How to Create More Effective Workshops

What triggered the change for me was attending a lecture given by Carl Wieman, recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics. Since winning the Nobel, Wieman has devoted his time and money to researching better ways to teach college physics. At his lecture, he summarized his key research findings. Here are some of the key things I heard Wieman say:

  1. Lectures are a poor vehicle for teaching anything.

    That’s especially true if you’re trying to change behaviors or habits.

  2. People learn by building on what they already know.

    Any subject will be more comprehensible if it is presented in the context of familiar experience and shared information.

  3. Learning requires focused effort and practice.

    Whether the subject is as abstract as physics or as practical as driving a golf ball, you have apply the principles you have learned over and over again.

  4. Timely, targeted coaching is essential.

    Coaching or feedback that directly addresses the student’s application of the new ideas or methods is the best way to lock those concepts in place.

  5. Learning occurs first in the short-term or “working” memory, which has a finite capacity for absorbing and processing new material.

    When the working memory is overloaded, the system crashes. In a classroom, the student starts daydreaming, doodling, or otherwise zoning out if a lecture has saturated working memory. This is also a compelling reason for requiring attendees to turn off their PDAs, not look at e-mails, not send instant messages, and not work on other projects while the class is going on. They think they can successfully multi-task and not miss any of the important content, but in reality it’s impossible.

  6. Real-world simulations are the best way for students to gain mastery of new concepts or methods.

    To be effective, of course, the simulations must require students to solve problems by applying the new concepts or methods being taught.

I combined those observations with a few I had made over the years from working with thousands of sales people and proposal writers:

  1. In general, sales people and proposal writers are highly competitive. They work harder when winning or losing actually matters.

    As a result, I now set up a competitive environment with real prizes and recognition for winners. Interestingly, inexpensive prizes work just as well to motivate effort as expensive ones do.

  2. Putting people work in teams forces them to voice their understanding of the concepts.

    Mixing the teams up in terms of roles and experience provides opportunities for students to learn from each other.

  3. Basing the simulations on materials specifically relevant to the students’ company or industry eliminates unnecessary distractions.

    Basing a simulation on the bid process for the U.S. Department of Defense in a class for people writing proposals for commercial IT services doesn’t work. The cognitive dissonance is too much to overcome. In fact, the best situation is to have students bring their own work to class and use it as the basis for their simulations. That way they feel like they’re learning something and getting something done at the same time.

  4. Building fun into the process—trivia challenges, zany team names, surprises—keeps the energy level high throughout the workshop.

    Fun defuses anxiety. Laughter provides a quick energy boost that’s almost like a shot of caffeine to the system.

Between Wieman’s research and my own observations, I realized that I needed to start over and redesign all of my training courses. I broke each class into key learning objectives, then created competitive activities based on a simulation exercise for each objective. Students would be divided into teams and the teams would compete for points that were available for successfully handling each simulation.

For example, to teach persuasive structure I have students look at a real executive summary their company has sent to a client. Their job is to determine whether it follows the NOSE pattern—Needs, Outcomes, Solution, Evidence. If it doesn’t (and believe me, it doesn’t), they have to decide as a team how to rearrange it. That means they have to talk to each other and use the concept of a need statement, an outcome statement, and so on. The team that does the best job gets 300 points, the second-best effort gets half that number, and the other teams get zero. Usually there are six or seven simulations in a one-day class, and about double that number plus a short homework assignment for a two-day class. The competition quickly becomes intense!

Does it work? The results have been phenomenal. At the end of a one-day or two-day workshop, students have much greater mastery of the key concepts and they have started to form new habits. Dozens of participants have been able to apply the concepts as soon as they leave the workshop, generating wins and new revenue.

And they love the experience. Evaluation scores are the highest they have ever been, with numerous attendees stating it was the most effective training experience they have ever had.

If you’d like to apply this method to training your sales teams and proposal writers, give us a call. You’ll love the results.

To order the world’s best-selling book on writing winning proposals, Persuasive Business Proposals: Writing to Win More Customers, Clients, and Contracts, click here. For Dr. Tom’s fascinating study of the origins of the most important ideas in professional sales and the individuals who first came up with them The Giants of Sales
please click here. To improve your writing, take a look at Tom’s most recent book, The Language of Success, which you can order here.