their hands asking for clarification. He was consistently behind time when he handed the class off to his co-trainer. He had a lot of ideas and nuances and examples (from his years working with the content), and he wanted to impart as much as he could.

On the other hand, the new trainer simply followed the script—but people didn’t have questions, and they weren’t confused. Being a novice resulted in clarity. When she trained, the class went smoothly, and the learners had a superior experience.

I’ve seen this happen dozens of times over the past 15 years of observing and teaching trainers. And so I started giving new trainers this advice: Don’t let what you know get in the way of your people learning what they don’t know.

It turns out that a deep understanding of course content can turn into:

  • Overdrawn explanations
  • Excessive examples and stories
  • Teaching key concepts out of order
  • Slow learning pace
  • Confusion rather than clarity
  • Muddled ideas and watered down insights
  • A presentation about you rather than for learners

We tend to vilify doubt and exalt certainty. But maybe what we need as trainers is less certainty and more fidelity to the content. After all, the skills and principles are what change lives and transform organizations. We are simply here to facilitate that.

So don’t be afraid to read the slides, especially when it comes to instructions for exercises and introductions to videos.

I’ve been fortunate to codesign our courses and draft much of what you see on the screen, and to this day I still read almost every slide verbatim when facilitating. I don’t have learners complaining that I seem robotic or scripted. They feel like things are clear! And when there’s time and opportunity to share a story or a joke or an example, I get to freelance—I get to be me, use my personality.

Let’s go back to when we knew less than we do now—not to regress, but to progress in our efforts to facilitate powerful learning experiences. Going back to simplicity may be the next step forward to greater impact.

11 thoughts on “Your Problem May Be that You Know Too Much”

  1. Jeff Weber

    I value this perspective- especially, the “don’t let what I know” be and obstacle to what my learners do not know, and also, my primary role as a facilitator. One question, Justin…

    In the instances you mention reading from the slide – do you mean this in a literal sense, or are you emphasizing the point about sticking to the content as designed? (Years ago, I was taught by a trusted mentor to never read slide content, as learners can do so for themselves, and it is potentially, committing facilitator suicide((?) What’s your take on this?

    1. Colleen Bruemmer

      This is a great article that came just when I needed to read it! I have a short presentation later today and will be implementing your tips.

      I have already shared with others on my team as well.

  2. Teresa

    VERY interesting. Thanks, Justin!

    1. Justin

      Thanks Teresa!

  3. Charles Charman

    This is such great advice.
    Thank you!

    1. Justin Hale

      You’re welcome, Charles!

  4. Philip Ray

    How true Justin! After 20 years training Crucial Conversations around the world, I stick with the best advice I received 30 years ago from @John Meredith at Covey Leadership Center:”I can achieve more as a Guide on the Side than a Sage on the Stage”!

    1. Justin Hale

      Thanks Philip!

  5. Krista Cole

    Appreciated this article, thank you Justin. I have experienced this myself when attending training sessions delivered by well-experienced trainers. This has challenged me to be more aware of this as I deliver content – not just in Crucial Conversations, but in all content I know well. Thank you for the engaging thought!

  6. Brian O'Connor

    While I think your point on specific and concise instruction when it comes to exercises is important, there is, IMO, never a reason to read a slide. The slide is there for the learner, who more likely than not, can also read. Our goal, as an instructor/educator, is to bring the slide to life. Sure, people can take that too far and get learners lost in the weeds of the story and allegory, but if I observed a trainer of mine, “reading slides verbatim”, I would not be pleased and If I had to do that, then I would consider myself either ill prepared or not the right trainer for the topic. Just my %0.02.

  7. Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, CAI, CAS, AARE

    I certainly agree that too much context and/or too many stories is bad, and cutting back on that is good, reading the slides is always a terrible idea.

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