What Makes a Great Trainer?

Posted February 29th, 2008

I recently overheard a conversation between a trainer and one of their participants, who was asking how the trainer had got into the role. I was a little shocked when the participant said, “It just surprises me a little as you’re not particularly dynamic are you?” Putting aside that individual’s perception of the trainer, the comment begged the question, ‘What makes a great trainer?’

It is often said that training is a role that people ‘fall into’, it’s rare that a person sets out to become a trainer as a career choice (this author, it seems, being the exception that proves the rule!) When asked, a lot of trainers will say that they where one day thrust into the position, loved it, and have not looked back since. Others enter the role later in their career when they make the choice to become a consultant or are asked to deliver due to their experience. There are of course many other variables, but this seems to cover the main.

So if it’s knowledge of a subject that throws people into the job of trainer, is it knowledge that makes you good at training? The simple answer to this question has to be a resounding ‘no’. My Religious Studies teacher at school certainly had a lot of knowledge on the topic and it’s not just my failing the exams that tells me he wasn’t the best trainer in the world.

Of course, if you have no knowledge at all of a topic, then you really shouldn’t be training others. However, it’s possible to facilitate a training session on which you are not the subject matter expert. In fact, I’d argue that a ‘great’ trainer is one that can facilitate training on a topic where the participants are the experts.

Knowledge, for me, is not the answer.

Let’s go back to the participants comment I overheard; does a great trainer have to be dynamic? I guess first we should ask what ‘dynamic’ means. My trusty Oxford English Dictionary tells me that dynamic means active and energetic. Now, if a participant wants me to come racing into a room, waving a flag, whilst singing, ‘Oh Susanna!’, then I’m afraid I am not a great trainer. I have certainly seen trainers that would model the active and energetic principles and a lot of them were great trainers. However, I’ve also seen a lot of trainers that don’t encapsulate this style and they have often exceeded my expectations.

Maybe the participant was a little confused about the term dynamic and what they actually meant was enthusiastic and engaging. This I could put a little more belief in. I certainly think you have to be passionate about the subject you are training in and if you don’t engage and enthuse the learners, you will struggle to get your point across. This is training 101 and every trainer should aim to come across in this way. However, I don’t think that being engaging and enthusiastic will do it alone. There has to be a ‘point’ to the training in order for people to learn something, no matter how engaging you are.

Dynamism, in whatever form, for me, is not the answer.

I often receive feedback from training courses where participants say, ‘…it was fun’ or ‘I enjoyed myself’. So, does a great trainer have to make people laugh, be funny or encourage others to have fun? Again, I think this is something that is certainly important to training. People tend to learn more effectively when they have fun and enjoy the experience. However, laughing alone does not a good course make. I have attended many a session where I had great fun and enjoyed the experience, but due to the fact that the trainer did not relate the fun to any learning point, the value was lost. In fact, I’d argue that this is where a lot of trainers fail. They will get repeat business and heavy praise for their ‘event’, but the learner has been let down by the pure and simple fact that they have learnt nothing.

Fun, for me, is not the answer.

Often the best learning I have ever achieved is through the fact that I have been challenged in my thinking. I have been taken out of my comfort zone and truly made to work for the knowledge. This learning has been embedded into my core and helped me to grow and develop. So, is a great trainer someone that challenges his participants?

Whilst being challenged is valuable and important, it can become demoralising when this is the only form of teaching. We need to be encouraged and enjoy the experience because being tested constantly can become tedious and dull.

Challenging, for me, is not the answer.

I could go on. There are of course many elements to consider when we think about training and delivery and all of them play a part in some way. No one thing will make you a great trainer, although one thing may make you a bad trainer!

I think what we’ve learnt is that a great trainer is the sum of their parts. They need to be knowledgeable, engaging, funny, challenging and a host of other things. They also need to know when the right time to be each is. So whether you’re in this role by design or default, remember one thing…it’s not bloody easy!


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